Lesson three – How does hunger feel?

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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Getting in touch with hunger, and getting good at respecting its needs, is a crucial part in learning to feed yourself well.

If you’ve been dieting for a long time, or just eating chaotically and inconsistently due to practical or emotional constraints, you are very likely out of touch with hunger signals. It can help to have a primer to guide you in first identifying them for what they are – and what counts as hunger might surprise you a little.

Ellyn Satter describes the drive to eat as both hunger (physical) and appetite (aesthetic and emotional.) Hunger is what drives you to seek out food in the first place, to just get the job done with feeding, but appetite is what mostly guides the type of food you choose – something salty, something crunchy, something meaty…or something creamy, soft, and sweet.

Other intuitive eating approaches describe these drives as “mouth hunger” and “stomach hunger,” which makes a lot of sense and is easy to remember, but which, I think, leaves something to be desired.

For one thing, splitting the two into stomach and mouth leads to the tendency to de-legitimize and de-prioritize “mouth hunger.” It seems frivolous to our ears, because, in this culture we tend to give short shrift (at least theoretically, if not in practice) to mere food wants and desires, and give precedence to real, honest-to-goodness Nutritional Needs and Physical Requirements – of which your stomach alone is the judge.

Through personal experience, I’ve come up with a different version of the hunger/appetite, “mouth hunger”/”stomach hunger” dichotomy – both of which closely parallel mind/body dualism, which I still use to describe things to my students, since it is the language we largely speak as a culture, but which I try to get away from in theoretical work.

It’s a bit more complicated, but to me it legitimizes three different forms of hunger, all of which deserve equal attention. They are:

  1. Mechanical Hunger
  2. Aesthetic Hunger
  3. Chemical Hunger

Mechanical Hunger is the easiest to understand, and sometimes to recognize – it’s the feeling of an empty stomach, often accompanied by growling or churning, or a sense of hollowness or tightness in the stomach. (Keeping in mind the physical reality of the stomach – that it hovers higher up than most of us visualize, just below where your ribcage parts, close under the bust.) This is the hunger that, if you ignore it long enough, can go away altogether, or get really uncomfortable and lead into the desperation of Chemical Hunger (we’ll talk about that in a minute.) It’s something that many people I work with haven’t felt in a long time, but which is probably the most obvious of all the types of hunger.

Aesthetic Hunger is the longing for food – similar to what Ellyn Satter refers to as appetite, and what intuitive eating approaches refer to as “mouth hunger.” I use the word “aesthetic” because I believe the need for pleasure in food mirrors the human need for beauty – in this sense, the beauty of how food tastes and feels. But it’s more than just needing the taste and physical feel of food, it’s also eating for emotional reasons – celebration, grief, comfort, nostalgia. It is the need of enjoyment, since enjoyment is actually a critical part of good nutrition.

In national food surveys over many years, people consistently answer that the number one reason they choose food is because of how it tastes – enjoyment. The enjoyment of food is intrinsic motivation to eat, pure and simple – which means it’s more productive to work with it than against it. The need for enjoyment drives people to seek out flavours and textures, which in turn leads to experimentation and nutritional variety – a critical component of nutritional excellence.

Aesthetic hunger also drives people to practice their regional and cultural foodways, which in turn comprise a crucial part of one’s cultural identity and sense of social belonging (one of the fundamental steps on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.) And it drives emotional eating – again, a cultural practice institutionalized in the form of birthday parties, holidays, wakes, but also a legitimate psychological coping mechanism. And this is where eating competence parts ways with many other eating approaches.

Eating competence recognizes and legitimizes comfort eating as a thing that can actually do some good. It is not the dirty, shameful little secret that you think you’re hiding – it is something that all of us do. The problem, as Ellyn Satter explains, only comes when people do it poorly. They do it furtively, guiltily, without proper attention and enjoyment, and end up with more shame than comfort when all is said and done.

When done well, comfort eating can’t solve the underlying problems you’re experiencing, but it can distract you, soothe you, and provide a bright spot of much-needed – and harmless – pleasure on a dark day. Compared to many of the other distractions people may seek when they need an emotional lift, comfort eating is truly benign and can even be helpful. More than that – it is damn near universal. Lesson Four will go into more detail about comfort eating, and how to do it well.

Bottom line – aesthetic hunger is a legitimate need, since emotional health is a hugely important part of overall health, and because “when the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.”

Chemical Hunger refers to the feeling that lies beyond the garden-variety grumbly stomach. It is generally subtle, but if not attended to, can become a deafening roar. It is the sense that “something is missing” or something didn’t quite hit the spot. I often get this feeling when I haven’t eaten the amount of fruits and vegetables I need for several meals or several days. I also get this feeling after a stretch of illness where my appetite is shot and I can’t eat very much – when I start to recover and refeed myself, even when I eat enough that my stomach is physically full, there is still a gnawing sense in the background that my needs are not fully met, and it’s going to take several more meals before I get there.

Lastly, chemical hunger can come in the form I referred to earlier, in Mechanical Hunger gone too far – low blood sugar. That shaky, weak, lightheaded feeling you get when you’ve forgotten to eat entirely, or gotten stuck in traffic between work and dinner. These are not feelings that come directly from the stomach, but from your blood, your glycogen stores, and even sometimes depleted vitamin and mineral stores.

When chemical hunger is fulfilled, you won’t only get full, and the food won’t only taste and feel good, but you’ll feel satisfied for a while after eating, and maybe even get an overarching sense of vague well-being that follows you around over the days or months that your eating continues to be consistent, varied, tasty, and nourishing.

When you put regular meals, and the permission to eat them, into place, you will start to feel these signals more clearly. You will also start to learn what you need to do in order to satisfy them, by non-judgmentally observing what various foods do for you. You’ll notice which foods give you an emotional lift or satisfy a flavour craving, which foods and amounts give you the sense of fulness you like to have in your stomach, and what foods and combinations provide that sense of having “hit the spot.” You’ll also be far less likely to get into desperation hunger – the chemical hunger that indicates an acute deficiency of glucose, or longer-term deficiency of micronutrients.

When you make your hunger happy – in all forms – you’ll be healthier physically and emotionally. And you’ll be a lot closer to eating competence.

How do you feel your hunger, and what does it take to meet it? Dirty eating secrets revealed in comments.

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100 Comments

  1. Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    People who do long-distance bicycling (whether one-day rides or tours) get to learn about something called “bonking” in cycling circles (possibly others?), which is when your blood sugar crashes. (AKA chemical hunger.)

    The act of cycling distracts both your brain and body in such a way that you often don’t notice that you’re hungry until it’s too late. And there you are, pedaling along, having a great day, when all of a sudden: life sucks. You hate everyone. You hate everything. You have no idea why you decided this ride would be a good idea. You bite the head off of anyone who tries to talk to you. And you’re exhausted and you just want to go home.

    And you don’t even realize it’s because you’re hungry! If you’re lucky, the person you’re riding with realizes you’ve bonked and gets you to eat something. Or you decide you want a break anyway (since you’re tired) and figure you should eat something. And voila: your mood improves and your energy levels rise and you feel like a complete idiot for doing that again.

    I have done this more times than I care to think about. And slightly ironically, it happens more on days where the riding is easy, because I don’t feel the need for as many breaks. If I’m climbing some long mountain pass, I tend to stop every hour or more, but if I’m sailing along on a flat road with a tailwind, I hate stopping!

    I’m getting better about it, though. It really isn’t the end of the world to stop and nibble a few cookies/a Larabar/a handful of potato chips/whatever I brought. Even better is when I have a handlebar bag and can eat while riding!

    I also get chemical hunger when I haven’t eaten enough veggies. It’s the weirdest thing–I just start craving KALE. I mean, I love kale, but I will steam a whole bunch of it and eat all of it. NOM NOM KALE. Or, when bicycle touring, I’ll buy one of those big bags of broccoli slaw and just eat it out of the bag!

    • sannanina
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:22 am | Permalink

      I wish my dad would understand this. I get “bonked” a lot faster than he does for whatever reason. Whenever we start riding, I am usually the one pushing forward, but at some point my upper legs suddenly start hurting, I get all whiny and I hate the world – and I especially start being really annoyed with him because he ends to not take me seriously in these situations. I KNOW that eating usually helps. However, because he usually can go on for some more time feeling just great (and possibly also because I am fat and he therefore thinks that my hunger-feelings are not valid) it is really, really difficult to make him understand that, yes, I really need to stop and eat – and preferably more than an apple (a mixture of either fresh fruit and nuts or trail mix generally tend to do me a lot of good in a situation like this). To be fair, we usually don’t drink pure water on our tours but water mixed with fruit juice, however, at some point that just isn’t enough.

      • Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        Have you thought about getting a handlebar bag? If you can ride one-handed for a bit, it’s super-easy to stash trail mix or something similar in there, and nibble a bit at a time while riding. If you wear actual jerseys, you can use those big pockets for the same thing. I also know people who wear “hip pockets” (aka slightly more stylish fanny packs) for that purpose.

      • Anna
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        That’;s sucky of your Dad. You know yourself and your body better than anyone, and it also sucks not being taken seriously.

    • Alexie
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      What an interesting observation. Just before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had several weeks of intense anger and grumpiness, where I hated everybody and everything. I’ve spoken to other people with cancer who went through the same thing. But in all the cases, we had a late stage cancer, where we were beginning to experience cachexia, where the tumour was beginning to eat us alive. Tumours feed on sugar, so I wonder if it was stripping our systems of sugar and leading to the mood crashes.

      Since I got healthy again (ten months ago now), my mood has been very elevated. The obvious explanation is that having dodged a bullet and survived, it’s no wonder I’m happy. Except I think it’s being healthy that has changed my mood.

      These mood changes are so marked, thatI now believe we should all pay more attention to our moods and what they’re telling us about our nutritional/health status. Women, especially, tend to write off moodiness as hormonal, or related to an outside event.

      • JMS
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

        Alexie, that is such an important point. Cancer can affect so many of the biochemical systems that play into mood; the same goes for some other systemic illnesses (lupus, granulomatoses, Sjogren’s syndrome, congestive heart failure, kidney failure—I am sure the list goes on, but those are the ones I am familiar with).

        So glad to hear you’re feeling healthy now.

  2. Jerome
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article, as usual.

    I have a tendency to wait until my blood sugar is low and I start getting shaky before I “recognize” that I’m hungry (this is from years of an eating disorder). How do you suggest tuning into the subtler signals?

    • Posted December 6, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      By making sure you’re eating at regular times for a good two weeks or more – even if you don’t feel hungry. Set an alarm or eat by the clock if you need to. After a while of consistently eating every 3-5 hours, you will start to notice stronger hunger signals.

      • Alice
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:10 am | Permalink

        Is there a good way to decide what to eat and how much while doing that? I’ve had pretty much the same problem in the past and I tend to slip back into it when I’m understimulated or sad. Then I kind of go blank when I’m trying to decide what to eat and how much of it and end up not eating very much at all.

        • Wysteria
          Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

          Alice, I hope you don’t mind me tangenting off your comment, but you got me thinking about how I manage snacks – based on three axises, how much energy they take to prepare, how much I like them, and how long eating them will last me before I get hungry again. For low-mental-energy times I try to find foods that don’t take preparation, that I can stand to eat regularly most days, and that will last me about two/three hours. Another trick that works for me (and might not work for you, obviously), is that I try to only keep three to five different snacks on hand at any given time – that way I don’t get overwhelmed with choice – and I try to make sure my snacks come from different flavor/nutrition areas. Currently I have potato chips, string cheese, carrots, and mochi ice cream balls. I hadn’t conciously realized I tried not to have too much choice in my snacks until I started writing this comment, huh.

      • Jerome
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

        I’ve seen you say this so many times, I’m actually going to try it. Starting now. I had a large lunch earlier today (at about 1:00) and haven’t eaten since. I don’t feel physically hungry but obviously it’s been many hours (it’s almost 10:00 now) so I am forcing myself to have some hummus and crackers. I will let you know how this goes :)

        • Posted December 7, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

          Even one bite counts! Hope it goes well :)

          • Jerome
            Posted December 8, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

            And an update! This morning when I woke up, I didn’t feel too hungry yet but hadn’t eaten since the night before, so I remembered what you said and I had a Clif Bar (and a latte when I got to a Starbucks). And you know what? I actually feel better at work! (My job is from 3-11). And I even had a piece of bread for a snack a few minutes ago (my usual M.O. is basically nothing all day except for coffee and Diet Coke until dinner so this is a change). Anyway, I had to read this advice many times before I decided to try it but I’ll let you know how it goes!

          • Posted December 9, 2011 at 12:39 am | Permalink

            Hah! Awesome!

            You’re like your own little nutritional science experiment now.

          • Jerome
            Posted December 10, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

            Well..it’s continuing to go well! I’ve actually felt better for the last few days in a row at work, which is something. I haven’t noticed subtler hunger signals breaking through yet but believe me, I’m listening for them!

            My partner is also pleased because he (understandably) hates when I wait until I’m a diaphoretic, lightheaded mess before eating and it becomes an emergency…

          • Posted December 10, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

            Glad to hear it! And yes, desperation hunger can be a bit of a stress on relationships, haha. Keep listening…it can take a while (2-3 weeks sometimes) but they’ll show up. Honestly though, good work. I know this is hard.

          • Jerome
            Posted December 10, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

            Thank you! You are so awesome!! <3 <3

          • Posted December 11, 2011 at 1:06 am | Permalink

            That’s so awesome!!!

          • Jerome
            Posted December 12, 2011 at 12:17 am | Permalink

            Thank you!!

          • Alice
            Posted December 17, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

            I just have to say, I think what you’re doing is very impressive! It can be so hard to break ones eating habits and I also think a lot of people are reluctant to invest time and energy in their physical and mental well-being.

            Good for you that it seems to pay off!

  3. purpleshoes
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Back when I was trying to restrict my calorie intake when I was in college, I was often surprised by a big overwhelming wallop of chemical hunger in the evening, after a long day of portioning and focus on low-calorie food. I would often find myself absent-mindedly snacking in a way that at that point really distressed me – eating handfuls of dry cereal out of the box, for example, or eating ice cream a spoonful at a time and then closing the freezer and walking away and then going back.

    A couple of years later, when I’d stopped restricting and felt comfortable looking at the calories in food without getting wacky about it, I went back and looked at my food diaries and realized that I always stopped within a fifty-calorie range of a certain total number. I would eat my perfectly-portioned low-calorie high-fiber meals for the day and then I would have chemical hunger hit hard until I was exactly up to the number of calories that my body needed. And then I wouldn’t be hungry. At the time it was frustrating. Now I appreciate my body’s finely-tuned sense of what it needs as a gift. I’m glad I didn’t have the “willpower” to mess it up like I wanted to.

    These days I mostly notice my blood sugar dipping and my mood getting all foggy before I feel mechanical hunger. If I eat a very specific set of things – lots of protein, lots of vegetables – I get to feel mechanical hunger first, which is a lot more manageable a warning sign than suddenly being sleepy and grouchy. But that diet isn’t satisfying to me in other ways, so I just accept that my mood is going to be the early warning sign that it’s time to find a string cheese and an apple until I can make a meal.

    • sannanina
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:49 am | Permalink

      I experienced something similar a while back. I was counting calories at the time, and I had set myself a “target” number at 2000 kcal/ day. I have eaten far less on other diets without experiencing the same phenomenon, but something made my body react more strongly that time – possibly the fact that I started the diet at a time when I had been regaining after another diet and before I had gained back all the weight: My stomach was not growling, but I had a very, very strong drive to eat, so strong that I actually started crying a couple of times in the process of suppressing it. Whenever I gave in to the hunger, I ate 500kcal and suddenly I felt satisfied, could think about other things than food etc.
      What really pissed me off at the time was that when I mentioned the number of calories that I seemed to need in a day to truly function and feel “normal” (2500 kcal) to the therapist I was seeing back then she told me that that’s “a lot”. Newsflash: 2500 kcal is a TOTALLY NORMAL amount of energy for a woman of 240lbs who is extremely physically active (which I was at the time). Still – I told the same story to my current therapist a while back, and she asked me if I really was “hungry for food or for something else” back then. Well, if I had been hungry for “something else” I doubt that I would have felt satisfied after eating a very specific amount of food!
      (Note to Michelle: I hope it is okay that I mentioned the number of calories I was eating – I do not mean to imply that this is the amount of food everyone should eat but rather that even according to official nutritional guidelines the reactions of my two therapists were absolute bullshit.)

      • KellyK
        Posted December 11, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        One of the (many many many) things that irritates me about people preaching “calories in, calories out” is how often that ignores the fact that BMR is based on weight. According to an online calculator, I actually need 2600 calories to maintain a light level of activity. That sounds like a lot, but it actually isn’t. (I’m curious with how that matches what I’m actually eating, but I don’t think I’m quite at the point where counting calories would be a good idea.)

