Principle #2 of intuitive eating is “Honor Your Hunger.” Sounds simple enough, right? Eat when you’re hungry- although please note that it does not say “only eat when you’re hungry.” (Intuitive eating is not the hunger and fullness diet)!
When I was first introduced to intuitive eating, I thought I was already executing this principle. After all, I feared hunger, because hunger might drive me to eat something “unhealthy.” I showed up to friends’ houses with clementines and pre-portioned almonds and ate dinner before going out to restaurants where I would just sit and not eat.
Plus, I didn’t like feeling hungry- this, by the way, is normal. It’s supposed to be unpleasant to be hungry, because your body is telling you it needs energy to keep functioning. Your job is to listen and respond to those signals. (Which can be harder than it sounds!)
What does it mean to truly honor your hunger?
In retrospect, I most certainly was not fully honoring my hunger. First of all, I envied people who never seemed to get hungry at all. When I told my dietitian that I found hunger unpleasant, her response was something along the lines of “some people seem to have overcome that factor.” Which of course made me think, “Why can they deal with it and not me? Why am I so much hungrier than everyone else?”
Secondly, I had lots of sneaky little rules about when I could and could not honor hunger; that is to say, I had to wait until X amount of time after a meal until I had a snack. My rules tended to be arbitrary and contradictory, which I think is pretty common for people’s food rules.
Another common rule I’ve heard is not eating after a certain hour at night or before a certain hour in the morning. Listen, if your body were not meant to eat at that hour, your body wouldn’t be hungry at that hour.
(Also, I can’t believe I have to say this, but you can’t combine intermittent fasting with intuitive eating. The whole concept of intermittent fasting is means that you can’t eat at certain points. What if you’re hungry during a fasting period?)
If you’re hungry, you need to eat
The main purpose of eating is to give you the energy to continue with your day. (Of course there are other important purposes too, like enjoyment and social connection, but at the end of the day, without food, you cannot survive.) If you’re hungry, you need to acknowledge that without judgement and then eat something- not drink a bottle of water or a cup of coffee or chew sugar-free gum.
Even if you just ate. Even if it’s 10:30 AM and you’re hungry for a full lunch. Even if you normally have a smaller breakfast but wake up hungrier one morning.
Frankly, I’m not sure this post really needs science behind it, because this is pretty obvious. You probably have felt the physical symptoms of hunger. When you’re hungry, it’s hard to concentrate, and it’s hard to perform physical activity, and you’re not thinking rationally. You might even get “hangry.”
But there is so much bad information out there telling you that you aren’t really hungry and that your body is tricking you that I’m going to provide some science anyway. Hunger is controlled by two hormones, ghrelin and leptin, produced by your hypothalamus. When your body needs needs fuel, you’re hypothalamus secretes more ghrelin, increasing hunger and appetite. When you’ve eaten enough, it decreases ghrelin production and increases leptin production, decreasing hunger and appetite. That’s what’s going on in your body when you’re hungry, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Here’s some further information about this function.
Your hypothalamus actually help control lots of things other than hunger, like body temperature, sleep cycles, emotions, and water regulation. For example, when your body needs water, you become thirsty. Most people I know just drink something when they’re thirsty, regardless of the time of day or how much liquid they consumed yesterday. Why is hunger different?
Mealtimes are socially constructed
Something that really solidified the necessity to eat when you’re hungry regardless of what the clock says is being abroad and learning about the wide variety of meal schedules that exist throughout the world. Just because we (meaning the US, but also other countries) have decided that lunch should be 12-2ish and dinner should be 6-7ish doesn’t mean that those times are natural or innate
In Spain, lunch is served at 2-3ish and dinner at 9-10ish. And even later on weekends: dinner can start at 11 PM on a Saturday night. (Yes, people do snack. I really would not advise going that long without eating.) And to think, some Americans have deemed 8pm too late for a little snack because they think it will make them gain weight.
I’ve done a little research, and found some trends and some quirks. A morning breakfast, midday lunch, and evening dinner, with some snacks are common across the board, but the normal times vary. In Poland, people have their first breakfast before work and then their second breakfast around 10-11 AM, before having a midday meal at around 2 PM. Lunchtime in Finland can start as early as 11 AM. It’s true that most lunches are between 11:30 AM and 4 PM, and most dinners between 4:30 PM and 11:30 PM, but those are huge ranges.
Basically, the times at which you consider “acceptable” to eat depend on little more than the society in which you grew up/live. Therefore, the only reliable indicator of a mealtime is…when you’re hungry for a meal. (Check out this article from Scary Mommy about why her kids eat dinner at 3-4 PM. I can definitely relate to high levels of after-school hunger. Actually, through high school my after-school “snack” looked a lot more like meals: soup that my mom made, Amy’s burritos, leftover Chinese food…I didn’t fuss about it and I was definitely still hungry for dinner hours later.)
When I learned that my friend eats lunch at 11 AM a few months ago, I had a knee-jerk reaction that was more than a little judgmental. (Sorry, Sarah!) But you know what? That’s when she’s hungry. It’s just a time. And you know what? I eat food at 11 AM all the time. I just don’t call it lunch.
You can let your internal cues guide
Humans like to categorize things because it’s easier to understand them that way, but if labels like breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, dessert, etc. don’t serve you…you don’t have to use them. Well, you might have to use them when talking to people, but you don’t have to in your head.
You also don’t have to eat dinner just because it’s 6 PM (or whatever time you have deemed acceptable to eat.) If you’re not hungry (and don’t have a group dinner/other reason to eat even though you’re not hungry) you have permission to wait. You are not going to gain weight just because you eat at 4 PM. You are not going to gain weight just because you eat carbs, or sugar, or fat, or whatever after 9 PM. You are not going to gain weight because you eat more than 3 meals a day. (Like I said, I did this all through school, and I still do it sometimes!)
Something pretty silly: when eating dinner at 8:30 PM, an American might be feeling guilty for eating so late, whereas a Spaniard might be judging themselves for getting hungry so early. The problem here is not that it’s 8:3o PM. The problem here is the judgment and the guilt.
This does not mean you can only eat when you’re hungry
Clearly, most of us have fixed schedules to some extent. You should still eat if you’re not super hungry during your lunch break. My point here is not that you can’t eat when you’re not hungry. Rather, when you do have the flexibility to decide, you don’t have to eat on a schedule that doesn’t work for you.
You can eat lunch at 10:30, as would be perfectly normal in Finland. You can eat a second breakfast, and a third breakfast. You can split up your lunch. You can eat big meals with snacks in between, or smaller, more frequent meals.
What we do have evidence behind:
- Eating every 3-4 hours can help regulate your blood sugar, preventing it from dropping too low and leaving you sluggish or hangry.
- Eating breakfast is a good idea. (Your stress hormone, cortisol, peaks in the morning and doesn’t go down until you eat something. This elevated level can lead to muscle breakdown. Plus, it helps you concentrate and improves cognitive function.)
- When you’re hungry, that’s your body telling you it needs fuel. Eat. Even if you have a group lunch planned at 1 PM, if you’re hungry at 11 AM, you can have something to satisfy that hunger.
*Some people may not get regular hunger cues. If you don’t get regular hunger cues (or don’t get them until you’re absolutely starving), eating every 3-4 hours (maybe 3 meals and some snacks) every day will reset your body and allow it to start getting these hunger cues. If you have an eating disorder, please seek professional help.