How To Reconnect To Your Own Sense of Hunger

by Jenna Hollenstein

When we were born, we ate when we were hungry and stopped when we were satisfied. We didn’t track points, grams, or exchanges, and were blissfully unaware of the number on the scale or on the tag in our onesies. Food was a source of pleasure and sustenance. Our bodies were an endless curiosity that allowed us to wiggle and play, the vessel in which we could do and be anything we wanted.

But then something changed.

Often, at ages as young as three or four, we began to scrutinize ourselves, to measure our bodies against those of our friends or idols, to fear fat or difference of any kind, and to view food and our bodies as dangerous threats that needed to be constantly monitored, controlled, and overpowered. We stopped listening to our bodies and started believing that something or someone outside of ourselves knew better: how we should eat; how our bodies should look and feel; and what we should prioritize in our lives.

For many of us, this is when dieting (even if we'd never call it that) became the norm: resisting hunger, restricting beloved foods because they contained too much of the evil ingredient du jour, and eating what, when, and how much we were told was "good."

Some of us went to the extreme of developing an eating disorder, or at the very least, white-knuckling our way through our days hoping to win the battle with food and our bodies. Others of us built up an explosive amount of deprivation that ultimately drove us to binge on the very foods we restricted, giving rise to feelings of guilt, shame, and being out of control.

Knowing how to regain an intuitive sense of when you're hungry or full — without all the drama — can seem daunting. Luckily, there are plenty of concrete steps you can take. As an anti-diet dietitian, here's what I recommend to my clients who are looking to regain a healthy relationship with eating.

1. Learn About Attuned Eating

Attuned eating is a non-diet approach in which you reconnect with internal signals of hunger, fullness, and satiety as opposed to external signals of meal times, serving sizes, or a limited number of points, grams, or calories. Different methods of attuned eating have been around for a while, but recently, several have gained traction and notoriety:

  • Intuitive Eating is a process composed of 10 scientifically-validated principles created by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Some of the principles include “reject the diet mentality,” “challenge the food police,” and “make peace with food.” For the past year, Refinery 29’s Kelsey Miller has been sharing her own Intuitive Eating journey.
  • Health At Every Size (HAES) is a controversial approach that "supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control).” It is controversial precisely because of its unwillingness to prioritize weight above health, an issue about which Dr. Linda Bacon has written extensively.

Each of these approaches is somewhat different, but there are seven key elements of all the attuned eating methods (listed below) that can help you rebuild a sense of trust in your body, choose foods that nourish and satisfy you, and feel wonderful in your skin.

2. Listen to Your Hunger … and Respond

We get hungry, damn it! And that’s really good news. It means our bodies are working.

Hunger is a biological process that I think of as an ongoing conversation with the body. At first, our bodies whisper their side of the conversation. When we begin to feel hungry, it might feel like a slight emptiness or a rumbling in the stomach. Gradually, the volume gets turned up, and hunger feels like a stronger and more uncomfortable pang. Eventually, if not responded to, the body’s hunger might shout its request as a headache, lightheadedness, mental fuzziness, or irritability (hangry, anyone?).

Recognizing and responding to hunger is the first step in becoming an attuned eater. Choosing to respond to hunger earlier rather than later can make a big difference to the experience of eating. When we wait until we are starving, we often have difficulty knowing what we are really hungry for, we eat rapidly without even tasting or enjoying the food, and we miss the subtle and gradual signs of fullness that emerge, which can lead us to overeat anyway.

3. start to Take the Morality Out of Eating

At what point did eating become a source of guilt? Foods are described as “sinful” or “guilt-free,” and we have come to see a “good day” as one in which we resisted temptation and a “bad day” as one in which we gave in.

Unless you tackled someone in the cookie aisle for the last box of Oreos, or got the potato chips on a five-finger discount, it’s hard to grasp the connection between eating certain foods and moral judgments such as guilt, shame, or remorse.

What is behind our negative feelings about eating is often a confusing combination of fear and anxiety. The antidote is a combination of kindness and knowledge. Recognizing that guilt only serves to make us feel worse can help us soften toward ourselves with great compassion. And the knowledge that foods are not inherently “good” or “bad,” even if they do have different nutrient profiles, can help us make choices that contribute to both our short-term enjoyment and our long-term well being.

4. focus on the Experience of Eating

By seeing beyond good and bad foods, we can begin to choose to eat what we are really hungry for. And by removing distractions like the TV, phone, and other devices, and eating at a pace that maximizes our enjoyment, we can turn our attention to what we are eating with all of our senses.

5. Maximize Satisfaction and learn to recognize fullness

When we eat when we’re hungry, allow ourselves to have exactly what we are hungry for, and give the eating experience our full attention, we are maximizing our satisfaction.

Satisfaction is indeed the secret ingredient of attuned eating and tends to emerge when we place greater focus on enjoyment than on following rules. We might even start to notice that as our body becomes satisfied, the moment-to-moment experience of eating changes, and the food starts to taste a little less spectacular. That could be our signal to take a break and check in on whether we’ve had enough.

6. learn to recognize non-physical hunger

By noticing physical hunger, we become much more aware of our desire to eat for other reasons. Boredom, sadness, loneliness, and anxiety are just a few of the emotional reasons we reach for food. While there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with eating at these times, food usually doesn’t actually make us feel better and may make us feel worse in these situations.

If you don't think you're physically hungry, experiment with addressing the feeling behind the desire to eat. It’s worth the time and effort necessary to ask ourselves what we really need in the moment; whether that be a temporary distraction, some support, or a way to address our feelings directly. And if you still want to eat after you've addressed the feeling, by all means, do it!

7. Don’t Let Nutrition Information Make You Crazy

A few decades ago, eggs were considered evil. Their cholesterol content was the source of untold cardiovascular horrors for more than a decade. Now, eggs have resumed their respectable status as a perfectly wonderful (economical, portable, complete) source of healthy fat and protein. Did the eggs change? No, our information did; that and the paranoid media frenzy that was built up around it.

The same goes for each of the targets of such unbalanced attention over the years: fat, meat, dairy, carbs, gluten, and even the latest super-villain, sugar. I’m not suggesting that we disregard all of the wonderful nutrition information that we have access to — only that we give our own intuition and experience at least as much allegiance (if not more).

8. Accept, Respect, and Dignify Your Body

Ever look back at a photo of yourself from years ago and think “I was so adorable! Why was I so hard on myself?” The body you have today is giving you the perfect chance not to repeat this mistake.

As we become attuned eaters, we can start to view eating (and everything else we choose to think and do) as a way to care for our bodies as they are right now.

We have just the one. Best to nourish it, and give it love.

Images: rpavich, .craig/Flickr; Giphy