        I very vividly remember when we did this kind of calculation in health class. The day I tracked my food intake, I was very “good.” The only “junk food” I ate was a small Mounds chocolate bar—one of the mini ones. And I was shocked and horrified to discover that I’d eaten around 2400 calories. I remember thinking, “If this is me being “good” how much am I eating when I’m bad? I’m never going to lose weight ever!” I was on the track team at the time. I hesitate to say I was “running track” because the only running I did was the lap at the beginning of practice, but I was running and doing calisthenics and lifting weights and throwing heavy objects every single day. Yes, I did actually need those calories. (Points to my health teacher for explaining that very thing to me, even if it took a decade to sink in.)

  4. Posted December 6, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    I absolutely loved this post! I have always had a hard time distinguishing between mechanical hunger and aesthetic hunger. Once you brought “chemical hunger” into it, I had a better understanding of what drives me to eat the way that I do. You are right…learning to balance the three of these is key! Difficult, but key!

  5. Daphne B
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    What I really hate is that my hunger can manifest itself as nausea. Other times, nausea doesn’t mean hunger. And it’s hard to tell the difference.

    • Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

      Boooooo. But I bet lots of pregnant ladies can concur with you on this one.

      I sometimes experience hunger as nausea if it goes on waaay too long, or back when I was on the pill and got to experience faux morning sickness all the time.

      • Sarah
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 12:24 am | Permalink

        Yes — me too!

        Mostly, it happens to me when I let my mechanical hunger go too far. If I disregard the mechanical signals for too long, they vanish for 20-30 minutes, and then whammo — nausea-hunger. Or as I call it, a hunger emergency.

    • C
      Posted December 8, 2011 at 2:46 am | Permalink

      I get that too, especially first thing in the morning. It’s hard because then I really don’t want to eat and it’s hard to find anything that sounds good.

      Something that helps me, if I’m at home and it’s convenient? A spoonful or two of ice cream. Calorically dense enough to settle my hunger until I can eat meal-food, pretty much always sounds tasty enough to manage, and melts so I don’t have to have it in my mouth too long if that’s making me feel gross. Plus cold things help me with nausea, double bonus!

      • Wench
        Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        Denise, my hunger often manifests as nausea, too. And C, I often feel that way too in the mornings. One of the few things I can stomach are cookies. Sometimes Chips Ahoy!, sometimes Oreos, sometimes vanilla sandwich cookies from Whole Foods, but I (and my partner) know something is REALLY wrong when even cookies sound bad.

        The other thing I’ve found for myself is hunger nausea feels different than sick nausea for me. Sick nausea is more of a burbling, rumbling, where-is-a-toilet feeling, whereas hunger nausea is more of a painful tightness, and the food actively sounds gross to me feeling, which is absent from sick nausea. They both make me say “ugh I feel like I’m going to puke”, though!

        I’m working on just eating SOMETHING during those hunger nausea times, because the other thing I’ve found is that while all food may sound gross to me, once I start eating something it tastes pretty delicious to me. And it makes me feel better.

        And on a final note, a friend of mine uses a term for bonking that I particularly like, which is “hangry”. As in, the anger that results from hunger. When she shared that term for me, I felt so much better (kind of like I do reading comments here) – I am NOT alone!

    • Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      Please pardon the completely unsolicited advice, but I have almost exactly the same problem. One thing I’ve found that seems to help is to have a small amount of some drink with sugar in it (1/2 cup or so of soda, juice, milk, whatever I have, as long at it has some sugar). It’s not usually enough to make things worse if it’s true nausea, but even that little bit of sugar will usually be enough to kick-start my system and push me into easily identifiable HUNGER. Then I can just deal with it and eat something.

  6. Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    I’ve spent a year kinda recovering from too much vegetarianism, and a period of being vegan, and well, have introduced some meats over several months. Not red meat… yet… I’m not sure how I feel about it, I think it might be ‘good’, but clearly I’m still caught up in the notion of shoulds. I have this vague feeling that I think I would respond well to ‘paleo’ eating, but I have to keep reminding myself that I passionately hate diet systems, and it’s funny how the impulse to diet still arises. You know, when you think you’re finally alright, and suddenly you realise you’re still buying into stuff you really don’t want to be buying into. You’re still handing over your choices to someone else.

    When I was vegetarian, I sometimes felt like I ‘should’ have protein, but found most proteiney sources to be unsatisfying. When I started eating more butter and cream, that started to hit the spot. It was fat I was missing. I’m not quite sure what it is I’m trying to say. I suppose simply that the idea of hungering after something in particular has been confusing to me for some time, because my idea of what would be good to eat for academic or ethical reasons distracts me from what I want to eat. And the term aesthetic hunger fits well into my experience of trying to work out what I want to eat.

    In trying to allow myself freedom of food choices, I’m also aware my habits and patterns still inform a lot of my decisions. And y’know, sometimes it all feels rather complicated, and I don’t really know what I’m trying to say, except that clearly I feel a bit disconnected at the moment, and you have written a very helpful post!!! I’m so glad you write things! And stuff!

    • JP
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      I can really relate to this. I was a vegetarian for 9 years, starting when I was 12, and I watched my “health nut” mother go through all of these different diets (except you’re not allowed to call them diets if they’re “natural”). She tried raw foodism, vegetarianism, she took some mail order spit test that said she was gluten intolerant despite having no symptoms and quit eating wheat gluten for years. I think the reason I went vegetarian in the first place was because I watched my mother get a weird compulsive kick out of cutting certain foods strictly out of her diet for her health and sometimes even spiritual energy. She always acted like we ate differently from other people because we just knew more about what was really good for people and what was “toxic”. After I left home, I realized that the way we ate was weird, and that the nervous feeling I got every time I ate something I hadn’t watched someone prepare myself wasn’t normal. It was such a relief to give up vegetarianism and using food as medicine and just let myself rediscover what I really like and what made me feel good.

      tl;dr I hear you

      • Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

        Yeah. I hear you too. I never did the calorie-restriction thing, but did the ‘exclude-certain-foods-because-they’re-evil’ thing in spades! I read something somewhere recently… Can’t remember where… They said ethics doesn’t trump physiology. Which struck a chord. As important as I feel some ideas are, or were, I’m now trying to trust that my body knows better than my brain, to use the dualistic turn of phrase. Or to say it without the dualism: I know better than my education. But we’re told that we don’t, and we can’t…

        • Alice
          Posted December 8, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

          I do the “exclude food because of ethics”-thing too. I don’t want to stop (partly because meat feels kind of gross to look at or think about now, mostly because “ethics!”), but I do kind of feel like I probably should. Except I really don’t want to.

          It’s conflicting.

          • Alice
            Posted December 8, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

            Can you even have eating competence if you don’t eat certain foods? I mean, for reasons that aren’t related to allergies or taste preferences or such.

          • Posted December 8, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I believe you can. Excluding foods for ethical (or sometimes religious) reasons can be done in the context of eating competence – but it’s a really advanced skill that would fall at the top of the hierarchy of food needs, under “Instrumental Food,” meaning that you’re using (or excluding) foods for an extrinsic reason.

            The trick is to really understand your motivations for excluding those foods – if you’re doing it as an excuse to restrict foods, or if it’s truly because of your stated intention (ethical reasons, etc.) This can be a really gray area for people who have a history of restricted/restrained eating, disordered eating, chronic dieting, etc.

          • Alice
            Posted December 9, 2011 at 6:43 am | Permalink

            Thank you for answering! That’s nice to know – I’m not really sure what it means for me, but still.

          • Posted December 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

            I’ve been vegan for close to seven years, and I’m a pretty competent eater with a reasonably stable weight.

            But I don’t have a history of disordered eating.

          • Lucymaybe
            Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

            I had a long history of disordered eating (never clinically diagnosed) and see-sawing weight, but reached an almost-always-comfortable relationship with food and a stable weight a couple of years ago through conscious competent eating.

            I’d been a vegetarian for several years (so crossing the competency border about halfway through that period) and I became a vegan a year ago. Both of those choices were for genuine ethical reasons, and these days, even though I don’t eat animal products, I still feel like I have SO much more freedom about what I choose to eat than I did for all of those years of “eating everything” but not in a competent way. I eat a lot more things for much more varied reasons than I did back then. And I very rarely feel negative emotions about food anymore.

            So I guess I wanted to say that, in my experience at least, it’s possible to place boundaries around your food choices for personal ethical reasons and still eat competently.

    • Andrea
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      I’ve been vegetarian for over four years now, and I think you hit it when you mentioned butter and cream. I’ve felt a lot better since I’ve stopped eating no-fat dairy, and switched to whole milk, cream-top yogurts, and the like. I also seem to go in cycles (one week lots of beans, next lots of veggies, etc) and sometimes there’s cravings when I just need to have a certain food.

