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Hunger is a biological need. It’s helped us to evolve to where we are today as without it we’d have no motivation to seek out food which is something we absolutely need. To make hunger go away we have to eat…food. Not diet coke or a litre of water or herbal tea, food. But yet this requirement we have that’s as important as breathing has become almost pathologised in today’s society.
The cause of hunger is an intricate interplay of signals between your gut and your brain to tell you "hey we need some food" which motivates you to seek it out. Having regular hunger signals is a sign of health – when you’re ill that can sometimes play havoc with your appetite right? Hunger tells you that you’re digesting and metabolising the previous food you’ve eaten and your body is in need of more.
Ghrelin is a hormone in your body which stimulates hunger, whereas leptin is the counter hormone as it lets you know you’re full. These work together (along with a lot of other hormones and processes) to keep you seeking out enough energy to keep your body processes working. When we don’t have the diet mentality messing with our thoughts and feelings around hunger and fullness our body is highly tuned to regulate appetite. There are a lot of influencing factors to be aware of though too: stress, emotions, activity levels, illness, medications, smoking and ageing.
When you consistently ignore hunger your body goes into a semi-starved state and works to conserve energy stores by lowering metabolism while continually working to keep you obsessed with food. At this stage your body is fighting to maintain or regain any lost weight. This can push your set-point weight above where it would naturally be. Even when you come off a diet our body is still trying to compensate and ghrelin can even be elevated for up to a year after people have come off a diet.
When you continue to ignore hunger you can actually erode or blunt the signals your body is sending you. Your body learns that sending hunger signals doesn’t result in feeding so reduces them. Although we might feel like we’re doing our bodies good it can actually be detrimental to metabolic health. One recent study shows that eating in response to internal hunger can help with blood glucose control.
If this sounds like you and you don’t often feel hunger cues, don’t worry! You can get them back - how? By making sure you:
* Get rid of food rules, calorie counting or food tracking
* Consistently nourish your body with food (starting with 2 or 3 regular meals can be helpful)
* Start to check in with your body to determine where you think you are on the hunger scale
On the other hand sometimes it can feel like you’re hungry aaaalll the time, but it can help to re-frame hunger and how much food you need. You might not be eating enough and/or the right types of foods to maintain your fullness. The only way to get rid of hunger is (let’s say it all together!) EAT.
It’s not a good thing to try to eat as little as possible. I know I used to pat myself on the back when I’d eaten hardly anything in a day – how crazy is that?! But ignoring your hunger can wear away your connection with your body and internal biological signals and can actually be detrimental to your long term relationship with food and metabolic health.
Please don’t feel like tomorrow you have to be an expert at knowing your hunger and responding to it. It takes time. Go day by day, meal by meal and try to treat it as a journey of discovery, not another thing to beat yourself up for!