How Do I Know If I'm Hungry?

As a dietitian, I find myself talking about hunger with my clients a lot. Recognizing and being able to identify our hunger is, of course, a critical component of healing our relationship with food and listening to our intuition. But so often, those cues get muddied and buried under layers of diet culture and/or are dormant completely after periods of restriction and other disordered behaviors. The bottom line is diet culture teaches us to ignore our own body's signals - especially hunger.

Think about it: how many pieces of diet "advice" have you been given that suggest various ways to trick your body? One of my personal least favorites is "drink water when you're hungry, you're probably just thirsty!" (that's true approximately 0.0002% of the time). There's lots of ways we learn we cannot trust our bodies that I find too harmful to name here (I'm looking at you Kim Kardashian and the bullshit "appetite suppressant" lollipops you posted on Instagram this week. Do better). Diet culture thrives on the mistrust of our bodies and it usually starts with our hunger.

The thing about hunger is so often, people associate it with shame. Maybe you've been overtly shamed for your hunger in your life or maybe it just feels like too much or maybe you've absorbed some of the toxic, backward diet culture messages that eating is somehow dangerous or bad. This might seem overly obvious but it needs to be said that hunger is not a bad thing. Hunger is not shameful. Hunger is your body's natural, normal response to needing energy. Feeling bad about your hunger would be like feeling bad about the number of times you have to use the bathroom in a day or how often you take deep breaths. Regardless of what diet culture tells you, there's no reason to feel bad about your body's needs. Ever.

All that aside- becoming reacquainted with our hunger can feel challenging to say the least. Years of dieting and restriction and disordered eating can result in some pretty unreliable hunger cues because you're body is, in scientific terms, hella confused. So when you first start recovering, it's probably unwise (and unsafe) to rely on your hunger cues completely; more often than not, you won't be able to consistently identify hunger because 1) your body isn't sending reliable signals and 2) you've probably, unfortunately, gotten used to be hungry. One of the goals for anyone in recovery from an eating disorder or chronic dieting is to be able to eat when/what they want according to their body's cues. But as I stated above, it's not as simple as it sounds (which it's why it's super helpful to work with a eating disorder dietitian and/or therapist throughout the process).

However when you are ready to start eating by your hunger or even just ready to start paying attention to it, you may realize what so many people do during this process which is that you have very little idea of what hunger feels like in your body. After years of ignoring hunger cues, eating according to diet rules, and trying to trick your body, it's not at all unusual to feel that way.

We generally grow up thinking that hunger is like Pooh Bear in an old cartoon- stomach rumbling and all that. But that's rarely the case. So what are some signs you're hungry? This varies for everyone but here's a few telltale signs:

  • Decreased focus & concentration
  • Headache
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Increased irritability 
  • Lightheadedness
  • Stomach "pangs"/ stomach growling
  • Fatigue/decreased energy
  • Nausea
  • General weakness

These are general warning signs but it's important to remember that hunger feels different for everyone so you may notice one or all of these signs (or notice different things at different times). Getting to know your hunger cues is an important step in the process of learning to trust your body- and being able to observe and respond to them without judgment is an important step in truly making peace with our body's needs.

Here's the thing: hunger cues aren't shameful or dangerous. Feeling hungry is normal and healthy. Hunger cues are our body's way of making sure our needs get met. It's one of our body's many ways of making sure we take care of ourselves. And choosing to listen to our hunger is one of the many ways we can learn to treat our body with the care and respect it deserves.

The bottom line? Just because your stomach isn't rumbling doesn't mean you're not hungry. And just because you're hungry doesn't mean you're a bad person- it just means you're a person. 

Cover photo by Thomas Kelley