The good news: we are born intuitive eaters. Have you ever had a meal with a toddler where they take two bites and then decide they don’t want to eat anymore, only to ask for the food again in an hour or so? This is an example of a person honoring their natural ability to intuitively eat and recognize their hunger and fullness cues. It’s something we’re born with.
Source: Michal Jarmoluk/Pixabay
The not-so-good news: we live in a world full of schedules, deadlines, commutes, and diet culture. The combination of all these factors sometimes can inhibit our ability to intuitively eat, and we deny or ignore our natural hunger cues.
Some background: intuitive eating is an evidence-based, anti-diet framework that was developed by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in the late 1990s. Intuitive eating is comprised of ten principles:
- Reject diet mentality
- Honor your hunger
- Make peace with food
- Challenge the food police
- Discover the satisfaction factor
- Feel your fullness
- Cope with your emotions with kindness
- Respect your body
- Honor your health with gentle nutrition
It's important to note that intuitive eating might not be easily accessible for everyone due to a variety of factors, including finances, geographic location, transportation, or other limitations to accessibility. Despite its many benefits, the concept of intuitive eating is not without its shortcomings.
Now, the fun part: did you know that you have four different types of hunger? Did you know that each type of hunger deserves to be honored without judgment?
“Honor your hunger” is one of the ten principles of intuitive eating. Sometimes, due to our busy lives and hectic schedules, it can become difficult to honor our hunger on a regular basis and eat intuitively. However, with a little awareness, education, and understanding, we can try to incorporate intuitive eating and honoring our hunger into our daily lives.
In addition to the ten principles, the intuitive eating framework also identifies four different types of hunger. Let’s dive into our different types of hunger and how we can try to honor them.
What it is: Simply put, physical hunger is what most people think of when they think of the word “hunger.” It can manifest as a growling stomach, a headache, feeling faint, or a variety of other physical symptoms. It is your body’s way of saying, “please feed me!”
How to honor it: In a perfect world, we would honor physical hunger by eating as soon as we notice these hunger cues from our bodies. However, we live in a busy and chaotic world, and sometimes it is not possible to eat at the exact moment that we feel the hunger cues. One way to combat this is to eat based on practical hunger (discussed below).
It could also be helpful to have some quick, easy snacks on hand throughout the day, so if hunger does strike during class or a meeting, you have a quick snack that is easily accessible, and you can satiate your hunger cues without too much disruption.
What it is: Taste hunger is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the feeling of desiring a specific food because of its taste (or texture, temperature, etc.). In the words of RDN Rachel Helfferich, it’s eating what “sounds good.” It’s the moment when you are in a dining hall or a food court with tons of different options for what to eat, you really consider what you are craving at that moment, and then you choose that food option. Unfortunately, diet culture sometimes gets in the way of honoring this type of hunger. When we engage in disordered behaviors, such as assigning moral value to food (foods are “good” or “bad”), or we become wrapped up in making the “healthiest” choice, we are ignoring and not honoring our taste hunger.
How to honor it: When you are faced with a decision of what to eat, take a moment or two to pause, breathe, and check in with yourself. Consider all of the food options that you have available and imagine what it would be like to eat each one of them. You might get a “gut feeling” when you imagine eating a certain food and have a moment of, “ah, that’s what I wanted.” When you have this moment, honor it. Try not to let diet culture or overthinking creep in. Let your ability to eat intuitively guide the way.
What it is: Emotional hunger is eating to satisfy an emotional need. A classic example is that cliché movie scene where the main character reaches for the pint of Ben & Jerry’s after a bad breakup. Emotional hunger gets a bad rap sometimes. People tend to assign moral value (“I’m so bad for having this”) to emotional hunger/emotional eating. However, eating to satisfy emotional needs is not an inherently bad thing. It can be a way to cope with emotions in the short term. Additionally, we can turn to food to satisfy positive emotions. Consider holidays like Thanksgiving, where food is a significant part of the day and is presented as a symbol of celebration and togetherness. Honoring emotional hunger is just as important to overall well-being as honoring any of the other types of hunger.
How to honor it: Allow yourself to use food as a way to self-soothe on a temporary/short-term basis. Do not assign moral value to any type or quantity of food, as this invites feelings of shame or embarrassment into the equation. Additionally, eliminate thoughts such as, “ugh, I’m so bad for having this,” or, “I need to hit the gym on Monday to make up for this,” from your vocabulary. We can feel free to eat for emotional reasons without having to feel guilty or “make up” for it.
That said, if you feel like your relationship with emotional eating is problematic and you are looking for a larger repertoire of coping skills, please reach out to a mental health professional who can conduct a more thorough assessment and provide additional assistance.
What it is: Practical hunger is the act of eating even in the absence of hunger cues because you know you might not have a chance to eat again for a while. This is arguably the most important type of hunger for people with busy or rigid schedules (students, teachers, people in jobs with long meetings) to learn to honor, as it protects us from getting too hungry (and hangry!) on those days where time just gets away from us and we might not have the opportunity to eat at the exact moment that our physical hunger cues strike.
How to honor it: Let’s say you are a therapist with back-to-back sessions from 5 to 8 p.m. Maybe you aren’t hungry for dinner yet at 4:30 p.m., but it’s the only chance you’ll have to eat for the next few hours, so you have something to eat before your sessions even though you are not experiencing physical hunger cues and it might be earlier than a traditional dinnertime.
With practical hunger, you can always check in with your hunger cues later on and decide if you need more food when you do have a chance to eat again, and then make a decision based on your intuitive self-assessment. However, by tapping into our practical hunger, we are protecting ourselves from getting too hungry and feeling the negative effects of restriction or lack of nourishment.
By honoring our four different types of hunger on a regular basis, we are communicating to our bodies the words, “I trust you,” and, in return, our bodies are learning to trust us as well. This mutual trust within ourselves and our bodies is critical to maintaining a healthy relationship with food, our bodies, and our mental health. As I mentioned above, it is important to note that intuitive eating is not always perfectly accessible for everyone, all the time. However, if we try to honor our hunger and respond appropriately as much as we can, in the best way that we can at that moment, the difference in our overall wellness will be invaluable.
A version of this article has also been published on Lukin Center for Psychotherapy's website.