Understanding different types of hunger is a necessary aspect of maintaining balanced eating habits. These signals serve as your body’s way of communicating its energy needs throughout the day or can make you aware of other needs like an emotional need or a practical need. Being able to differentiate enables you to make food choices in alignment with your unique needs.
Physical Signs of Hunger
Our bodies communicate with us constantly through hunger and satiety cues. These cues are regulated by hormones like ghrelin (hunger hormone) and leptin (satiety/fullness hormone). It tends to start gradually. When you’re experiencing physical hunger, you are open to eating a variety of foods, even things that might not be your favorite. Physical hunger can be satisfied by simply putting food into your stomach.
When we disregard physical signs of hunger, it can lead to extreme hunger, loss of control around food, bloating, and erratic eating patterns. To prevent this, it helps to become familiar with the physical signs of hunger.
However, due to various lifestyle factors, we might start to ignore or forget what hunger feels like, leading to imbalances in our eating habits.
Common Physical Signs of Hunger:
- Fatigue and Lack of Energy: Feeling tired and lethargic despite enough rest can be a sign of hunger, indicating your body needs nourishment for energy.
- Stomach Growling: A growling or gurgling stomach is a clear signal that your body requires food to function properly. Note: When our stomach rumbles, it could mean that food is absent, but a growl can occur at any time on an empty or full stomach. The rumbling is from the muscular activity in the stomach and intestines and gas moving around.
- Headache & Shaky Hands: Low blood sugar levels due to hunger can result in headaches and shakiness, indicating your body needs fuel.
- Brain Fog and Inability to Focus: Insufficient energy from food can lead to difficulty concentrating and mental fogginess.
- Irritability: Feeling irritable and snappy without any apparent reason might be a sign of low blood sugar due to hunger.
Practical hunger is based on the acknowledgment that you need to eat at that time. This may be practiced in a preparative or preventative way.
For instance: when you wake up, you look at your schedule for the day and realize that you will have meetings for 3 hours in a row (one of which is during a standard meal time). Taking a moment before those meetings to grab something to eat and provide your body with the nourishment that it’s going to need is a way of being practical and preventative.
Emotional hunger is related to feelings triggered by food, a need being met, or maybe habitual eating. Some call it “heart hunger” or “head hunger”.
Emotional hunger is normal until it is not. This is not normal when it is used as a sole coping mechanism and there are underlying factors that need attention from a licensed professional. But there’s a silver lining we need to acknowledge. It’s natural to find comfort and pleasure in food during emotional times. However, it’s important to differentiate between occasional emotional eating and using food as the main coping mechanism. It’s okay to find solace in food and enjoy it during tough days or celebrations. Feeling guilty about emotional eating worsens stress and the relationship with food. Remember, one instance doesn’t define you.
Signs of “Head Hunger” that are typically mistaken for Physical Hunger:
- Sudden Cravings: Cravings that arise out of the blue, driven by a desire for taste and food experience rather than physical nourishment.
- Physical or Mental Exhaustion: Eating to cope with physical or mental exhaustion, even when not experiencing physical hunger cues.
- Unaddressed Stress: Using food as a quick relief for stress, even when there’s no real physical hunger.
- Heightened Emotions: Turning to food to cope with intense emotions like sadness, anger, or frustration.
Mindless hunger is also associated with emotional hunger. This is when we eat out of habit or while distracted: in front of a computer or phone screen, in front of the big screen at a movie, or maybe even outside at a ballpark.
- Stay aware of your triggers: Look for the situations or feelings that frequently lead you to eat mindlessly. It could be eating for comfort or other emotional needs, from peer pressure, eating on a schedule, or from boredom. Awareness is huge here!
- Practice mindful eating: Mindful eating involves being fully present while eating. You will want to pay attention to the tastes, textures, and smells of your food. Chew slowly and savor it.
- Change your environment: Environmental cues can strongly influence our food choices. Make changes to your environment that support mindful eating. For example, use smaller plates to control portion sizes, remove distractions like TV or smartphones during meals, and surround yourself with healthy food options to make it easier to make nutritious choices.
- An alternate method of self-care, if you find this is a coping mechanism: Explore other ways to address your emotions or stress. Engage in activities that bring you joy or help you relax, such as going for a walk, practicing yoga, journaling, or talking to a supportive friend.
- Practice self-compassion: Be kind to yourself. And try not to dwell on a mindless eating moment, focus on making positive changes going forward.
Appetite or Senses-based Hunger
Appetite or Senses-based Hunger is a strong desire for a specific food or flavor, driven by our senses and influenced by factors like smell, taste, and cravings.
Have you ever smelled something familiar and felt hungry? Or have a very specific want related to a flavor or taste?
- Sweet: Often associated with desserts like chocolate and cookies, sweetness extends beyond that. Foods like balsamic vinegar, molasses, sugar snap peas, sweet potatoes, and even parsnips can be considered sweet. The sweetness balances bitterness and enhances saltiness.
- Salty: Represented by the perfectly salty taste of crisp sweet potato fries, this taste can be naturally found or added to a dish. Kosher salt, sea salt, and soy sauce are examples of salt additions. A salty taste enhances sweetness and balances bitterness.
- Sour and Acidity: Sourness is exemplified by foods like lemons and vinegar. Balancing spice, bitterness, and sweetness while enhancing overall flavor are some of its capabilities.
- Bitter: Found in coffee, grapefruit, and vegetables like kale and broccoli, bitterness plays a vital role in creating complex flavor profiles. It balances sweetness and saltiness without necessarily enhancing other tastes.
- Umami: Often referred to as savory, umami is recognized by our tastebuds through the amino acid glutamate. Foods like beets, aged cheese, seafood, and mushrooms contain umami. This taste enhances sweetness and balances bitterness.
Other factors that could influence your appetite:
- Spice: Although not officially recognized as a taste, spice significantly influences flavor profiles by triggering a sensation of pain rather than registering on our tastebuds. Adding spice, such as hot sauce, horseradish, jalapeños, or wasabi, can balance sweetness.
- Temperature: Temperature impacts the flavor profile by altering the way we experience food items. The taste of strawberries, for instance, differs when consumed cold versus warm. Experimenting with temperature variations can bring a fresh twist to familiar dishes.
- Texture: The mouthfeel of food is crucial in shaping flavor perception. Foods can be crunchy, soft, mushy, flaky, dry, moist, spongy, etc. Changing the texture of dishes can transform the overall flavor experience. For example, adding creamy avocado slices to chili or crunchy toasted coconut to a chocolate cake can create delightful contrasts.
How to practice listening to your hungers
- Perform body check-Ins throughout the day. Take moments to pause and check in with your body. Ask yourself how hungry or full you are on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being ravenous and 10 being overly stuffed.
- Assess the type of need that you have and whether it is a food-based need or not.
- Ask yourself what it is that you would like to eat whether that be for a need like a macronutrient to support your body well for nourishment or a taste, flavor, or texture that you need.
- Before a meal, set an intention to eat with awareness and try to quiet distractions other than intentional ones like your company. Slow down the pace of your eating and savor each bite, paying attention to how your hunger evolves throughout the meal.
- Try to notice the physical sensations of hunger and fullness in your body during the meal by practicing the pause. Set your utensils down, take a deep breath, and assess if you are genuinely satisfied. Allow yourself to stop eating when you feel comfortably full.
- Approach your hunger and fullness cues with a non-judgmental mindset. Observe these signals without criticism or guilt, understanding that they are your body’s natural guidance system.
By understanding the differences of our body’s hungers and signaling, we can foster a healthier relationship with food, leading to improved overall well-being and emotional balance.