How to Decipher Your Hunger Cues

Jenna Birch
·Contributing Writer
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(Photo: Yahoo Health/Getty Images)

In the spring of 2012, I had a severe flare of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In the months that followed, I couldn’t eat much without getting sick. I developed a fear of foods that seemed “unsafe” to me — anything processed, anything spicy, anything acidic — and these long-term digestive issues left me saddled with disordered eating habits.

As I started to regain my gastrointestinal health in 2013 and 2014 and attempted to recreate healthier dietary patterns, I realized that I was wildly out of touch with my body’s signaling system. I couldn’t tell the difference between true hunger and a simple craving. I’d mindlessly reach for an old favorite food, instead of choosing what would satisfy me. I’d sometimes eat compulsively, followed by a wave of guilt and calorie-withholding.

Although I was satisfying my caloric needs, I wasn’t satisfying my body’s nutrient needs. “Balance” was a forgotten word in my dietary vocabulary. I often felt like I needed to gulp water after OD-ing on sugar, just to wash the garbage from my system. I’d overeat carbs, and feel bloated and uncomfortable afterward. Eventually, I started to resent my body for requesting foods that led to shame and discontent.

One morning, while I was fasting after a night of too much chocolate, I felt an urge to eat oatmeal again — one of my long-time (and long gone) healthy food staples. I suddenly recognized that my body was speaking to me. Perhaps even coherently. I just couldn’t make out the language 90 percent of the time. I couldn’t read my hunger cues, I certainly couldn’t understand what they meant — and after years of disordered eating, my body deserved better.

I wanted to feel content and satisfied after each meal. I wanted to put purpose on my plate instead of unsatisfying choices and guilt. And I needed to learn my body’s language of hunger.

Understanding Hunger

You’re probably pretty familiar with the general concept of hunger. You feel the urge, and its effects, every single day, says Michelle May, MD, a mindful eating expert and author of Eat What You Love.

“Hunger is your body’s way of telling you that you need food,” May tells Yahoo Health. “It’s like a fuel gauge. You’ve got your blood sugar dropping, your stomach gnawing, growling and rumbling. You need that blood sugar stabilized for energy, or you’ll get distracted, start making mistakes, be irritable, and feel physically fatigued.”

But that feeling of hunger is actually even more nuanced than most realize. Researchers are now focusing on two main kinds of hunger: homeostatic hunger and hedonic hunger, according to physician-nutrition specialist Jennifer Warren, MD, medical director at Physicians Healthy Weight Center, a non-surgical weight management program based in North Hampton, New Hampshire.

You can think of homeostatic hunger as “physical hunger, ‘stomach hunger’ or the need for calories,” Warren tells Yahoo Health. Meanwhile, hedonic hunger is “emotional hunger, ‘head hunger,’ or the urge to eat food as a reward” — a deeper dimension of our appetites.

Homeostatic hunger deals with your drive to fill basic calorie needs. It’s, as Warren puts it, your body’s way of telling you that you need food as fuel. “This is the need for calories and nutrients, which help keep the body in a balanced — or homeostatic — state of health,” she explains. “We recognize this type of hunger when our stomach is grumbling and feels empty, when we feel lightheaded, or spacey.” Your blood sugar is dropping, and you know it — “any food looks good, even food we wouldn’t normally consider that tasty,” Warren says.

On the flipside, there’s hedonic hunger, which Warren describes as our body’s need for food as fun. “This hunger originates in the hypothalamus, otherwise known as the brain’s reward center,” Warren says. “With that, hedonic hunger tends to push us toward ‘hyperpalatable’ foods — the sweet, starchy, creamy, or fatty stuff.”

Back in our ancestors’ day, Warren says that scientists think hedonic hunger arose out of a need for the highly palatable foods of old, like sweet berries for key antioxidants and fatty foods to instantly meet caloric needs. But today? This hunger can be problematic for a very specific reason: “We have an endless supply of delicious, high-calorie foods,” says Warren. “It can overwhelm us, turn hedonic hunger into a feedback loop — and we can end up eating more than is really healthy.”

While fighting off hedonic hunger might seem like a battle of willpower, it runs deeper than that. “Multiple chemical signals in the brain can increase this drive to eat for pleasure, so there is a real, biological basis for hedonic hunger,” Warren says. “That rush of ‘feel good’ neurochemicals after eating these foods can be addictive.”

Controlling Hedonic Hunger

To fuel our bodies appropriately, we all want to eat enough to feel satisfied, but not overeat to an unhealthy extent — which is easy to sum up in a sentence, but much harder to put into practice.

Controlling hedonic hunger starts by controlling homeostatic hunger, says Warren. If you don’t, your whole hunger system will start getting out of whack. “If someone is lacking in calories or nutrition, that can light the fire of hedonic hunger and set it ablaze,” she explains. Suddenly, everything starts to look good, and you reach for whatever’s most readily available — chips, cookies, packaged pastries, whatever else you probably shouldn’t be eating, which you’re likely going to overeat because you’re so freaking starving.

Warren says to control your basic nutritional needs first with balanced meals, never going more than three to four hours without eating. “At the core, we control homeostatic hunger by eating healthful, balanced snacks with protein on a regular schedule throughout the day, meeting our need for nutrition without going too long without it,” she says.

Related: The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines: What You Need to Know

And keep in mind, hedonic hunger itself isn’t bad hunger. You should feel free to indulge that smartly and occasionally, says Warren. “Enjoying food is part of a healthy, fulfilling life,” she says. “We just have trouble if our hedonic hunger is too high, because pleasure-driven hunger isn’t pushing us to binge on veggies. It pushes us toward calorie-dense, high-fat, and high-glycemic carbs.”

