the third part of my deep dive into intuitive eating covering what it is, how to begin to put it into practice and my take on it as a registered dietitian.
Today’s post is all about honoring your hunger, the second principle of Tribole and Resch’s Intuitive Eating program.
If you missed last week’s posts, you can catch up now:
- Intuitive Eating: What Is It? – a basic overview of what the Intuitive Eating program is
- Intuitive Eating: Reject the Diet Mentality – a discussion of the first principle within the Intuitive Eating program
And you can always find all the posts I publish in this series right here should you wish to revisit a particular one at any point.
If you’ve followed me for a while and tune into my Instagram stories, you know that I’m a huge proponent of honoring your hunger, whether you’re working to follow an Intuitive Eating program or not, so I’m very excited to talk about this second principle.
It seems like a such a simple concept, but in a diet-obsessed world, it’s something so many have lost the ability to do. This post is long, but I hope you’ll take the time to read it in its entirety, as I think it contains some incredibly important messages.
Tribole and Resch put it best in their book when they state
“Keep your body fed biologically with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise, you can trigger a primal drive to [eat].”– Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works
As we’ve discussed in the past, restrictive diets want you to believe that it’s all about willpower and overcoming your cravings. But there’s actually a strong biological pull by your body to seek fuel (in the form of food!) when it’s not getting what it needs.
There’s a hallmark study by Ancel Keys that was carried out in 1944 looking at the physiological and psychological effects of starvation on civilian men in an effort to help famine sufferers. In an attempt to preserve brevity in this post, I won’t go into all the details, but feel free to take a deeper dive yourself by reading the link provided above.
The gist of the experiment was this:
- 3 dozen men were entered into the study
- Physical traits and behaviors were observed for 12 weeks at baseline (i.e. eating the way they would normally eat and acting the way they would normally act).
- After 12 weeks, caloric intake was cut nearly in half (from around 3,000 calories per day to about 1,500 calories per day) for about 6 months
- After 6 months, the men were re-fed
Looking back at what the experiment concluded is striking as many of the physical and psychological traits the men displayed both during the semi-starvation state as well as during the re-feeding state were incredibly similar to what those following restricted diets will report.
Here’s what they found during the semi-starvation period:
- Metabolic rates dropped by as much as 40% as the body attempted to preserve energy for important physiological functions
- They became obsessed with food – some of these behaviors included hoarding their rations, eating more slowly, collecting cookbook recipes, staring at bakery windows.
- Eating styles changed – several men reported being unable to adhere to the diet experiencing episodes of bingeing and even an episode of reported bulimia
- Behaviors & personality traits changed – many reported they couldn’t focus in classes & withdrew from their studies, a lack of drive or ambition, an onset of depression and a struggle to find pleasure in normal activities
- The men experienced physical weakness, neurological deficits, were pale and cold
- Many became socially withdrawn (even if once extroverted)
- Many increased exercise to justify increasing their calories
Here’s what they found during the re-feeding period:
- Many reported the re-feeding period was no better than the semi-starvation period
- Many reported insatiable hunger once being allowed to eat again and found it difficult to stop eating (with weekend some splurges adding up to 10,000 calories)
- Many required significantly more calories than previously thought to restore their weight
- It took an estimated two months to two years to fully recover both physiologically and psychologically from the experiment
If you’ve ever been on a restrictive diet for some period of time (whether following a specific diet or self-imposed restriction), I’m sure you can relate to a lot of the above, as many are classic symptoms one experiences both when restricting and re-feeding.
The point of highlighting this study is to show you that, even men without any media influence, prior disordered eating thoughts or body issues experienced this when in a position where food was restricted.
This is because when the body is starved of the fuel that it needs, very real, biological responses kicks into high gear as it attempts to adjust to what it perceives as a famine. In fact, restriction (or fasting) actually trigger an increase in signals from the body that drive a greater desire to eat.
So, to believe that we can restrict our food intake and overcome anything we face during that period with sheer “willpower” or “stick-to-itiveness” is just plain wrong.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, our bodies require food as the fuel they burn to maintain our many bodily functions (our hearts to beat, our brains to think, our lungs to breathe, etc.).
If your body doesn’t get the proper fuel it requires, it is going to go into overdrive trying to signal to you that you need to find some. And the more your deny your body the fuel that it needs, the stronger and more intense those signals are going to become (and with that you’ll likely experience an increased obsession with food and much stronger cravings). As I’ve stated in the past, you would never expect your car to run without gas and you shouldn’t expect your body to run without food.
And in fact, you body won’t run without food. There is only so much the body can do to compensate for lack of fuel (i.e. if necessary, your body will break down & use your own muscle in an attempt to get protein…and let’s not forget, your heart, liver and lungs are all muscles!) before it has to make the decision to start shutting down what it can to preserve the little fuel it has in order to provide for just the most critical functions.
