Am I hungry? We often say we are hungry. We mean it when we say it too. But do we understand what it means? If you were to describe what it feels like to be hungry, how would you? What does being hungry mean to you?
How do you know when forces other than hunger are driving you to eat? In a world where salty, fatty, and sweet food items are cheap and easily accessible, appetite becomes a dangerous drive. Our appetite exists as a survival mechanism from our ancestors who often died of starvation. During periods of abundance, appetite helped drive their intake above and beyond what they physiologically needed. Did they have a bountiful hunt? Was it time for the fruit to ripen? Then the tribe would feast. But when the hunt wasn’t successful or the frost lasted a little too long, the time of hunger came.
Food used to have seasons. There were times of abundance and times of famine. During abundance we would feast and our appetites drove us to eat more than we needed. We especially liked nutrients that easily filled our fat stores (sugary or fatty type foods). During times of famine, we then used those same fat stores to survive.
What happens when we live in a world where we have a constant, abundant supply of sweet, fatty, and salty foods? We feast far too often. Just look at where we are. As a population, two-thirds of us are overweight and obese. We have children getting obesity-related diseases and young adults suffering from diseases decades earlier than they otherwise would. Medical advances keep most of us living longer in spite of our choices, but what quality of life do we lead? It’s not a life of being active, independent, and healthy.
We rely on medicines to control what our body can no longer do. We never quite get to the gym because we get winded going to the mailbox. Our lawn mowers are self-propelled, and even though the store is just around the corner, it is always just easier to drive. As my stomach rumbles, I ask, am I hungry?
We starve our bodies of exercise and binge on Netflix instead.
Let’s look at eating in the context of how our body was meant to work. If we can redefine how we view these powerful drives, perhaps with that knowledge we can work towards honoring our instinctual drives for food. Then maybe, just maybe, we will start getting back towards a healthier weight and way of eating.
Hunger vs Appetite
The difference between hunger and appetite. This is one that seems to confuse a lot of people. Most people almost use the words interchangeably with no clear distinction in meaning. As forces driving our eating however, they differ significantly. What is hunger? What does it feel like? For me, it is a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. If I go too long without eating I start to feel weak and distracted. Oddly enough, I will even start to sneeze.
I want to first clarify that hunger isn’t when you drive by a restaurant and the food smells wonderful. Hunger is also not when you’re at your desk at 3 pm and start to feel a yearning for something sweet. That sensation is appetite.
I’ve worked to teach my kids these differences in the simplest possible way. Here’s a common discussion between myself and my 4-year-old son:
Him: Mom, I’m hungry.
Me: Ok sweetie, do you want some carrots?
Him: No, I want some crackers.
Me: You can have carrots, we just finished lunch.
Him: But I’m starving.
Me: Starving people eat carrots.
Him: Never mind.
This is the difference between appetite and hunger. How often as adults do we have this conversation with our inner 4-year-old? How often do we not even bother to ask the questions and just eat anyway?
To recap, hunger is our body asking for food. Appetite is our mind asking for a pleasurable experience. Feeding our desire for flavors instead of our body’s need for food quickly leads to weight gain. This would be fine if we still had times of famine, but without that, this habit leads to poor health.
Unfortunately, our appetites rarely drive us to eat broccoli. We often are focused on high fat, salt, or sugary items. Pizza, ice cream, chocolate, chips, and soda. In a world of abundant food, success through dieting is only achieved when hunger is fed and appetite is starved.
Full: Signs of Overeating
Now that we know the difference between hunger and appetite, we’re going to cover the relationship between being hungry (eating carrots) and knowing when you have had enough to eat.
I’ve taught nutrition at a local college over 10 years. Every single year, there is one discussion that is almost always the same. It begins with my question, “How do you know when to eat?”
“When you are hungry”, someone answers.
Then I ask, “How do you know when to stop?”
Silence. A room full of staring eyes.
Finally, someone will bravely say, ”When we’re full!”
“Nope. Try again”, I taunt.
More silence and more blank stares.
It never fails and, oddly enough, the same response comes from a room of kids as well as a room of adults. I don’t ask this as a trick question, it’s just surprising how so few people know when to stop eating. So, here’s a clue:
“You need to stop eating long before you are full.”
And this is where I think it gets interesting… to help my students learn when I educate on hunger or fullness, the key is to always take it back to thirst. Most people understand that.
“When do you drink?” (Ahem… water for the adults.)
Someone replies quickly, “When I am thirsty.”
“When do you stop?”
Hello silence my old friend.
Kids do best with this question, but usually an adult will figure it out too. “Not thirsty! I drink until I’m not thirsty.”