      I’ve had issues with doctors in the past putting me on very restrictive diets, but in the past couple years I’ve gotten better with recognizing mechanical and aesthetic hunger. It’s the chemical hunger I’m not quite good with yet. I tend to get really crabby and grouchy before other hunger symptoms set it.

      • Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

        I’m still a bit susceptible to the ‘hey this restrictive diet is going to fix all your problems’ lie, which sucks, but dairy especially is such a funny issue. I’d read all the stuff on how bad dairy is, so imagine my surprise when eating it started to correct a hormonal imbalance (low testosterone). That’s what low-fat eating does, I suppose: it messes you up.

        I also notice a cyclic trend, but only looking back, not forward. I might realise I’ve been eating lots of for the past few weeks, but if I try to plan eating lots of into the coming weeks, it never quite happens that way. There’s a cyclic thing, but I do not control it, it reveals itself. I find this very interesting.

    • Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      I’m currently vegan myself, and I’ve found that some of my vegan friends are on low-fat diets. I’m not trying to lose weight, but I do like being healthy, so I got a low-fat vegan cookbook from the library and tried making some items.

      And they were delicious and all….but I was hungry again within an hour no matter how much I ate. And so was my boyfriend!

      I just tend to feel better when my diet is fairly high in fat. When I hear people say that they tried to be vegan and were tired all the time, I sometimes wonder if they just weren’t getting enough calories. (All bodies are different, though, and I truly believe that some people are healthier when they eat meat, especially if they have a lot of food allergies/intolerances.)

      I’m not eating what I’d consider an excessive quantity of fat, but it’s amazing how much longer, say, oatmeal sticks to one’s ribs when I’ve added a dollop of coconut butter or oil. It’s so much more satisfying.

      • Jerome
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

        This. I’m also vegan, but not low-fat anymore, and have also found that a little bit of fat (soy butter or whatever) goes a LONG way towards helping me feel satisfied.

        • Posted December 8, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

          Earth Balance “buttery spread,” why must you be so expensive when you taste good in EVERYTHING?!

          • Jerome
            Posted December 8, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

            I know that’s right!

          • Posted December 9, 2011 at 12:39 am | Permalink

            THAT STUFF IS SO GOOD even though I am a butter girl.

      • Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:51 am | Permalink

        Something I found, which really surprised me, was that after I started eating a whole lot more fat, athletic plateaus that I’d been stuck on started to disappear. Well, maybe not quite like that, but my strength really started to develop, and I started building muscle, and I’d spent all this time trying to make sure I was getting enough protein – and I was getting plenty – but it didn’t help because it was the fat I was lacking. They don’t tell you that on the protein powder ads :P

  7. Alice
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    I also get that weird “haven’t eaten enough fruit or vegetables”-hunger. I can’t explain how I know that’s the problem, but it definitely is. For a while, I also tended to get really intense salt cravings. Turns out I have low levels of sodium, according to a blood test that I did for a different reason (thanks a lot, dietitians who recommend that everyone eats less salt).

    I’m pretty bad at noticing mechanical hunger, which I think is a result of having had an eating disorder, although I’ve gotten better at it. These posts are really helpful!

    • ako
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      I definitely get the “haven’t eaten enough fruits or vegetables” thing. Bringing a bit of fruit (most commonly berries) along with lunch has been really helpful on that front.

      I wish I got the salt thing, because I trained myself out of adding salt to things because it was popular health advice, and I’ve had episodes of horrible salt cramps (including one weird arm-pain thing that kept me awake all night before I figured it out), because I intermittently go through “Everything will be made from scratch!” phases. It would be useful if I started wanting salt before I needed it.

    • Anna
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      Oh man, the low salt thing! It is so driven in that you shoudl never put salt on anything ever because everything contains salt and OH MY GOD IT IS SO BAD FOR YOU.

      I used to get horrific cramps in my limbs, but everyone told me it was just growing pains. It wasn’t until I almost drowned that I brought it up with my awesome body positive doctor. He immediately realised I didn’t have ANY salt in my diet, and encouraged me to layer my food in it. Once I made an effort to put salt on my food a few times a week, I felt loads better.

      Same with food fats too actually. IT’S BAD FOR YOU ALL THE TIME YOU SHOULD NEVER HAVE IT. Except, you know, when your body NEEDS it.

      • Alice
        Posted December 8, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        I know! I was convinced that I was eating too much salt before I did that blood test.

        Your doctor sounds great!

  8. Alice#2
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Jean Antonello, RN, RD (How To Become Naturally Thin by Eating More, Breaking Out of the Food Jail, web site: naturally-thin.com) advises something that really helped me after years of trying to distinguish between “mouth hunger” and “stomach hunger.” Jean says, it’s just hunger, and to eat immediately, at the very first sign of it. Within no more than 5 min. of the first sign (or even thought, which usually just precedes the sensation) of hunger. I guess it means “Get into the kitchen and prepare something so by the time you’re hungry, something quick to reach for is ready.”)

    Not that I do this most of the time, or even a tiny fraction of the time. It’s still scary to eat so promptly, I tune it out, and get waaaay overly hungry at least part of every day. Usually up to between noon and 4 pm :( Then I’m overeating or craving sweets.

    But what helped was to stop trying to purposely wait for “stomach hunger.” That’s because by the time I feel hunger down in my stomach, I’m famished. Empty. And then I’m *really* bingeing on sweets and fats.

    Part of Jean’s stated reason for eating immediately is that dieters tend to procrastinate about eating, because dieting teaches us to fear awareness of hunger cues, and to fear responding promptly to them, because sticking to an undereating plan requires us to go hungry. So diets teach us to fear and tune out hunger, which can persist long after the official dieting has stopped. (So we get don’t eat “on time” to first hunger cues, get overly hungry, then we crave high calorie foods in binge quantities and voila, gain weight.) In my case, that first day on my first diet broke my natural responsiveness to hunger cues, and precipitated 35 years of weight gain.

    So to counteract that tendency, or to break the habit of it, Jean says to eat right away.

    The other reason is that at the first thoughts or sensations of hunger, the cravings tend to be for foods lower on the food chain: lighter, high fiber foods, such as fruits and veggies, or beans.

    At the first sign of hunger, I typically crave a salad, or a piece of fruit. If I wait a little longer, it’s fruit juice, or a sandwich. Longer: very rich sandwiches or meal food, or full meal. Even longer: animal products – meats, lots of cheese or other dairy; chips, fast food. Super long: sweets, cookies, ice cream.

    So I find that it pays to respond promptly, because then I’m more likely to get in the lighter and higher fiber foods I need, satisfy my needs for the vitamins and minerals in fruit and vegs, and satisfy my needs for simple sugar with fruit. It doesn’t mean not eating more substantial foods afterward, or a little later, it just helps ensure getting in the needed lighter foods.

    Now if only I could get myself to consistently do this! That is where I tend to need to have regular or planned meals throughout the day, b/c eating all day just responding to hunger cues is still waaaay too hard for me. So I tend to do a bit of a hybrid (that is, when I’m not still skipping breakfast :(( )

    A local brilliant RD, Veronica Benjamin, whom I heard speak at an ED conference as she specializes in EDs and is very HAES friendly, panned intuitive eating.

    I was shocked.

    When I asked her why, she replied, “Intuitive eating is the PhD is eating. Most people in this culture have absolutely no idea when they’re hungry!” She recommends almost everyone begin with a non-undereating meal plan (and to eat til full, regardless), and then advance to intuitive eating as hunger signals get clearer. That’s what people in eating disorder clinics are taught, apparently. I think this makes sense for HAES, as so many plus-size people with a dieting history are equally out of touch with hunger cues, so going directly to just eating whenever we’re hungry, whatever we’re hungry for, is waaay too big a leap. Though kudos to those who can make that leap right away. Wish I could, but it doesn’t work out.

    Thanks for this post. I appreciate your acceptance of moving away from strict “stomach hunger” recommendations.

    • JMS
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      I find the first person you quoted made some good points, but her site’s underlying premise that everyone who is fat “overeats” and that everyone who is in tune with their body’s hunger cues is thin, strikes me as so completely bizarre.

      (And contrary to evidence, which shows that people experiencing binge eating and compulsive eating issues fall into all BMI categories, and than only 5 to 8% {depending on which study you’re reading} of people in the “obese” BMI category experience binge eating and compulsive eating issues.)

  9. Alexie
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    The body building community write a lot about the intense hunger that comes after they’ve been doing competitions. They have to strip their body fat down to dangerous levels and then the day after a competition, they get hit by hyperphagia, where the urge to eat becomes so overwhelming it can’t be stopped by will power alone. They have all sorts of strategies to deal with this.

