The purpose of hunger
Hunger is the body's natural response to a depletion of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. When food intake is delayed, the body taps into stored carbohydrates (glycogen) in the liver, converting them into glucose to fuel cells. As glycogen levels diminish, hormones like ghrelin are released, signalling the sensation of hunger, prompting you to replenish your energy reserves. Beyond this biological trigger, hunger can also be influenced by psychological and environmental factors, such as the sight or aroma of food, social situations, or ingrained habits.
Types of hunger
Renowned British psychoanalyst and author, Susie Orbach, has studied and written extensively about eating behaviours and body image. She identifies various types of hunger:
Physical Hunger: This is the body's genuine response to the absence of food, driven by the need for energy. It manifests as a growling stomach, light-headedness, and an overall feeling of emptiness.
Emotional Hunger: This form of hunger arises from emotions like stress, boredom, sadness, or anxiety. It tends to be soothed by comfort foods, providing a temporary emotional uplift without addressing the underlying emotional issue.
Habitual Hunger: This is hunger triggered by routine or habit, such as eating at specific times regardless of actual physical hunger signals.
Psychological Hunger: This type is linked to psychological or relational needs, such as a longing for connection, love, or a sense of belonging.
These different forms of hunger can overlap and exert influence on one another highlighting the importance of recognising the diverse motivations behind our eating habits. Orbach emphasises that addressing the psychological and emotional aspects of hunger is crucial for developing a positive connection with both food and one's own body.
Strategies to identify true hunger
Distinguishing genuine hunger from other impulses can be a challenge, especially if one has developed habits of eating for non-physical hunger reasons. Here are some strategies to help identify true hunger:
Tune into Physical Signals: Genuine hunger often commences with a mild growl in the stomach, intensifying over time. Light-headedness, weakness, or fatigue may also accompany it.
Wait Before Eating: If uncertain about hunger, try waiting 10-15 minutes before eating. If the hunger subsides, it likely wasn't physical hunger.
Body Check-In: Take a moment to connect with your body. If you feel content and satisfied, chances are you're not hungry.
Maintain a Food Diary: Documenting what you eat, when, and how you feel before and after can reveal patterns and triggers for non-hungry eating.
Embrace Mindfulness: Practicing mindful eating, savouring each bite without distractions, can heighten your awareness of physical hunger cues and attune you to your body's needs.
The goal is to eat when genuinely hungry and stop when comfortably satisfied, without feeling overly full. This process is smoother when starting from a place of both physical and emotional balance. It's important to recognise that our cravings tend to align with our current state of health. When starting from an imbalanced point, our cravings may not be reliable guides. In such cases, it's crucial to have some guidance in place until we regain our health and reacquaint ourselves with what it feels like to be healthy in both body and mind.
Once we achieve a state of balanced health and grow accustomed to it, we can confidently trust our cravings. Through steady practice, we cultivate a heightened sensitivity to our body's hunger signals, enabling us to make food choices that align more effectively with our body's needs.
About the Author
I'm a Nutritional Therapist and Naturopath based in Kingston-upon-Thames, London.
By helping my clients to work WITH their body rather than AGAINST it, I can guide them back into alignment so that they can feel empowered and at home in their skin.
If you'd like to understand how we can put the power of nutritional therapy to work for you, I'd love to invite you to book a completely free, no-obligation 20-minute consultation.
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