“What are you hungry for?”
This seems like it should be a simple, uncomplicated question. So, why do so many people struggle with a simple answer? You probably know how this goes! Whether you’re asking your kids, husband, guests, or yourself, we often get the response: “I don’t know!”
We are all hungry for something and there are different types of hunger. There is, of course, physical hunger for food, but too often people aren’t really hungry for food – or don’t know how to recognize their physical cues.
Some people – including kids – are hungry for comfort; others are hungry to fit in or belong; while some are hungry for feeling safe, secure, successful, or happy. Others crave to be the best, to win, or to be perfect. In fact, our tendency to overeat or constantly choose highly palatable treats over a simple piece of fruit (as the above image suggests) limits the opportunity to really figure what you’re hungry for.
Before we dive into this topic, it’s important to understand that there is nothing wrong with enjoying some of our favorite treats or goodies (unfortunately referred to by many as “junk food”). I don’t find this language helpful, nor descriptive of some of these favorite dishes that are often heirloom recipes reflective of time-honored traditions.
I do believe, from personal and professional experience, that it can be easy to get off track from recognizing and honoring our internal cues of hunger and fullness – which are really one of our first biological instincts that we are born with. So my hope is that with a little lesson in terminology, along with some simple nutrition interventions, your awareness of physical cues can be differentiated from other times when food is perhaps being used for another purpose.
What is the difference between hunger and appetite?
Hunger is a physiological need for food. Appetite is a psychological desire or craving for food or drink, in other words, what sounds good? Both hunger and appetite determine what, when and why we eat. At times we are not hungry but have an appetite, such as seeing a dessert after eating a meal. Or, we may be hungry but not have an appetite, such as when we are sick.
Hunger: “An uneasy sensation occasioned normally by the lack of food and resulting directly from stimulation of the sensory nerves of the stomach by the contraction and churning movement of the empty stomach.” ~ Webster’s Dictionary
What is the difference between fullness and satiety?
Fullness is usually associated with a satisfied feeling in the stomach or, if you overeat, an uncomfortable feeling. Therefore, fullness is a function of the amount of food you eat. Satiety; however, is feeling satisfied, or not being hungry, that lasts after the initial feeling of fullness subsides. Macronutrients in the food you eat can influence feelings of fullness and satiety. For example, while fiber in food may promote a feeling of fullness in the short term; protein and fat have a lasting affect on satiety.
Satiety: “The quality or state of being fed or gratified.” ~ Webster’s Dictionary
How do you know if you are hungry or full?
The ability to use your internal cues to notice hunger and fullness may be difficult for some people and are only noticed until they are strong or intense. For example, you may not notice the physical signals of hunger because of consumption of coffee or diet sodas. Eventually, you may become “famished”; and consequently overeat, not realizing how physically hungry your body really was. On the flip side, you may not recognize the feeling of fullness until you feel uncomfortably stuffed. The following scale is designed to help you become aware of your internal cues so you can manage your intake.
Why do I feel “full” but not “satisfied”?
Feeling full is a function of the amount of food you eat; for example, the amount of food on your plate also takes up room in your stomach. However, sometimes it’s not just the amount of foods eaten, but the characteristics of that food that lead to fullness. For example, the water and fiber content of the foods we eat can all influence fullness.
Satiety is a measure of many factors, most important being the macronutrients (such as protein and fat) in the meal that signal the brain you have had what the body needs. For example, I could eat a whole plate of lettuce or drink a 20 ounce diet soda. It will certainly take up a lot of room in my stomach, but shortly you will get urges to eat more because the proper nutrients weren’t supplied.
The impact of individual macronutrients on satiety is typically measured in experimental studies. From this research, we know that sugar and fruit provide a quick source of energy, but are quickly digested and absorbed, so don’t stay in the stomach as long, compared to complex carbohydrates, fat and protein that take longer to digest. A food that is reported to have high satiety tends to produce a longer “intermeal” period (a period of time between eating episodes during which an individual does not experience hunger). Foods containing protein and fat tend to promote longer satiety between meals. There are many other factors, including food temperature, pleasure of food, individual issues such as blood sugar and hormonal response to food, or trying to use food to solve a problem (which it can’t do) that may continue to trigger the urge to eat or not feeling satisfied.
What can I do to better honor my internal cues of hunger and fullness?
Awareness of your internal cues of hunger and fullness is a great first step. You can do this by using the sample hunger and fullness scale and noticing how you feel before and after meals and snacks.
Following are some additional strategies for helping you increase your awareness of your internal cues:
- Keep a journal. Record when and what you eat along with rating how hungry you are before and after a meal or snack.
- Awareness of emotional eating. Check in with how you are feeling (bored, happy, sad, angry, frustrated, etc.) before you eat. Are you eating because you are hungry or to “fix” a feeling?
- Include a balance of macronutrients in meals and snacks. Include protein and fat in meals and snacks to promote satiety and decrease overeating between meal.
- Identify and challenge negative beliefs about fullness. A history of dieting often promotes the idea that “fullness” equals “fatness.” Remind yourself that it is normal to feel “comfortably full.”
- If it seems you are out of touch with your internal cues (i.e. always hungry, never feel full, or never hungry), planning your meals ahead so they are well balanced, and include moderate portions, is vital to help you reconnect and relearn your hunger and fullness cues.
Dr. Susan Albers (www.eatq.com) has a number of resources and books to help individuals improve their relationship with food and eating. Following is an infographic that illustrates a decision tree for discerning the difference between physical and emotional hunger. Beginning to increase your awareness of these difference can be a great first step to reclaiming and honoring our first biological instinct!