    This same thing happened to me after a year of not eating very much. When I started eating normally, I was hit with intense hunger that had me scrambling to eat things that were frankly awful – raw pancake mix. I didn’t even want to eat the stuff, but was nevertheless driven to devour anything that was close to hand.

    Having read the work of Rudy Leibel, who has chronicled many of the hormonal and chemical strategies the body will use to defend its fat stores, I now think I was experiencing something similar to the body builders. The body simply will not be denied and it will start pumping out ‘eat’ signals until all the depleted nutrients and fat stores are restored – the stories above about people eating to a specific number of calories and then feeling satisfied bears that out.

    I keep a food journal and one day suddenly realised that if I had a day of not eating as much as usual, the next day I would eat more than usual to the exact number of calories that were missing the day before.

    (By the way – this is a wonderfully written and intelligent post. I really wish you would post on your blog more often.)

  10. Elisabeth
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this, particularly the categories and definitions; it makes it much easier to sort out what’s going on with me. While I consider myself to have a generally positive attitude about food and nutrition, I have a tendency to not eat regularly when I’m dealing with trauma or very high stress, and thus to forget to eat until I’m at the point where I can’t think clearly about what to eat. I’ve spent pretty much this entire year going through one big trauma with multiple events, and I also developed a disability that makes eating difficult mechanically AND interferes with how my tastebuds work, so my ability to eat in a way that is useful for me in all three categories is pretty well shot. I’m aware enough of the issues that I manage the mechanical hunger more often than not, but I have continually fallen down on chemical hunger, because sometimes I just can’t physically stand to eat enough food to satsify all the needs, or can’t taste the thing that I or my body wants. (I cannot begin to describe how frustrating it is to want something like a crisp, acidic white wine and have it go metallic in my mouth, or be literally unable to taste salt, particularly when what flavor I can’t taste varies from day to day or even by the hour.) I don’t consider myself to have an “eating disorder” in the classic sense or to have bad eating habits, by the way I eat has certainly become disrupted. Knowing that there are three different categories I’m working with will help me sort out which one I’m trying to satisfy when it seems that feeding myself has gone all to hell.

    I am also one of those people for whom hunger can manifest as nausea, both mechanically and chemically. That sign, at least, is one I can read clearly, but it also means I’ve gone waaaaaaaaay past the point where I should have been eating. And I understand the “haven’t had enough vegetables” chemical hunger; I told a friend once that “It’s not dinner without vegetables.” Of late I’ve struggled more with a carb/protein balance (which is also critical to my particular blood sugar); even when I eat plenty of food in volume, I sometimes realize afterwards that I haven’t hit that particular combo correctly for my needs. I’ve learned that I always need to have whole-grain breads or crackers that I can eat with cheese or peanut butter to hit that “sweet spot” for myself when other meals haven’t done it, and that it’s perfectly fine to have that snack late in the evening or after lunch even if I’ve otherwise eaten large meals. And sometimes it’s genuinely a requirement that I eat pizza or mac&cheese to satisfy that need, both mechanically and chemically.

    (This might not really qualify as a practical “how do you deal with this issue” comment. But I’ve struggled a lot with it over this year, because I really do enjoy food, and it’s been heartbreaking to watch my eating so affected by these other issues, and thus it’s a relief to be able to talk about it in a relevant environment.)

  11. JMS
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    So I am in the third decade of recovery from disordered eating via calorie restriction, and just starting my second decade of recovery from dieting (i.e., socially sanctioned disordered calorie restriction).

    And I am having some severe stomach issues that the gastroenterologists haven’t been able to figure out. Which has really played havoc with my ability to feel hunger cues, or when I feel them to respond to them.

    What I should be doing, per my treatment plan, is having a number of small meals each day and seeing that each one is as calorie-dense and nutrient-dense as I can make them. It is SO HARD to do this, just because of the years of programming to do things in reverse. It’s also hard to do this because my illnesses (of which the stomach thing is only a part) sap my energy and make it hard for me to cook and prepare meals, so prepackaged foods would help—but they’re all trying to be as calorie-sparse as possible.

    If I could reliably find full-fat yogurt, for instance, that would be a huge plus. HA! Or a frozen dinner that had more than 300 calories in it. Or, or, or.

    • KellyK
      Posted December 9, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      I also hate that frozen dinners tend not to have enough calories to make them an actual meal. I have noticed that the pot pies usually have more calories than some other things. Also, if you walk past the diet section, there are the more general frozen dinners: Marie Calendar and Banquet and Hungry Man. Those tend to be much more filling than the Healthy Choice or Smart Ones or the like.

      I also like to get things like Lean Pockets where a “serving” is two sandwiches and just eat both of them.

  12. ako
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Eating competence recognizes and legitimizes comfort eating as a thing that can actually do some good. It is not the dirty, shameful little secret that you think you’re hiding – it is something that all of us do. The problem, as Ellyn Satter explains, only comes when people do it poorly.

    This is a very good point. Comfort eating covers a wide range of behaviors, only some of which are a serious problem. Certainly, if someone is regularly making themselves physical and/or emotionally ill from comfort eating behavior, it’s a good idea to seek help. But that doesn’t mean that everyone (or every fat person) who goes “It’s been a long, hard day, and I would quite like a cookie” has a problem.

    It is generally subtle, but if not attended to, can become a deafening roar. It is the sense that “something is missing” or something didn’t quite hit the spot.

    I know that one. It’s part of the reason why I tend to watch myself if I find I’m starting a ‘healthy’ eating kick. Because loads of fruits and vegetables are all very well and good, but I need a reasonable quantity of protein and fat in there, and a light sprinkling of tofu and olive oil in with the vegetables isn’t going to do it. (Big slices of tofu fried up with mushrooms and onions, on the other hand, can be just about perfect.)

  13. Anna
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    This is quite timely for me, and it makes a lot of sense. I’ve been making an effort to eat more vegetables lately, including bringing a small box of frozen veggies with me for breakfast to work.

    Yesterday, I had the most horrible feeling of being ridiculously bloated and full, but also ravenously hungry. I hadn’t eaten anything except vegetables and tea all day. I made some salmon and cous cous to eat, which I normally have with frozen veggies. I used less than half that I would normally use, because the idea of eating any more than that actually revolted me. Once I had eaten the salmon, I felt great again. I was full, but the bloated feeling had gone away. I had my veggies this morning without feeling revolted at all.

    It makes me really grateful for how balanced our bodies are. Intuitive eating is so great and my body keeps my mind in line when I decide to change my eating habits. After years of disordered eating, it’s really nice to have that balance, and that guidance.

  14. jaed
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    For me it’s usually protein. I can feel the lack, and I call it my cells being hungry. It’s become very recognizable – if I have that feeling, eating a piece of bread or an apple will do nothing except make me feel vaguely nauseated. A good-sized piece of meat or fish or cheese, though, and my cells will be satisfied enough to all stand up and cheer and do a little conga-dance. ;-)

  15. mara
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    This is very illuminating! here I’ve been thinking that I’m very attuned to when I feel hungry. Fact is, though, what I almost always end up feeling.. or, anyway, noticing.. is chemical hunger. It can hit me hard – shakes, queasiness, that lightheaded feeling if I wait too long.

    So, okay, would mechanical hunger necessarily come before that? I wonder if I’m just not noticing it. One factor might be.. I just eat so much more, generally, than I used to. I have no idea how much, really, but I don’t think it’s any numerically astronomical seeming amount. Probably between 2000 and 2500 calories? But I’m also pretty sure I’m eating about twice what I did at one time, and what I used to think of as ‘normal’ and desireable.

    So, it still amazes me how quickly hunger can hit – and that’s chemical hunger, by the time I really notice it. Maybe I just overlook everything before that, thinking that it’s ‘too soon’? On the other hand, I don’t go for long periods of time without eating. I seem to get hit with chemical hunger about every 4 hours. At which time I most definitely eat. I hate that chemical hunger feeling.

    So, I guess I am doing sorta okay with the eating competence, only I’m really curious about whether there are more subtle mechanical cues that I’m just not registering.

    I love and agree with the aesthetic hunger notion!

    • KellyK
      Posted December 9, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      The thing with chemical hunger is that you can get enough *calories* but not the right balance of nutrients and still feel it. So even if you had food not too long ago, it’s entirely possible for your body to need something else or something more.

      • mara
        Posted December 9, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

        You know, this is all very… illuminating! I know I said that before! Okay, so, I can understand how that would be true. But when I apply it to ME, what I find I want to do is to tell my body not to be so ‘spoiled’! Like, how could I need all that food, and then even more because I need other nutrients even though I’ve already eaten enough calories? I don’t question that for a moment in principle, or if I apply it to someone else. It’s just a leftover little pocket of thinking from my eating disordered days, I think, and one that I didn’t even know I had! So, yes, very eye-opening.

