Tapping into your hunger and fullness cues
Emily Chau is a fifth year dietetics student at UBC. Her interest in nutrition and connecting with others through food has led her to pursue a career in dietetics. She strives to learn more about culturally-safe care, food security, and supporting positive relationships with food.
Hunger cues are the signals our bodies give to tell us it needs food, and satiety (or fullness) cues are the signals that tell us when we are full and satisfied. Sounds simple, right? But for those who have ignored their hunger cues due to diet culture (which portrays hunger as the enemy or something we need to overcome), this can result in a sense of disconnect and difficulty in identifying these signals.
I want to expand on the 10 principles that help guide you to become an Intuitive eater, explain how honouring your health through Intuitive Eating can also improve your student experience.
Before we dive into this week’s topic, I want to make one thing clear that Intuitive eating is NOT a diet. It’s about listening to your internal cues by moving away from diet rules and restrictions. Intuitive eating focuses on practicing nutrition from a place of self-care, not self-control. It encourages you to have a gentle, flexible, balanced and permissive approach when making food choices.
How do our bodies tell us that we’re hungry?
Our feelings of hunger and fullness can be attributed to hormonal and neurological processes. When our stomach is empty, a hormone called ghrelin is released. The rise in this hormone causes it to react with the hypothalamus in the brain and triggers the brain to release neurotransmitters (messengers for initiating a response in other parts of our body). This allows our bodies to express hunger cues, such as a growling stomach or an increased desire to eat.
On the other hand, when we are eating and digestion starts to happen, it can trigger the release of a hormone called leptin, which also interacts with the hypothalamus in the brain. This triggers the release of different neurotransmitters and results in our bodies expressing satiety cues, such as feelings of fullness in the stomach and a decreased desire to eat.
What does ignoring hunger cues look like?
Ignoring your hunger cues could look like:
- Following a diet such as intermittent fasting or purposely limiting your food intake
- Only allowing yourself to eat at certain times (such as refusing to eat after 6pm, or not allowing yourself to eat something in between meals)
- Drinking water or coffee instead of solid food to fend off your hunger
When we ignore these cues and prolong our hunger, it can result in a greater disconnect from our bodies, as we are no longer listening to what our body is telling us it needs.
Our body’s main source of energy is glucose (which we get from food), and so when we’re hungry, often it’s the body’s way of telling us that its glucose levels are low and need to be replenished to continue functioning.
In addition, when glucose levels continue to be low, it can result in the release of epinephrine and cortisol (the “stress hormones”), which can lead us to express strong emotions when experiencing something unpleasant. This can also impact our way of thinking, as the brain’s preferred source of energy is glucose.
When we ignore our hunger cues, it increases the risk of overeating and becoming uncomfortably full, as oftentimes we are so hungry that we are unable to eat slowly and take a moment to enjoy our food as the sole focus becomes getting food into our bodies immediately.
Reminder for students, our brains are fueled by the breakdown of glucose in carbohydrates! So eat when you are hungry and nourish your body with adequate energy (e.g. carbohydrates) to keep your body and mind fed and energized.
How can I learn to better recognize my hunger and fullness cues?
The hunger-satiety scale is a tool that can be used to help assess your level of hunger and identify what stage you feel like you’re at when you are hungry or full, but you may find yourself in situations that go beyond simply eating when you are hungry. Eating is not always about addressing hunger and fullness, sometimes it is simply addressing pleasure, and that is completely okay. Remember that eating can and should be an enjoyable experience. The hunger-satiety scale is meant to be a tool, not a rule.
What are some common hunger and satiety cues?
Common hunger cues:
- Stomach growling/rumbling
- Mild light-headedness
- Desire to consume food
- Moodiness (tired, irritable)
- More severe signs include dizziness, nausea
Common satiety cues:
- Hunger cues fading or no longer present
- The feeling of fullness in the stomach
- Enjoyment of food fades, or the food doesn’t taste as good
It’s important to note that your hunger and satiety cues may differ from others, or there may be other cues you experience that haven’t been mentioned. If you have ignored your hunger cues for a long time, it is normal for them to be suppressed and you may not feel hungry. It may take some time for those hunger cues to come back.
Eating regularly throughout the day prevents overeating
Eating regularly throughout the day helps fuel our bodies and gives us the energy to function throughout the day. It can also prevent overeating as you are less likely to experience extreme hunger. By addressing your hunger cues throughout the day, you will be more likely to tune into your body’s signals and make clear decisions.
As you continue to explore and learn more about your hunger and fullness cues, try to be compassionate and non-judgemental with yourself, as reconnecting with our bodies takes time. By listening and honouring your body’s signals, you will be able to better address your body’s needs.