This, in essence, I realize is the cycle my body has been stuck in for years: Too high hedonic hunger from a lengthy period where I deprived myself of “unsafe” foods, leads to an overindulgence on sugar and carbs; a wave of guilt and a period of fasting follows, which then induces homeostatic hunger due to lack of nutrition and lights the uncontrollable wildfire hedonic hunger.

My body has been confused, because I’ve been confusing it — with abnormal stops and starts in eating, poor choices, and no nutritional balance. Thankfully, there’s a better way forward to fuel up right.

Reading Your Body’s Hunger Cues

Sometimes hunger is confusing. To eat and feel your best, you have to address the right dietary needs at the right time, know the difference between needing food and simply wanting it, and realize that you can hunger for something that’s not food at all. Here are some strategies for effectively tuning into your stomach’s signals.

Pause. Just pause. Whenever you feel like digging in, take a beat to think about why, May suggests. “Mindful eating teaches us to put space between our triggers and our reaction,” she explains. “If I feel like eating, I am reacting. I am carrying out a pattern. What’s happening right now, and why do I want to eat?” We eat to fulfill a need, comfort or pleasure ourselves — and it’s often unrelated to actual dietary hunger. Thirst, anxiety, boredom, fatigue, lack of sleep, and painful situations are all reasons you may want to eat, but eating won’t fill that hole.

Do a body-mind-heart scan. Let’s say you’re unsure whether you’re experiencing physical hunger or something else that’s provoking an urge for food. This is May’s fix: “I teach patients to do a body-mind-heart scan,” she says. “Body: Do I have physical symptoms of hunger like a rumbling stomach with that empty feeling, or making mental mistakes and fatigued? Or mind: Did I see it on a billboard, and now I want to eat a specific food? Then there’s heart: Feelings can cause a need for comfort or pleasure, like maybe I want homemade chocolate-chip cookies because I’m missing home.” May says, in the latter two cases, food will never satisfy the craving.

Related: How One Writer Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life

Track your intake. If your food-for-fun cravings are uncontrollable, make sure you’re eating normally with balanced meals. This should equate to a meal or snack roughly every three to four hours, says Warren, making sure you’ve eaten a good balance of protein and carbohydrates, meeting your calories needs, and constantly hydrating to make sure you are not simply thirsty. “If you are not sure about your nutritional needs, journal for a few days with one of the great free apps, such as MyFitnessPal,” says Warren. “Maybe run it by a dietician or obesity-medicine specialist. Once you know you are getting your nutritional needs met, for both calories and macronutrients, if you are feeling ‘hunger,’ it’s likely another need you’re trying to fill with food.”

Break your routine. Get off your diet. If you eat on a schedule and are accustomed to mostly specific “safe” foods, you’ll be more tempted to crave, crave, crave — you will be depriving yourself of a laundry list of foods you are not “allowed” to have. “Mindful eating is far and away, head and shoulders above dieting,” May says. “The whole premise [of dieting] is eating on a schedule, certain types of foods at certain times. Those external rules can really cause you to get out of sync with our bodies cues. Our bodies have the instinctive abilities to determine what we need.” If your cravings are out of control, you may start to binge. Try listening to your body instead.

Honor your introvert needs. Warren says one of the most common reasons people overeat for pleasure — leading to physical symptoms like sugar crashes and bloating, emotional side effects like guilt and shame — is because they aren’t taking enough time for themselves, and food then becomes the reprieve. “We need to honor that need to be alone and recharge, and if this need goes unmet, we often feel an increased drive to eat for pleasure to counter that anxiety,” says Warren.

Avoid a state of decision fatigue. When we’re feeling zapped, we enter a state of “decision fatigue,” says Warren. “It’s the end of a busy day, we’re beat, and we have very limited energy left to make healthy food choices. Instead, we reach for what’s quick, tasty and fun.” This is where pre-planning comes into play. Put a healthy dinner in the slow cooker before work. Make up measured bags of healthy trail mix as a snack. Always have cut-up raw veggie and fruits on hand to grab n’ go. Be smart when you’re not too tired to default to bad decisions, so you will feel nourished and strong when you are too tired to opt for the healthier choices.

Seek help. Sometimes, out-of-control cravings may seriously be beyond your control. “Inherited genes may lead to excessive hedonic hunger, turned on during phases of life,” says Warren. “It could be the result of hormone changes, pregnancy, medical conditions, medications, poor sleep, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and so on. All may amp up hedonic hunger, and it can be tough to bring the ‘fire’ back down to a normal range.” Therapy, medication and lifestyle changes all may help, so talk to your doctor if you can’t seem to calm your cravings and eating.

For me, healthy diet is still a daily, slow reformation process — but I’m finally learning to listen to my body’s whispers. I now know the cookie craving and the pre-dinner stomach growl are both valid and purposeful, and understanding my hunger cues has finally made me crave the choices that respect and honor my body’s needs.

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Body-Peace Resolution is Yahoo Health’s January initiative to motivate you to pursue wellness goals that are not vanity-driven, but that strive for more meaningful outcomes. We’re talking strength, mental fitness, self-acceptance — true and total body peace. Our big hope: This month of resolutions will inspire a body-peace revolution. Want to join us? Start by sharing your own body-positive moments on social media using the hashtag #bodypeaceresolution