        So, after reading this post, I tried to pay attention to mechanical hunger and I found that I DO feel it. I do! But, you know what was throwing me? It doesn’t feel BAD! It’s that stage where my stomach just feels a little bit empty and I can tell that it would feel good to eat. I think I was feeling that all along and totally overlooking or discounting it because it seemed like… not enough of a ‘justification’ to eat. I don’t know if that’s quite an accurate expression of how I feel, but it’s something like that. It’s like, if I let mechanical hunger tell me that it’s ‘time to eat’, I feel like I would be eating constantly. But I know that isn’t true. It’s a leftover thing from when I actually was trying to eat less or delay eating. I don’t do that anymore, but .. some of the learned behaviours remain and mess with perceptions. So interesting!

        In a sense I’ve been leaning on that feeling of chemical hunger because it’s so uncomfortable and insistent, so then I can claim some sort of moral high ground, lke, “see, I’m eating this sandwich now because I HAVE to – because if I don’t I will shortly feel like I’m going to die!”

        That, I can accept for myself – and I don’t try to control the number of calories or the type of food, and I don’t stop as soon as I feel full. But I still have this nagging voice in my head that says that eating when I first feel those gentle cues of hunger is just pure self-indulgence! And then I start thinking of all the people who survive on a bowl of rice a day. Which is real, of course. But does me not taking proper care of myself help them? No.

        Okay, that’s interesting. Now how to get rid of that voice?

        • ako
          Posted December 10, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

          And then I start thinking of all the people who survive on a bowl of rice a day. Which is real, of course. But does me not taking proper care of myself help them? No.

          I get that train of thought myself and I hate it. Of course, it’s popular to contrast fat Americans with starving people in developing countries and imply the first group is somehow to blame for the second. The thing is, I’ve been to developing countries and talked to a lot of poor people, and I know better than to think they’re all universally thin (famine victims may all be skinny, but there are definitely mid-sized and fat people in slums and shanty towns), or they would all hate me for being fat, or there’s a magic pipeline that takes the food I don’t eat directly to them. (It’s weird how hungry people in developing countries get used both to pressure kids to finish a meal in the “Eat, there are staving children in Africa!” speech, and to guilt adults for eating, as if they had nothing better to do than sit around judging the eating habits of Westerners.) Still the thoughts pop up once in a while.

  16. Rebecca
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    I get the vegetable thing too, I don’t know HOW I know it but I’ve been craving steamed broccoli all week because we’re moving house in a few days and I haven’t had the time (or cooking implements that are not already packed away) to cook anything that doesn’t come out of a box or from a drive thru window…I’m going to hunt down some steamed vegetables and rice for lunch at work today if it’s the last thing I do, lol.

    I wonder how we know this, though, because I get a similar feeling sometimes that I *think* is the vegetable thing, but vegetables don’t fix it, and I can’t work out what it is I am missing. It’s like I know I need something but I don’t feel like anything in particular so I just eat a bunch of random stuff and eventually the feeling goes away, it’s weird.

    • Posted December 9, 2011 at 12:38 am | Permalink

      I just go by the trial-and-error method: I think I want broccoli, so I try it. If it doesn’t hit the spot, then I wait till I’m hungry again and try something else.

      It’s hard to pin these things down exactly, sometimes. In general, cravings lead you toward eating variety, which is what will eventually cover all your bases and answer all your cravings.

  17. Posted December 9, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    I am wondering if I’ve “trained myself” to not feel hungry at times. And somehow – consciously or unconsciously- decide whether to allow myself hunger based on what I’ve eaten that day. For example, this past Wed. by about 1:30 in the afternoon I’d eaten three times – breakfast at around 7 am (oatmeal with hemp hearts & flax seed), a mini-meal around 10 am (some leftover vegetable brown rice casserole w/ cheese & almonds) and a savoury cheese scone around 12:30 or 1 pm. I literally felt no hunger until at least 5 pm that day, yet only had a little bit of supper which was some beef tortellini w/ sauce and mixed vegetables. I denied that 5 pm hunger to a point I think, mentally telling myself that the items I ate earlier that day were a lot so I didn’t need much supper. I have no clue how many calories I had. By the time I went to bed, I was feeling mechanical hunger. I don’t remember if I had a snack or not before bed. I was pretty hungry and pale the next morning though. Eating til full at every meal and snack terrifies me. I also don’t know how many calories I need to eat but my energy sure fluctuates. Seems to be a bit better on days I eat more. How does one figure how many calories you need? Based on one’s weight?

    • ako
      Posted December 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      It can be weird to eat what seems like a lot of food and still feel hungry later. I get that sometimes. It can happen if I eat a lot of bulky but low-calorie foods and not much else, or if I do something exceptionally active, or sometimes if I’m coming down with something or have been eating just a touch too lightly all week and need to balance things out.

      Why does eating til full scare you?

      • Posted December 10, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        Eating til full scares me b/c of the possibility of weight gain.

        • ako
          Posted December 10, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

          Ah. The causes of weight gain, weight loss, and weight maintenance are really complicated, and the amount of calories a person needs varies according to circumstances and can fluctuate on a daily basis. There are plenty of places on the internet that will come up with a number of calories someone your size is supposed to eat, but trying to stick to a particular number would probably still give you similar
          problems in terms of hunger and fluctuating energy level. Eating regular meals of however much food your body wanted would probably leave you feeling a lot better and having more energy, but may or may not leave you with a weight that’s as low as you want. (Some people don’t gain anything when eating as much as they want, some people
          temporarily gain and have it drop off again, and some people stabilize at a higher weight.) Then again, most people who chronically restrict don’t maintain a stable body weight either.

        • Posted December 10, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

          I know a lot of people who feel this way. It is scary, at first, and you may even gain weight if you’ve been chronically restricting your food intake and thereby suppressing your weight (although, I have to say, lots of my clients do not gain any weight once they start eating to their appetites – they merely stabilize.) But your body has a place it wants to be, and unless you’re willing to devote a lifetime of attention, and possible disorder, to keeping it from that place, it’s going to find a way to get there eventually. It may as well happen while you’re eating healthily and taking care of yourself, rather than as the result of a “falling off the wagon” episode that amounts to a months-long (or longer) binge where you feel terrible about yourself.

    • Posted December 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      You can do a calculation based on height, weight, age, sex and activity level (or illness/inflammation level for hospitalized patients) to get a really rough picture of how many calories you need, but even this calculation varies widely from person to person – I’ve heard figures of as much as 20-30% more or less can be needed than the calculation states, given the individual.

      Your stomach, small intestine, pancreas, fat cells, muscle cells and liver are a far better calculator of calories than that equation will ever be, and they will tell you to eat more or less through your hunger, if you let them.

      Hunger signals can disappear if you ignore them or don’t consistently respect them. Also, some days you WILL be hungrier than others, because every day is different, and you expend more energy some days than others – and to complicate matters more, you might not even get compensatory hunger for those expenditures until a day or two later – so you may feel like you’re “inappropriately” hungry on a really restful day, or not very hungry on a super active day – when, in fact, your body is working out its own nutritional agenda based on the big picture, not on today, or this meal, or how many calories you used by moving around at the gym this morning. And to go one step further, calorie expenditure happens not just through physical activity, but through hundreds of different body processes, all happening in the background, that you will be totally unconscious of – and these may change your needs from day to day.

      If you have more energy on the days you eat more, then it’s probably because you need that food. Calories are energy, literally. If you’re not eating enough, you will feel like crap.

      • Posted December 11, 2011 at 1:21 am | Permalink

        Oh, that speaks to me. I used to find it really, really strange how on some days I was uber-hungry, and how on others, I wouldn’t need to eat much to feel satisfied. I never counted calories, but I did notice the simple quantity I ate varied hugely, and I couldn’t link it to anything obvious – exercise or lack thereof, emotional things, or what I might or might not have eaten over previous days.

        Something that I still catch myself doing from time to time, however, is silently, in subtle ways, congratulating myself for days when I’m not hungry. And on days when I’m more hungry, I sometimes get down on myself, feeling like I ‘should’ be less hungry.

        It doesn’t come up much any more, but it’s funny how I notice these old patterns still make themselves known when I’m stressed about something else. Two steps forward, one step back perhaps… You think you’ve fixed something, but sometimes it’s a little shaky. At any rate, I’m much better at noticing signs of stress and the effect they have on me now, which is good, because I have better skills of taking care of myself. One thing I’ve taken to doing includes a bit of a mental check list: I’m stressed. Hmm, am I hungry? Have I fed myself enough today, without judgement? What do I feel like? Eat, then work out what to do next.