This is why thirst works when explaining hunger. We don’t drink until our stomach is full. Yet we don’t continue to consume water until one more sip would make us too uncomfortable and cause our stomach to hurt. We definitely don’t sit down and unbutton our pants after getting some water!
Do you see where we’re going? Right back to hunger!
I start round 3, “When do we eat?”
Easily answered, “When we’re hungry.”
Back again, “When do we stop?”
By then the room knows, “When we’re not hungry!”
So, what exactly does not hungry even mean? Don’t think of this as having a feeling of “fullness”, and it’s also definitely not “stuffed”. Basically, not hungry means that the gnawing feeling in your stomach has stopped. Fullness is different: fullness is when your stomach walls have to significantly stretch to accommodate the food. Stuffed is worse: stuffed is when your stomach has stretched so far it will be really uncomfortable, maybe even painful, to stretch it further. [Keep in mind that the more you stretch your stomach through overeating, the more used to the feeling it becomes. This causes the sensation of full to change, overeating becomes normal, and weight gain is inevitable.]
The technical term for when to stop eating is satiety. It occurs when your hunger is satisfied. Oddly enough, we don’t have a common term for that. Therefore, telling your dinner host no to seconds because, “my hunger has been satiated” will likely not get you a second invitation because it looks like you are only eating enough to avoid suffering from hunger pangs! Let’s go to water in the same scenario… when we decline a drink because we aren’t thirsty, is this okay? Yes! Perhaps then, using satisfied is a good middle ground?
One more piece to consider when solving the problem of knowing when you’re full is that there is a lag between your body being “satisfied” and your brain registering the signals. These communications between stomach and brain are regulated by hormones. It takes a little time for the hormones that tell us that we’re hungry to be switched off, and the satiety hormones to be switched on. This is an important detail, and because of that delay, it needs to be offset by simply eating slowly. You can slow down eating easily and politely by:
• putting down your fork between bites
• drink some water
• talking with the people at your table
• waiting 15 minutes if you are considering seconds
Pro Tip 1: Don’t eat in front of the TV! Reading all this, do you think it’s hard to tell what satisfied feels like while you are thinking about it? It’s nearly impossible to tell when you’re satisfied while engrossed in a TV show. We will eat significantly more in front of the TV for that reason.
Pro Tip 2: Use small plates and portions. You can always go back for more if you still feel hungry and you may just surprise yourself with how little it takes to feel satisfied.
Pro Tip 3: Do not clean your plate. It is worth repeating (say this with me): Do not clean your plate! For each and every meal or snack, try to leave some food behind. All too often we aren’t thinking about eating and plow through our food until the fork has scraped the last bite from the plate. When we eat like that, we are eating without being present or enjoying our food. Slow yourself down enough to make sure you never eat the last bite.
At first, this may feel strange. There will be a small worry that you will be hungry soon if you don’t get “full”. That’s perfectly normal and OK. Just box up half your meal for later. Also take a small bag of nuts and a piece of fruit with you. And don’t forget to remind yourself that food is literally everywhere.
Welcome to the Hunger Challenges!
Don’t think that you’re going to do all this learning and not have an opportunity to use this new information! I have 2 challenges for you! You can do these challenges individually or combine them into one event. Either way, you will enjoy some nice benefits.
Hunger Challenge #1
What does hunger feel like?
Learn what hunger feels like for you. For one week, only eat when you are hungry (meaning carrots and broccoli sound good).
A major benefit of eating only when you’re hungry is that normal unprocessed food will begin to taste so, so much better! If you were wondering if this is another built-in survival mechanism, you are correct.
What does it feel like? What did you notice? Was it easy or hard, and why? If you’re feeling adventurous, try it for six weeks.
Hunger Challenge #2
What does satiety feel like?
Learn what it feels like to eat only until your hunger is satisfied. For one week, eat slowly, have conversation, drink water. Leave some food behind at each meal. As you are focusing on your meal, only take each additional bite if you physically feel hungry. If the hunger pangs have passed, you are done eating for the time being. You are welcome to eat again as soon as the hunger feeling returns.
A major benefit of eating to satiety is that your stomach will “shrink”. You will start to feel satisfied with smaller and smaller portions, and you will naturally start to eat less. If adventure is your game, try this for six weeks.
When the time has passed ask yourself: How do you feel? How do your clothes fit? What happened to your weight?
Learning these fundamentals of hunger, appetite, and satiety and putting them into practice can drastically change your weight loss and health journey. It doesn’t even require that you diet! It’s just a couple of minor lifestyle changes that may cause you to find yourself waking up one morning pleasantly surprised.
I want to hear from you! Would you please take a moment to comment on the article below? Let me know what questions you have. What did you learn from putting these principles into practice. I look forward to reading your questions and observations!