Intuitive Eating Principles: No. 2 Honour Your Hunger

I’ve been speaking out recently about intuitive eating principles, such as rejecting the diet mentality. While many have heard of “intuitive eating” (or the positive spin on “emotional eating”), most don't realize it’s a step-by-step system for improving our relationship to food and working through eating psychology. 

While I don't believe intuitive eating is easy — and it’s not recommended for vulnerable populations, such as those with active eating disorders— I do believe it’s a practice so many of us could benefit from learning more about. 

I grew up believing hunger was a bad thing to have, like Poison Ivy rash or warts. Hunger was something to fix with plenty of water, something to suppress with coffee and diet soda, something to shut out immediately after maxing out your allotted calories. 

Honour my hunger? I was too busy waging war to consider it anything but the enemy. 

I now view hunger as a tool imperative for good health. A voice worth honouring.

Emotional eating | Intuitive eating | body positive | health at every size | holistic nutrition | food psych. Intuitive eating principle: No 2 honour your hunger.

 

Today, we’re diving deep into the following:

  • Examining + assessing hunger
  • The Ancel Keys Starvation Experiment (1944-45)
  • Stress and hunger
  • Macronutrients, satisfaction, and hunger
  • The role of neuropeptide Y
  • Honouring your hunger bonus workbook

WHAT IS HUNGER?

Hunger, on a very basic level, describes a feeling of weakness or discomfort paired with the desire to eat. I imagine most of us have experienced it at some form or another. The signal is triggered by low cellular power. Think of your cells as mini cars and food as gasoline. Your hunger signal is a warning sign you’re approaching empty. 

There are physiological reasons for hunger, such as needing energy, hormonal imbalances, your genetic set-point (the weight you naturally and effortlessly arrive at when everything’s balanced), and metabolic damage (something’s up with your fullness/hunger cycle), as well all environmental reasons for hunger, such as your emotional state, being around food, not recalling the last time you ate, and attending social events (ie. dinner parties, wine and cheese parties) where food is available. 

Environmental causes are generally considered “wants”, vs. physiological reasons are considered “needs.” Neither is positive or negative — they’re just different avenues. Having a healthy relationship with food, if you ask me, means accepting and honouring both unconditionally. 

I know many don’t trust or feel comfortable around hunger. How do I know if I’m really hungry? How do I know I’m not just thirsty? You can try drinking water (ideally with a bit of fresh lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt, for electrolytes) to see if that’s the case. But keep in mind our appetites are not fixed, and regularly fluctuate in response to activity, hormones, stress, and so on. 

While intuitive eating is not just a hunger/fullness “diet” as many have characterized it, eating when you are hungry (and stopping when you are around 3/4 full) can help you to cultivate a great relationship with food. Not eating when you are hungry or waiting until you are ravenous to eat can lead to overeating, bingeing, or consuming foods out of convenience rather than out of desire. None of this feels good. 

Eating when I am hungry has also encouraged me to ask myself why I’m eating when I’m not hungry. What issues need my attention? What areas of my life are asking for my love and compassion? While I definitely eat when I’m not hungry from time to time (taste hunger for the win!), I do my best not to feed treat my symptoms and encourage you to find your own way through this (I’ll delve into this further in a future post.)

THE ANCEL KEYS STARVATION EXPERIMENT (1944-45)

Because thinness is prioritized above just about everything in life, dieting has become — so unfortunately and dangerously — normalized. We assume to starve we must be rail thin, a hangover of the diet mentality, but a diet by default is a form of starvation based on the symptoms exhibited. Interesting how we don’t have a “cancer body type”, yet apply very different standards to mental illnesses, particularly eating disorders. 

I’ve actually gone so far as to call out diets as low-grade eating disorders in the past — not a stretch considering the notorious Dr. Ancel Keys starvation experiment during World War II, designed to help famine sufferers. 

Thirty-two healthy men were chosen for their allegedly superior “psychobiological stamina”, or superior mental and physical health. During the initial three months, the men ate intuitively, averaging 3, 492 calories daily. They were subsequently subjected to a six-month starvation period where their calories were slashed to to 1, 570 daily — the caloric equivalent to the modern male diet

The consequences of the study included:

  • Metabolism dropped 40%
  • Men became obsessed with food. They experienced greater food cravings and began collecting recipes (long before the days of the Food Network, food blogs, and Pinterest.) 
  • They experienced dysregulated eating patterns, vacillating between inhaling their food to playing with their food and drawing out mealtime. 
  • Some men developed bulimia.
  • Some men began exercising to increase food rations. 
  • Personality shifts were noted, as many men experienced the onset of apathy, irritability, moodiness, and depression. 
  • Hunger became insatiable during the refeed period (weekend binges might amount to eight thousand to ten thousand calories)

Some of these same symptoms are exhibited by orphans adopted from poor countries. As Tribole and Resch point out in Intuitive Eating, a disproportionate number of starving concentration camp survivors are obese. 

When we deny our natural hunger, it’s normal to become more fixated on food than ever. Several years ago when my caloric intake was much too low for my body, I devoured cookbooks like meals, collected myriad recipes (most of which I’ve never tried), and pinned hundreds of meal ideas. Some of this is healthy; it’s normal to love food, enjoy cooking and baking, and to fall head-over-heels for the nostalgia and beauty of food writing. But at the same time, you ought to be able to go about your day without obsessing or feeling consumed over thoughts of food. 

