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, external factors play a role in our decisions around food. Let’s say, for example, you’re at a dinner party with friends. Though you’re physically full from the meal, dessert makes its way to the table and that mouth-watering 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, your external experience weighs heavily on your decision to eat. You’re not physically hungry, but you know from past experience that warm gooey brownie is nothing less than delicious. So, is it wrong to eat the dessert despite feeling full? Does this mean that you’re not listening to your body?
Spoiler: nope, it doesn’t.
Stress and emotions like depression and anxiety are additional factors that can externally impact your decisions around food. These emotions, among others, can cause an overwhelming disconnect between you and your innate feelings of fullness. The end result? Eating past a comfortable fullness or “overeating.” Eating past fullness, whether intentional or unintentional, is not something you should feel ashamed of. If you’re human, then it’ll happen occasionally.
But learning how to reconnect with your innate feelings of hunger (and fullness) is an important component of a balanced lifestyle. Though not always practical, especially if you’re recovering from a history of eating disorders or simply navigating a hectic schedule, listening to your body’s mealtime cues is a critical skill. Therefore, let’s discuss 3 ways to reconnect with your innate hunger and fullness.
#1: Eat Consistently
There’s a reason why those struggling with eating disorders cannot rely on their intuitive hunger just yet: it’s temporarily nonexistent. 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.
Your hormonal balance could also be off. 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). Eating enough calories throughout your day, along with eating consistently, helps to keep this hormonal communication in line. Create a flexible meal plan that incorporates a meal and/or snack every 2-4 hours, 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: Use the Hunger/Fullness Scale
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 hunger cues. For dancers especially, physical movement naturally blunts hunger. Before you know it, a day of rehearsals can translate to hours without an ounce of hunger. As a result, assess when you can rely on your flexible meal plan versus when you can rely on your innate hunger. Busier schedules and excessive dancing may benefit from that meal plan. On your days off, however, take advantage of your innate hunger.
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. Prep 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. While you’re at it, comment below about your progress. I can’t wait to hear!