      • Posted December 11, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

        Very awesome explanation..esp. about the “later hunger” signals a day or two later after a more physical day. thanks Michelle

  18. Heather
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Is it possible for a child to not recognize the feeling of hunger? My son, who just turned 6, has only said “I’m hungry” twice in his life, that I know of. I’ve seen him melt down when it’s been too long since he’s eaten, but he doesn’t verbalize that he’s hungry. He has some other sensory quirks, so it wouldn’t surprise me if hunger felt differently to him… but is that even possible?

    We’ve tried to follow Ellyn Satter’s methods of feeding children, have regular sit-down meals together and regular snacks, offer a variety of food but don’t require him to eat anything nor restrict him, so I don’t know of any reason that he would have gotten out of touch with hunger signals. I guess I’m wondering if some people are just inherently less aware of hunger?

    • Posted December 10, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      I think it might be possible due to some underlying problem, but I am not even remotely an expert on childhood feeding – my friend Katja, however is – http://www.familyfeedingdynamics.com – and I’m sure she’d give you some interesting insights.

      The only thing I can say is: if there has been any pressure from you, real or perceived, on him to eat, and if he’s a sensitive kid, then it can take a very long time of consistently feeding by the Satter method to really see your child start eating “normally.” I don’t want to suggest you haven’t tried very hard, and I have no idea how long you’ve been doing the sit-down meals and all, but I just want to emphasize that it’s something that can take months to years, especially in kids who are very sensitive to pressure or have other feeding issues at play.

      • Heather
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        Hmm. We have done sit down meals and snacks and division of responsibility his whole life. It’s how I was raised as well, so reading Satter’s and Katja’s work has been like confirmation of what my instincts were telling me.

        My son has been in daycare and is now in school, so there is certainly the possibility that he gets pressure at mealtime outside the home. I feel like he eats normally for a kid (sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, a bit picky but slowly incorporating new foods). He seems to come to the table ready to eat most of the time; he just never verbally expresses hunger and I wonder if it’s because he doesn’t recognize the feeling or just has never gotten in the habit of using the phrase “I’m hungry.”

        • Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

          Yeah, I would also be inclined to wonder if there’s something else going on there, since you sound like you’re really consistent with feeding him. There could be a sensory issue, or just a miscommunication, but it certainly is puzzling. Maybe he knows you will feed him so consistently that he never feels the need to say “I’m hungry” and ask for food? In a sense, that could be a good thing, because lots of kids are worried about getting enough to eat consistently, and will then panhandle for food all the time. But I also wouldn’t think that NEVER EVER expressing hunger is normal.

    • KellyK
      Posted December 11, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      My (completely uneducated) guess is that other sensory issues or differences in how he perceives hunger from how the people around him do could have an effect–either that he doesn’t experience it the same way or that he doesn’t link the feelings he’s experiencing with the word “hunger.” There’s a wide enough variation in how people experience hunger anyway, combined with the fact that kids are really literal-minded. (Like, if he’s used to thinking of hunger as “your tummy growling” but feels it as more of an ache, he might not be making that association.)

    • newt
      Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      I was so used to meals appearing in front of me on schedule, as a child and teenager, that I had some adjustment trouble my freshman year of college, because I didn’t have enough instinct to go look for food, or I didn’t get myself to where food was until I was desperately hungry.

      I do remember saying, “that smells good, I’m hungry” as a kid, and helping myself to snacks in the evening if I had stayed up late, or even sometimes, “is dinner ready yet?!/ what’s for dinner?” but I think there were also lots and lots of times when I got hungry without noticing it, and then food appeared, and nothing was said.

      (It all worked out fine; I got a grip on preparing food, without major weight gain, loss, or dysfunction, it just took some time.)

      Oh, but I did have an ugly summer school experience, at age 14, in which I was fed low-fat cafeteria food and prohibited (by time constraints) from going back for seconds. I was cold and sleepy all the time, and miserable, and didn’t understand what had happened until I came home and recovered.

  19. Fromthefuture
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I am so glad you mentioned “chemical” hunger. I had never heard of this before, and I feel a lot better now that I have. Two years ago I came home from college having been prescribed adderall for a time. I shouldn’t have been prescribed adderall, as it was a very harsh, cocaine-like drug for me and my particular brain. I had already had an eating disorder of sorts, I was terrified of certain foods and had whittled my safe foods down to basically nothing, but once I started taking stimulants it was game over. Like, the only thing that kept me from getting scurvy was the pineapple juice I mixed with my parrot bay. (Ahem, it was a hard, mentally ill year) ANYWAY I have always been a small girl, and the complete stoppage of consuming food saw me lose about 15 pounds. My hair fell out. A lot of it. That which didn’t sort of got that “troll doll” feel. My mouth and lips also bled, all the time, which was gross. I didn’t know that I didn’t feel good (an understatement) because I was high as a kite 100 percent of the time. When I went off the stuff though… I came home and went off it, and didn’t have any withdrawal, really, except that I was suddenly very hungry. I also couldn’t even walk, not even a block, without blacking out. All I could think about was food. I wasn’t mechanically hungry, I was just… I couldn’t explain it. I was terrified. I couldn’t control what or how much or when I ate, and I didn’t understand why. My stomach didn’t feel hungry any more often than it usually would, but my entire life had suddenly become food. I tried to restrict as much as I could, because I was afraid of gaining weight, as I actually enjoyed being that thin, at the time, because I was very sick. The lack of control, also, was terrifying. My body beat me every time. I would have eaten wood if I could’ve. It was insane. I was filled with self-loathing all the time, because the people around me could eat, then uh, not eat for several hours. I would eat and then still be unable to keep my shit together without eating more. I’d say I gained 20 pounds in two months, though I don’t weigh myself. So five pounds heavier than before the adderall. Shouldn’t have been a big deal. Anyway, about six months later I found that I was five pounds lighter, judging by the pants judgement. And I can go hours without eating and my hair is the kind of hair that people ask me about, because it is now thick and shiny and stuff. And I do NOT eat healthy. I just EAT.
    I was so terrified at the time that I used to spend hours driving just to get away from food, because I assumed that it was some kind of psychological problem.
    Turns out I was just chemically starving. Anyway, this clears it up.

    • ako
      Posted December 11, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Eating healthy is one of those complex things that varies according to the person and circumstances. It sounds like the way you’ve been eating after going off adderall has been very healthy for you. I’ve known a few people recovering from severe malnutrition, and having the hair grow back is a good sign.

    • Posted December 11, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

      Wow, you very likely had a deficiency (the lips/mouth bleeding is especially significant for that.) And yes, when you’re starving or undereating, you’re going to be so preoccupied with food that it will seem like some kind of psychological or emotional issue – but it is really a very powerful survival mechanism kicking in.

      I am so sorry you went through all that – sounds nightmarish. But I’m really happy to hear you’re doing better now.

  20. Samantha
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m lucky in some ways because my body is definitely happy to let me know any time I’m hungry in any of the forms. Mechanical hunger is my stomach feeling empty, grumbling and (in advanced stages) hurting. Aesthetic hunger is thinking about food and/or going to the cupboards looking for something specific. Chemical hunger is light-headedness, nausea and grumpyness. I’m also lucky that I normally only get chemical hunger when I let mechanical hunger go too far, because my aesthetic hunger is almost always for the things that will give me the nutrients I need.

    The downside is that I can go from mechanical hunger to chemical hunger quite quickly. I always carry a fruit & nut bar or two in my purse and bring plenty of snacking fruit and nuts with me to school/work so that if my stomach feels hungry I can eat. Another thing that often helps is having some juice (I mix most half and half with water) or tea with honey, which won’t hold me for long but is less distracting than actual food and will extend my hold for 15-30 minutes.

  21. Posted December 12, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    For me, eating for various reasons – both physical (IBS) and emotional – has become fraught with so many thoughts and anxious feelings (will this food trigger my IBS? how many calories did I eat today? how much can I have to eat and stay the same weight? etc. etc.) that honestly I often say “I wish I didn’t have to eat at all that would be the best.” I do eat. I just don’t like doing it a lot of the time.

    • Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      I sympathize with you – and I hear this a lot from people who have conditions like IBS. It really would be simpler to not eat at all, but unfortunately that won’t work. I do think some of that anxiety is optional, however – if you got to a place of letting go of calorie counting, you might be surprised how much less burdensome eating feels.

      • Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        Thanks Michelle. I am truly working on it and trusting my body to tell me what it wants/needs..in food and other areas.

