Trusting Your Hunger and Fullness Cues
Updated: May 16
What are hunger and fullness cues?
Hunger and fullness cues are the body's internal cues letting us know when to eat or when to stop eating. These cues are regulated by hormones in the body - mainly Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and Leptin (the fullness hormone). The stomach produces ghrelin when it is empty, it then signals the part of the brain called the hypothalamus which increases our appetite to prepare us for a meal or snack. Ghrelin also plays a further role in digestion, insulin release, and even cardiovascular health. Leptin is produced by our adipose tissues (aka fat) to regulate our energy intake and energy use on a regular basis. We feel hunger cues often based on our stomach rumbling, headache, lack of focus, irritability (aka being HANGRY), and fatigue. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are many common signs of hunger. Fullness usually makes these hunger cues go away and our stomach may feel comfortably or uncomfortably full depending on how much we eat.
What if I don't have hunger and fullness cues?
When we follow a diet or strict meal plan - we are following external cues to tell us when and what to eat and when to stop eating. When we listen to these external cues for too long, our body can stop presenting us with these signals for hunger and fullness or we only recognize these signals when we're extremely hungry or extremely full. Hunger and fullness cues can also be subdued in times of high stress and trauma. When we stop receiving or listening to these hunger cues, it can be hard to start recognizing and honoring them again.
What about cravings?
The word "craving" is usually seen in a negative context. It's often paired with "off limits" foods like dessert, fast food, pizza etc. This can lead to binging on these foods if you are someone who isn't in tune with their hunger and fullness cues. However, being hungry for certain foods or tastes is a normal part of being human. We use it to celebrate and is an important part of most cultures! The Intuitive Eating book by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole refers to this type of hunger as "taste hunger". We can honor our hunger for certain foods or tastes without throwing ourselves into the binge and restrict cycle. This cycle and these cravings happen when we tell ourselves a food is "off limits" or "bad" and that we won't eat any more after today. By tuning into your internal cues and honoring your taste hunger, we become better at trusting these cues and can remove ourselves from this binge and restrict cycle.
How can I tune into my hunger and fullness cues?
Practice makes perfect! If you're deep in diet culture and haven't been listening to your body for a while, it is going to take time to trust what your body is telling you. It might be helpful to set a reminder every 3-4 hours so your body gets used to eating at regular times. This can also be helpful if you're on medications that cause you to have a lower appetite than normal. Once it is used to a regular pattern - you may start to notice your cues more. It is important to consciously check in with yourself every so often and see what you're feeling. Some helpful questions might be:
"When was the last time I ate?"
"Do I feel like I need a snack or a whole meal?"
"Do I feel unfocused or cranky?"
"Is my stomach gurgling or growling?"
Keep in mind there are no right or wrong answers to these questions! They're just some starter tools to get you checking in to your body. Using a Hunger and Fullness scale can be a helpful tool as well to navigate the learning process. You can use the one in my Beginner's Guide to Food Freedom to help you recognize patterns in your day to day eating and see where you might want to make changes to help you feel your best throughout the day.
Some Last Reminders
Tuning into your bodily cues can take time and it is not something to get right or wrong. The journey to food freedom can be messy and challenging. The more you work to get familiar with you're body and what it is trying to tell you the easier it becomes.
I also want you to remember that emotional eating happens. It can be a helpful coping mechanism and can bring a sense of comfort in times of stress, but it shouldn't be your only coping mechanism or be used as punishment or numbing. Doing this can work against listening to your hunger and fullness cues. Finding other ways to cope with emotions such as talk therapy, exercise, or meditation is crucial in freeing yourself from food rules and the binge and restrict cycle.
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