Lesson three – How does hunger feel?

by Michelle

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.