When should I eat? This is a question I get asked all the time, especially now since intermittent fasting has become more popular. When you are practicing intuitive eating, the answer is simple. You should eat when you are hungry. Even though this may sound really easy, there are a couple of obstacles that most people encounter.
First, you need to be able to actually tell when you are hungry. There are a couple of things that can get in our way of intuitive eating and being able to recognize that we are hungry.
- Busy Schedules – We live really busy lives and often feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day. When we don’t take the time to pause and check-in with ourselves, it is easy to miss the fact that we are hungry. That is, until much later when we are starving ravenous and want to eat everything, yet can’t decide on what to eat. This leads to us just grabbing something quick and easy, whether or not that is actually what we want to eat. It also very often leads to us overeating and feeling miserably full.
- Suppressed Hunger Signals – The other obstacle that can get in our way of telling that we’re hungry is when we have ignored our hunger cues for so long (aka chronic dieting) that is incredibly difficult to even hear those hunger signals. This leads to the same problem as listed above. Ravenous hunger, inability to choose food and overeating/bingeing.
When we miss our hunger cues, it doesn’t set us up for success. Why? Well, when we miss our hunger cues:
- It drops our blood sugar too low. What’s the easiest way for our body to increase our blood sugar? Eat sugar. How does our body get us to eat sugar? Hello, sweet tooth!
- It causes our decision making and planning skills to function at sub-optimal levels. This means making food choices can become really difficult and we end up grabbing whatever is easy and fast. It takes away our ability to choose food that we really want to eat.
- As mentioned above, it is likely to lead us to overeating and bingeing
- It makes us more susceptible to external cues, such as the smell of food or that suggestive ad on TV for the restaurant down the street.
Ultimately, these things make us feel out of control. Here’s the deal. We can either make our hunger our best friend or our worst enemy. Through practicing intuitive eating, we can learn to the former.
It’s important to recognize that there is more than just one type of hunger and they are all VALID. Below are the 4 different types of hunger.
This is the hunger occurs when our body is low on energy and need to food and nutrients to refuel. Signs of this hunger include decreased concentration and productivity, being preoccupied with thoughts of eating, growling stomach, irritability and/or a drop in blood sugar. As a side note, if your growling stomach is the first sign you notice that you are hungry, it is very likely that you are letting yourself get too hungry, and sugar cravings and overeating are likely to occur.
This hunger occurs when we have a desire for a specific food or taste. This can occur with or without physical hunger. For example, you may be physically hungry and really want to eat Mexican food (story of my life), or you may have eaten Mexican food, are comfortably hungry and then want a cookie. I want to reiterate, that this hunger is completely valid. It’s important to eat what we feel like eating because if we ignore our taste hunger, we are more likely to unconsciously munch and eat in an attempt to satisfy that desire.
This occurs when we have the desire to eat food for comfort or to help soothe an emotion. There tends to be a lot of judgment that comes up around emotional hunger. People often say, “I’m really bad with emotional eating.” However, I want to say again, this is a valid hunger! If this comes up a lot for us, it really tells us that there is a part of us that is being neglected or ignored. The power here comes from being able to recognize and differentiate emotional hunger because then we have the luxury of choice. We then get to choose whether we want to eat when we are feeling sad, bored, anxious, etc., or if we want to try something else, such as calling a friend, journaling or taking a walk. There is no right or wrong answer here. The power is in the ability to choose.
This last hunger is a little less of an actual hunger and more of a preventative or convenience thing. This is when we eat at lunch noon, whether or not we’re physically hungry, because that’s when our lunch hour is. Or when we eat, even though we’re not physically hungry, before a long meeting we have to attend to prevent our stomach from growling halfway through the meeting. I often get asked if eating when it is convenient, despite not being physically hungry, is going against intuitive eating, and my answer is no. It’s more about being aware of your hunger and honoring when you can, but not stressing when you can’t.
Our bodies are amazing, and we if just listen to and trust our hunger cues, it really does make things a lot easier.