In short, our bodies need fuel to run optimally. That fuel comes in the form of food. So, we need to provide our bodies adequate food in order for them to properly carry out their many tasks.
When Your Body’s Signals Win Out and You “Give In”
It’s likely that anyone who has ever restricted their intake has experienced at least one occasion of eating food in abundance (whether that abundance is real or perceived). In fact, anyone who goes too long without eating can experience eating past the point of comfortable fullness, even if they’re not restricting their intake (it’s even been found to be the case in animal studies!). Again, it’s a normal biological response to seek food when supply is not matching demand.
This is why it’s so incredibly important to listen to our internal cues. When we ignore those cues, not only can it lead to eating past the point of comfortable fullness, but each time you push away those internal cues, you cause your body to lose trust in you.
Honoring your body’s hunger signals is so important because in doing so, you and your body can trust one another. When your body can’t trust you to fuel it, it panics and overcompensates with extreme signals in an attempt to get what it needs. And in turn, those extreme signals may cause behaviors like eating past the point of comfortable fullness which then cause you to distrust your body. You begin to believe you’re ‘out of control’ around food or a ‘food addict.’ In reality, this is simply your body trying its best to survive.
When you honor your body’s hunger signals rather than push them away, your body learns to trust you. It takes time, but with each bite of food you take when your body asks for it, you add to the bridge that will re-build that trust. Eventually, once your body feels certain you will provide it with consistent fuel and the famine state is over, it will relax.
From there, your body will simply send what Tribole and Resch refer to as ‘gentle reminders’ (a stomach gurgle, a growling noise, etc.) to eat rather than the SOS siren signals you’re used to.
Your job is to really tune into these gently hunger signals and honor them to keep that trust in place.
Restrictive eating can severely dampen these signals and it can take some time for them to resurface (note: if you’re struggling with an active eating disorder, I recommend you work through this with a professional). If you’re having significant trouble hearing them, try fueling yourself every 2-3 or every 3-4 hours. This consistent fueling, despite the absence of hunger signals, is another way you can build that trust. As time goes on, you’ll likely start noticing those signals returning too.
Don’t get frustrated that it’s not an overnight process or that it takes some focus at first. Bite by bite, you re-establish that trust between you and your body and eventually, honoring your hunger will become something you don’t have to think about at all. And the best part is that hunger will no longer be something you dread or fear, but rather something you can embrace, listen to and solve.
So How Exactly Can I Honor My Hunger?
Tribole and Resch recommend that if you’re having trouble hearing your internal cues, you ask the following each time you sit down to eat:
- Am I hungry?
- What’s my hunger level?
Or, if you find you’re having difficulty feeling hunger of any kind, try asking yourself:
- When is the last time I ever felt hungry?
- How did my stomach feel?
- How did my mouth feel?
They also have a great tool in their book called “The Hunger Discovery Scale” that can help.
Identifying these signals can help you begin to recognize what your hunger signals (or ‘gentle reminders’) are so that you can try to listen for them.
They also recommend “checking the pulse of your hunger at frequent intervals.” If you’re having trouble listening to your internal cues, make an effort to check in with yourself frequently. This will help you avoid getting too ravenous and then eating past the point of comfortable fullness.
I’ll close this post with a couple important reminders:
- Our Bodies are Smart – We’re not going to eat the same way (or same amount) day in and day out. Don’t panic if you’re particularly hungry one day or another. It doesn’t mean you’re out of control or that your body is betraying you. It may mean you ate lighter one day in the past week and your body is simply catching up. Remember, our bodies are smart and they know what they need in order to function at their best.
- Other Voices of Hunger – No one eats purely out of hunger 100% of the time. As we’ve discussed before, there are many, many different reasons to eat and that is OKAY and perfectly common. Tribole and Resch describe these as “other voices of hunger” (i.e. ‘taste hunger’ – eating because it sounds good or the occasion calls for it, ‘practical hunger’ – where one eats because it makes the most sense given the rest of their schedule, even if they’re not physically hungry, etc.) and encourage you to accept them rather than viewing them as something that caused you to “violate Intuitive Eating.”
In order to eat intuitively, it’s crucial that your body can trust you and that you learn to trust your body.
- Keys, A., Brozek, J., Henschel, A., Mickelsen, O. & Taylor, H. L. (1950)
The Biology of Human Starvation, Vols. I–II. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.
- Kalm, L.M., & Semba, R.D. (2005). They starved so that others be better fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment. Journal of Nutrition, 135, 1347–1352.
- Tribole, E & Resch, E. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. 3rd ed. Aug 2012.
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