  22. Lurker
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    I rarely feel anything but chemical hunger; my stomach doesn’t tell me I’m hungry until it’s far too late, and my only cue will be that my hands start to shake too much to write. If I’m not doing anything where I’d notice the loss of dexterity, sometimes it progresses to the point where irritability is my only cue. I don’t feel it in my stomach unless it somehow goes on much longer than usual, like if I was sleeping and didn’t have much for dinner.

    I guess I’m an evolutionary failure…

    • Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Evolutionary failure? I don’t think so…it’s possible you just don’t eat regularly enough to be used to it. If you eat regularly for a while (every 3-5 hours, regardless of whether you think you feel hungry), you may start to notice those “early warning signals” coming back again.

  23. MamaCheshire
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    This is so incredibly helpful!

    I’m one of those weird people who gets chemical hunger before the mechanical hunger kicks in. And back when I was first trying to do the intuitive-eating thing, I’d wait and wait and wait for “stomach hunger” and it would take forever to feel it (assuming I ever did feel it) and meanwhile I’d be so utterly miserable from the intense overwhelming feelings of EAT ALL THE THINGS!

    Realized something had to give when I had my second child, lost weight while breastfeeding and gained it all back when she stopped nursing, and realized that for me “dieting” is 100% incompatible with being a decent mom or a sane human being. Basically, I can work on losing weight – or I can do anything else with my life whatsoever. Not an acceptable trade-off.

  24. TheSasquatch
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Goodness me, you really hit the spot here. I recently started eating a ketogenic diet on my doctor’s advice to try and deal with some of the side effects of my meds, and for the first time in – literally – forever, I feel what you describe as Mechanical Hunger, the feeling of a physically empty stomach.

    I haven’t ever felt that, because I’ve always been really hypoglycemic, so I’ve always had to keep feeding myself with very short intervals to avoid passing out. The desperation for carbs would arrive before I became aware of any emptiness. But now I don’t get these sudden crashes, so I get to feel what normal hunger is and eat to fill my stomach. I feel so normal and steady, all of a sudden :)

    Hunger is really an awesome mechanism, and I love that I finally get to experience it in a normal way where I don’t feel like my body is dying because my dinner is 10 minutes over due. Eating is so much more straight forward and primal and much less anxiety-ridden. I love it :)

    • Posted January 23, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Interesting! Hypoglycemia definitely does weird things to your hunger signals – your description is really enlightening. Best of luck with continuing to eat in a way that works for you :)

      • TheSasquatch
        Posted January 27, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

        Thank you :) I feel really awkward talking about doing a special kind of “diet”, because I really don’t want people to think I’m trying to convince them it’s better than eating the way they’re doing, or that everyone should be doing it. I was afraid I’d be frowned upon for mentioning it here, but I’m really not trying to sound all “Oh, I found the holy grail”.

        I’m really excited about the way this is working for ME, right NOW, though. It has lessened some of the worst side effect of my anti depressant significantly, like my stomach problems and the stiffness and discomfort caused by water retention.

        And props to you. Seriously. Without this blog I don’t think I would have made it far enough beyond my ED to get to a place where I trusted myself enough to try anything that even remotely restricted what I could eat without falling back into the disorder. Which I haven’t! So thank you, Michelle. You are making such a difference.

        • ksol
          Posted January 27, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

          You certainly didn’t sound all holy-grailish to me, Sasquatch. :)

  25. Posted January 23, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    In the depths of my eating disorder, I literally lost touch with my hunger feelings; after a while I quite truthfully, very literally could not feel them. Chemical hunger, yes, but it was constant, at the same level all the time (I was always starving myself, it never ended), and that became easier to ignore, especially if I exercised, which I did for hours every day.

    Then, when I started eating again, I felt hungry all the time . . . not mechanical hunger, but aesthetic, according to what you’ve written here. Or something else . . . anxiety-driven, primal, wrenching, but it didn’t involve the stomach or even a desire to eat any particular thing . . . nothing at all sounded yummy, I just had a craving for food . . . anything . . . the fattier and sweeter the better. It didn’t feel like any hunger I’ve ever had before or since. It was overpowering, and felt totally unnatural. To someone trying to get over an eating disorder, it was utterly terrifying. No, no, I lied. I felt something a bit like it once before, when I was severely anemic, and was driven to chew ice constantly . . . and gnaw the ends off of chicken bones to get at the marrow, which is what I am convinced the ice-chewing is trying to satisfy. I also craved red meat, but it was less viscerally satisfying than the crunchy ice. But that was far less powerful than what I felt after trying to learn to be hungry again.

    It was months and months and months before my hunger returned to normal and I started having more-normal-for-me levels of craving for fatty/sugary foods . . . as opposed to needing to eat them all the time, even when I felt sick to my stomach — denying myself food caused such intense psychological distress I would eat anyway, trusting that eventually my body would get a clue.

    Mechanical hunger was the last thing to return, some two years (TWO YEARS) after I started eating again (not eating normally; I am still not eating normally . . . I can’t stand to eat any of the safe foods that I ate while I was starving myself, which is basically vegetables of any kind, and I still eat more sweet things and fatty things than I used to, and I am telling myself that this is fine, that it’s just another stage in my recovery, and I should not push myself to eat things that make me miserable or trigger those memories so strongly).

    Now I feel strong mechanical hunger at normal-for-me intervals, and it is a wonderful feeling. I sometimes just let myself sit and feel it for a little while, to remind myself that it is normal and healthy and needs to be there and I am glad to have it back.

    For those folks re-learning normal-for-them eating habits, stick with it. It can take a very, very long time, but it will work. Be patient with yourself. Know that it may get worse, both physically and psychologically, before it gets better, but it will get better, and it is awesome when it does. Even with the scary parts and the weight gain, this is better than what I was doing to myself.

    It has been much harder learning not to hate myself for all the weight I gained back, with interest (meds plus a bum thyroid plus being unable to trust myself with exercising or restricting my food in any way whatsoever . . . yeah).

    Thank you for this. Fascinating stuff. And I am so glad that you assert that all forms of hunger should be respected. I appreciate that so much.

    • Posted January 23, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Very interesting – thank you for sharing your experience, and super-congratulations on your recovery.

      Based on your description, I would classify that intense hunger (similar to the feelings you had while anaemic) in the “chemical hunger” territory – I imagine it as a signal coming from severely depleted nutrient stores. The more of those stores depleted, the more intense and all-encompassing the hunger.

      I know the self-acceptance part of this whole process is probably the most difficult, but I’m incredibly happy to hear you’ve gotten over the big hurdle with eating.

      • Posted January 23, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

        Thank you. I kind of wrote that at my equivalent of 4 a.m. so I apologize for the infodump and rambliness. *is embarrassed*

        It has been a long road, and so hard, but I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in that for whatever reason this was easier for me than for a lot of other folks, and I’ve never, since the day I decided it had to stop, actually backslid into starving myself or going nuts with the exercise. I’ve thought about it, I’ve come within spitting distance, but I’ve managed to stick to it. I wish it were so easy for everyone, and my heart is with everyone who has to wrestle with that particular bear over and over again. It’s big and it’s hairy and it has frightfully large teeth, but it is possible to win. I swear this is true.

        I’m trying to pick up healthy foods as I go along, but it’s hard when you have no money, no time, and no spoons most days. I’m re-introducing exercise, completely different ones than the ones I used to do, and I’m hoping that goes well. I don’t care about getting thinner, but I need to be healthier, and I can feel that I am not at my best.

        • JessDR
          Posted March 23, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

          Thank you. I kind of wrote that at my equivalent of 4 a.m. so I apologize for the infodump and rambliness. *is embarrassed*

          You have NOTHING to apologize for. I’m so glad you posted, because that was really similar to my own experience, right down to eating the marrow out of chicken bones. (HUGS)

          The composition of the safe foods of my eating disorder cult* actually suppressed mechanical hunger, which is what allowed us to restrict our calories so low. (That’s how we justified the “diet plan” – after all, if you were starving, you’d feel hungry, right?) I was tired and cranky all the time, but I wasn’t “hungry”, so nothing was wrong!

          * (and I’m not using “cult” lightly – this group met all the criteria)

          (MORE HUGS)

          • Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

            I’d be interested in hearing more about the group you were part of, if you feel like sharing. If you want it to be private, you can email me – michelle@fatnutritionist.com

  26. Aishah
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    This article was great

    Sometimes i feel the stomach hunger but have no appetite so i skip the meal

    But the next day i dont feel satisfied with the same amount of food

    Now i know why i was afraid i eat too much for breakfast sometimes

    But then i remember i did not eat well yesterday and skipped 1 meal<i usually eat three meals

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