What happens when you ignore hunger cues? A Dancer’s Guide to Hunger and Fullness
A major part of learning how to eat intuitively is learning how to listen to your body. Your body is smart; it knows how to communicate its most basic needs: to breathe, to eat, and to sleep. Hormones, specifically leptin (the “feel full” hormone) and ghrelin (the “feel hungry” hormone) regulate your day-to-day hunger and fullness as a means to maintain energy balance.
As we age and move throughout life, external factors and messaging from diet culture impede our decisions around food and exercise. Alongside one’s pursuit of “health” and “wellness” comes an invisible hierarchy that deems some foods “good” and other foods “bad.” Ironically, the more we attempt to suppress and ignore biological instincts like satiety cues (hunger and fullness) and satisfaction cues (food preferences) the more we end up feeling very out of control around food.
But learning how to reconnect with your innate feelings of hunger (and fullness) is an important component of a balanced lifestyle. This is especially true for intuitive eaters, who learn how to disconnect those external messages to reconnect to internal communication. This article will walk you through how to identify, decipher, listen, and honor your body’s mealtime cues is a critical skill.
The 5 Types of Hunger
Hunger is far more complex than just a grumbling tummy. In fact, there are five different types of hunger that you can experience on any given day. The difference between each lies in the stimulus that sparks the desire to eat. Let’s break it down:
- Physical (or Biological) Hunger is what we most relate to “feeling hungry.” When physical hunger peaks, you might feel hunger pangs, stomach discomfort, a grumbling tummy, light-headedness, “hanger,” irritability, fatigue, and headaches. We’ll dive into more about physical hunger in just a bit. Stimulus to eat: negative energy balance.
- Rebound Hunger is a temporary phase that results from deprivation. During this phase, the body’s physical hunger cues may increase dramatically as it attempts to catch up after a calorie deficit. This phase can cause you to feel fearful of “letting go” of food rules. But as your body is fed consistently and adequately, it will rebuild trust in knowing that come tomorrow, it will no longer be deprived. From here, appetite cues eventually normalize. Stimulus to eat: chronic negative energy balance.
- Practical Hunger is especially important for dancers. This is eating in response to time constraints or a busy schedule. For example, if you’re navigating class and/or a long rehearsal, you may need to eat regardless of the presence of physical hunger cues. This will ensure that you’re not famished nor “hangry” later on. Another example would be eating dinner prior to a performance that will have you busy from 7-11 PM. You may not be fully hungry beforehand, but eating a balanced meal or snack will help to stabilize energy levels for the show. Stimulus to eat: your schedule.
- Emotional Hunger honors your emotional connection to food. It is very human (and normal) to desire food as an emotional coping mechanism. Food can offer comfort during times of intense emotional triggers like excitement, nervousness, anxiety/stress, and sadness/loneliness. Emotional eating, as a cultural construct, is often associated with negative implications. But there is no shame in having an emotional connection to food. If you feel that emotional eating is problematic, then you may need to consider whether or not deprivation is also playing a role and how to build additional coping mechanisms to navigate emotional triggers. To learn more about emotional eating, read this article. Stimulus to eat: heightened emotions (either positive or negative).
- Taste Hunger involves eating food just because, well, you like it! Food plays a major role in celebrations, holidays, cultural traditions, and social settings. Let’s say, for example, you’re at a dinner party with friends. Though you’re physically full from the meal, dessert arrives, and that brownie parks itself in front of you. As your friends dive into the dish, you too, pick up your fork and join the fun. In this instance, you’re satisfying your taste hunger. This is also an example of how intuitive eating differs from the “eat when hungry stop when full” diet. To learn more about taste hunger and its role in mealtime satisfaction, read this article. Stimulus to eat: food being available.
Regulating Physical Hunger
For those recovering from an eating disorder, navigating a history of severe dieting, or experiencing consistent food insecurity, it can be challenging to rely solely on physical hunger cues. This is because physical hunger can temporarily diminish in the presence of chronic food restriction. The body adapts to calorie-restricted diets. In doing so, it lowers your metabolism and therefore requires less energy to function. Simply put: you won’t feel hungry if your body is accustomed to running with a low-fuel tank.
This also throws off your hormonal balance. Aside from the two main hormones mentioned earlier (leptin and ghrelin), there are several different appetite-regulating hormones that play a role in hunger and fullness (see below).
#1: Eat Consistently
Eating enough calories throughout your day, along with eating consistently (every 2-4 hours), helps to keep this hormonal communication in line. Create a flexible meal plan that incorporates a meal and/or snack every 2-4 hours or depending on your schedule. Hunger aside, this plan will help you regain the ability to feel hunger appropriately.
#2: Say “Bye!” to Unnecessary External Cues
From calorie counts and macros to restrictive food rules and My Fitness Pal, there are many methods available to control our food intake. With the exception of the flexible meal plan discussed above, steer clear of these external reasons for eating. Instead of relying on your meal’s calorie allowance, check in mid-meal. Ask yourself: “At this point, will I feel energized and satisfied for the next few hours?” Create a balanced situation and eat enough. These are two critical considerations as you attempt to answer that question.
#3: Prioritize the Type of Hunger You’re Experiencing
Now that you’ve removed those restrictive rules and are fueling your day sufficiently, it’s time to consider when and how to assess your hunger and fullness. First, it’s not always practical to rely on your physical hunger cues. For dancers especially, physical movement naturally blunts physical hunger. Before you know it, a day of rehearsals can translate to hours without an ounce of hunger. As a result, you’ll need to prioritize practical hunger and assess when you can rely on your flexible meal plan. On your days off, however, take advantage of your ability to check in with physical hunger cues.
Just a note: it’s also okay if an eating experience does not feel so great or live up to your expectations. In this instance, prioritizing biological hunger (or rebound hunger in the case of healing from deprivation) is more important than prioritizing taste hunger or satisfaction.
#4: Use the Hunger/Fullness Scale
Now let’s talk about that hunger/fullness scale. As you start the process, realize that it’s common to be familiar with the extremes of the scale: extreme hunger and extreme fullness. Utilize each meal, when possible, to assess. You’re likely to start feeling hunger in your stomach, but you can also feel hunger in your head with lightheadedness and mood swings being a strong sign of extreme hunger. Prepare balanced snacks to avoid these instances. When it comes to your actual eating experience, assess your fullness and satisfaction. Revert back to that question, “At this point, will I feel energized and satisfied for the next few hours?”
If you want a bit more help, then be sure to check out my program, The Healthy Dancer®, where we dive into the nitty-gritty of utilizing the hunger/fullness scale. PS- snag my free guide to navigate your meals and snacks.