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What Kind of Hunger Is Driving You to Eat? Part 2: The Body AKA “True” Hunger

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

In the previous part of this three-part series on hunger types based on Jan Chozen Bays’ book Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food and other Mindful Eating resources, we talked about the different senses and how they drive the desire to eat certain foods. Today, we are going to focus on the physical signals of hunger. As with many processes, this remains complex, with some of the other types of hunger triggering physical hunger.

However, it is these two physical components of hunger with which it is essential to get in touch to learn your own hunger cues. This can help you as you assess whether you want to eat something or pass and wait until the next time it is available to you and you are truly hungry.

Stomach Hunger

It is key to start to learn the cues of your stomach hunger. What are they?

  • Does your stomach gurgle?

  • Does it feel empty?

  • Do you have hunger pains?

  • Perhaps you start to feel a bit nauseous.

  • Maybe your stomach talks to you in a more subtle way.

This is where awareness in the body becomes important, which frequently takes time and practice.

Although feeling physical hunger cues from the stomach may seem like the best way to recognize “real” hunger, they can sometimes trick you. The brain and a complex system of hormones stimulate this response, something that is beyond what we have space here to discuss.

Sometimes the senses we talked about last time trigger physical hunger cues, even if you may not be really hungry. This is where you might need to train to learn the nuances of your body cues so you can better recognize when it is your mind making you think you are hungry (we will talk more about that in part 3) and when it really is your stomach.

We can also train the stomach to be hungry. For example, when you eat something at the same time every day, you may start to feel the hunger cues around that time out of habit or conditioning. Or you have other cues that create a Pavlovian response, or a conditioned stimulus and response, with your stomach. This is not a good or bad thing, but simply something of which to be aware when creating healthier eating behavior.

We can also learn to overcome hunger cues, and then the body does not respond with them as strongly. This happens in those who fast for religious or health reasons and in those who have an eating disorder or disordered eating. It also happens if you are distracted.

Sometimes things like lack of sleep, GERD, anxiety, certain medications, or thirst may trigger similar feelings to hunger, making it important to start to distinguish and acknowledge these feelings in your own body. Then, you can learn how to proceed when you start to feel hungry, especially if you feel like you just ate. Perhaps you are thirsty, so you drink some water. Maybe you are a bit anxious, so you engage in a mindfulness exercise. Once you have investigated whether there are other reasons why you may be having these feelings of hunger and they persist, then you eat something.

Meditation and grounding exercises can help you get more in touch with your stomach hunger and what it means for you. If you start to feel the hunger in the stomach and aren’t sure if it is real hunger, take a beat and sit, meditate, and breath and assess the different types of hunger. We will discuss this more in detail in the third part of this series.

Getting in touch with your body’s hunger cues also helps to learn your body’s satiety cues so that as you eat, you learn when the hunger signals abate and you are full so that you stop eating long before you become TOO full – you know, that uncomfortable feeling that is synonymous with the post-Thanksgiving meal hours.

Cellular Hunger

Cellular hunger is the term for when you physically feel the effects of not eating. This is colloquially known as being hangry.

I’m sure you have felt cellular hunger from time to time. I know I have. This is where you feel zapped of energy after not eating for a period (this differs from person to person. For some, it may be triggered just 2-3 hours after eating while others may be able to go all day long and still not feel it). You can also start to feel this cellular hunger after having an extra-active day, and women during certain parts of their cycle may require more food than other parts, making them feel cellular hunger even if they are eating their typical amount of food.

What are the signs of cellular hunger? As I mentioned before, a big one is that hangry feeling. You may become an embodied Snickers commercial like I do or start to understand how Dr. Banner and the Hulk must feel.

Other signs include irritability, feeling overly emotional, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and nausea. You may have other signs from your body when it tries to tell you that it needs fuel to continue.

More advanced cellular hunger maybe when you are deficient in certain nutrients or types of food. An easy example is those who are anemic may feel tired and a lack of energy. Over time, you may start to have other symptoms of nutrient deficiency or insufficiency, such as dry skin or changes to your nails or hair.

For many people, it can be hard to know when the body needs a specific type of food to fuel a certain deficiency or insufficiency. Generally, what you recognize is just the need to eat something to get through that period of intense hunger and need. However, sometimes what you need is water or electrolytes because you are a bit dehydrated.

Cellular hunger can be the hardest to work towards recognizing what the body needs. Do you need more protein, a certain nutrient like iron, or maybe you need more carbs? It can be difficult to listen to this aspect of cellular hunger where you know exactly what the body needs more than just any old food. Learning to just become more aware and mindful can start the process.

The most difficult part of satisfying cellular hunger is doing so with intention. When you are desperate for food and hangry and tired, then it is so easy to just reach for anything that will give you some energy. Often, you get into survival mode and don’t make logical or rational decisions. You may make more emotional decisions or find that your inhibitions are much lower and you eat something that you don’t want, don’t like, may make you feel sick in the long run, or you otherwise wish to avoid.

In some scenarios, you may have to just eat what is available and not dwell on it or feel guilty about it. However, if you can maintain some level of intention or mindfulness and decide to nourish the body with what it needs, not just simple calories, then it may provide additional support that lasts for much longer. Having some plans and ideas beforehand can help you to make better decisions when you do get hungry.

Sometimes, it is also about recognizing the earliest stages of stomach and/or cellular hunger so that you do not get to this extreme point before you eat.

The senses and physical body are just two of the influences on eating behavior. Join us in our exploration of mind and emotional hunger in the third part of our series on the seven types of hunger, which will also include more ways to incorporate mindful eating and awareness of the seven types of hunger in your own life.

If you wish to learn more, want to work with someone on developing your own mindful eating practice, or need some other type of nutritional support, schedule a free, 30-minute discovery call.

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