I’ve vocalized my opposition to bikini competitions in the past, but I find we tend to focus on low body fat percentages (awful) to the exclusion of the psychological damage these activities generate. An acquaintance of mine remarked how she never had an issue with food until she signed up for a bikini competition. After it ended, she couldn’t stop eating and gained a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. Eventually her appetite regulated and she returned to her set-point, but the experience rattled her to such a degree she vowed never to compete again. 

But how will I lose weight without counting calories? That’s the point. Intuitive eating is not and should never be marketed as a weight loss strategy. The purpose of intuitive eating is to teach you how to listen to your body so you can develop a healthy relationship around all foods. When eating normalizes, weight stabilizes. The purpose of body positive coaching is to help individuals accept and move forward from the first point.

Eating is so important that the nerve cells of appetite are located in the hypothalamus region of the brain. A variety of biological signals triggers eating. What many people believe to be an issue of willpower, is instead a biological drive. The power and intensity of the biological eating drive should not be underestimated.
— Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating

STRESS AND APPETITE

Many factors influence appetite. Most notably? Stress. Acute or short-term stress can lead to a decrease in appetite (hypophagia), while chronic stress gradually inflates appetite (hyperphagia) because of its impact on our hormones. The stress you feel immediately before writing an exam differs tremendously in its impact from insurmountable, chronic stress — the kind that never lets up. 

While I love the intuitive eating approach, it doesn’t address the impact of stress on our lives. I have something special coming out in January for this very reason (as a preliminary step to intuitive eating), but here’s the Cole’s Notes: if you’re interested in regulating appetite and normalizing eating, you must manage your stress through supreme self-care. 

Maybe you don’t feel you’re stressed, but most people who are stressed feel this way. All foods fit within the intuitive eating model. But taking your anger out on potato chips (anger, according to Doreen Virtue, can lead to cravings for crunchy foods) isn’t the way to solve it, just as working through your feelings through a pint of ice cream isn’t going to get you further ahead. I think the beauty of emotional eating is what it teaches us about ourselves and our attachments. It’s not something to suppress. Instead, acknowledge it when it comes and find alternate coping mechanisms.

Some of the things you can do to manage stress: 

  • Listen to music (I like mine loud)
  • Start your day with lemon water and a short meditation (I’m a big fan of SoulSeconds.com)
  • Take an Epsom salt bath with essential oils
  • Diffuse essential oils (especially lavender and eucalyptus)
  • Cook a delicious and nourishing meal 
  • Grocery shop and meal prep for the week 
  • Workout/move, especially yoga in these instances 
  • Clean
  • Spend time reading in nature or at a coffee shop 
  • Red wine and conversation with the loveliest people 
  • Get a massage
  • Take a road trip or go on an adventure 
  • Netflix and herbal tea 
  • Laugh 

MACRONUTRIENTS, SATISFACTION, AND HUNGER

I find many individuals are unsatisfied with nutritious fare because they find it unsatisfying. 

Ideally, when preparing a meal, you want to make sure to include some form of protein. Protein helps to keep us full, energized, and, scientifically speaking, is the most satisfying macronutrient. 

Fats make meals delicious. Flat-out. A low-fat meal, if you ask me, is not only boring, but super unsatisfying. It also makes little sense from a nutrition perspective, as we need healthy fats to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, minerals like calcium, and other phytonutrients. This has made all of the difference for me in making vegetables more appealing. Fats also offer sustained energy. Eating high-quality fats is a very healthy practice and should not be feared. 

Carbohydrates can sometimes help to fill us up. I know there’s so many messages about carbohydrates right now, but personally I recommend them. They help to round out a meal and offer quick energy for the cells. 

NEUROPEPTIDE Y

If you’ve never heard of it, Neuropeptide Y is a chemical produced by the brain. It triggers our drive to eat carbohydrates. When we deprive ourselves of food or under-eat (either unintentionally or intentionally), we provoke NPY into action. This can lead us to eat large amounts of carbohydrate in one sitting or to binge. 

Our brains also produce more NPY during stressful periods and when we’re burning carbs for fuel (as opposed to fats on a ketogenic diet, where the body relies on ketones rather than glucose.) If you find you’re craving #allthebread during times of stress, it may be due to this chemical increase. While many are tempted to hit up the newest diet to combat the effects of stress, trust me when I say the only way to undo the repercussions of stress is to work through the stress. 

Now, this doesn’t mean you need to consume large quantities of carbohydrate to satisfy a biological need. But it does suggest consuming regular, varied meals and snacking as needed are excellent tactics for naturally regulating appetite and preventing binge eating. Deprivation and food restriction — not a so-called lack of “willpower” — frequently leads to bingeing. The best way to support the nutrient deficiencies caused by stress, regulate appetite, and promote overall health is to honour hunger. It’s critical to consume all macronutrients (healthy fat, protein, carbohydrate), as they are all vital to cellular power. 

HONOURING YOUR HUNGER

Unsure of hunger's symptoms and how to honour it? Get my guide below to make peace with your appetite. 

 

What do you find most challenging when it comes to honouring your hunger?

Sarah Berneche

Sarah Berneche, 14 Denison Square, Toronto, ON, M5T 1K8