What Gets in the Way of Hunger?

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This article was written by Associate Registered Nutritionist (ANutr) Sophie Gastman, and reviewed by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan.


Hunger differs from appetite in that hunger is physiological (a signal from your body to maintain energy levels), whereas appetite is the desire to eat which may occur for different reasons – including hunger or emotional reasons etc.

There are many factors that can interfere with our ability to detect our own hunger cues, these are called attunement disruptors. 

These attunement disruptors are obstacles that prevent you from hearing and responding to the signals your body sends you, such as hunger and fullness. 

Let’s take a look at some common things that can get in the way of our hunger cues.

Dieting & ‘Diet Foods’

Any form of diet, whether it’s keto, paleo or low fat, requires you to prioritise a set of usually strict external rules above your body’s internal cues.

A good example is with intermittent fasting – some people may experience ignoring their hunger cues and skipping breakfast in order to maintain their ‘fasted state’, while others may overeat because the next ‘eating window’ is too far away.

Similarly, if you obsessively track your food to achieve a specific macronutrient or calorie goal, you may find yourself overriding your natural hunger cues if you’ve already met your calorie or macro allowance for that day. 

Diet foods, such as konjac noodles, rice cakes, chewing gum, energy drinks etc. which are often used to ‘curb’ feelings of hunger, unsurprisingly can confuse our true hunger and fullness cues too.

For example, one small study looking at how konjac noodles affect satiety found that the group who were given 100% konjac noodles felt significantly higher levels of hunger afterwards compared to the group that were given regular noodles (1).

Another study demonstrated how chewing gum significantly suppressed hunger and appetite (2).

These foods may be promoted in ways to help you ‘fight off hunger’ and ‘curb your appetite’ but all they’re really doing is creating a barrier between you and your awareness of your body’s needs. 

Food Rules 

Even if you don’t subscribe to a specific diet regime, a lot of us still have a dieting mentality and tend to follow a fair amount of food rules, such as not having carbs more than once a day, no snacking or limiting yourself to only certain amounts of foods (e.g. 1 tbsp nut butter, only ½ a banana). 

This way of navigating food choice means you’re allowing your rules around food to dictate your eating decisions rather than listening to what your body wants and possibly overriding those hunger cues. 

Ingrained Habits 

Sometimes habits we have developed over years can get in the way of our hunger cues without us even realising.

For example, those who are used to skipping breakfast everyday may not feel any hunger in the morning, despite not having eaten since the day before.

Having rigid meal times can also prevent us from eating when we are truly hungry as this is another example of relying on external cues to eat instead of listening to our bodies. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and sometimes focusing on a regular eating pattern can be very helpful. This also might not be something that you have control over (i.e. set lunch times at school or work). But it’s important to be aware of any of the factors that may be dampening your ability to listen to your body. 

Intense Emotions

Any kind of intense emotion, including sadness, loneliness, anxiety and stress can get in the way of being able to listen to your hunger cues.

Focusing mental energy on food can sometimes be a coping mechanism to distract us from facing our feelings, however, these feelings can make our appetite go either way, with some of us losing our appetite in response or feeling the urge to comfort eat. 

Click here to read more about how stress affects our appetite.

Overall, when we neglect our self-care practices and allow these intense emotions to take over, it makes it difficult for us to hear and respond to the signals our body is giving us. 

Being Unwell

Most of us have experienced a loss of appetite when we are unwell, and this is a common short-term response the body uses to divert energy away from digestion and towards feeling better (3).

We may also have impaired taste or smell which can make eating even more difficult because it takes away the enjoyment of food. 

Even if we believe our bodies are telling us not to eat, it is still important to ensure we are eating enough when we feel sick.

Some top tips for making food easier to stomach when we’re sick include sticking to bland or dry foods, eating little and often, and incorporating more high energy foods.

If this is having a long term impact on your appetite then it is best to seek support from a Registered Dietitian

Distraction

Diet culture is very good at teaching us how to distract ourselves from our hunger cues. You don’t have to look too far before someone recommends drinking water when you feel hungry, or having a shower, or brushing your teeth etc.

This kind of advice perpetuates the idea that feeling hunger is ‘bad’ or something to be avoided, when in reality, it’s what keeps us alive! (Also, few of us actually struggle to differentiate between hunger and thirst) 

Even if you’re not consciously trying to distract yourself from your hunger cues, you may have such a hectic lifestyle that hearing those hunger signals is difficult. For example, if you have a busy day at work, you may skip lunch without even realising or feeling particularly hungry.

This also holds true in the opposite direction, for example if we are distracted watching TV or scrolling on our phones while eating, it can be difficult to tune into our fullness cues. You might feel unsatisfied when your food is gone even if you’re feeling full, leading us to seek out more food in search of that satisfaction. 

Substances

Another factor that can interfere with our hunger signals is substance use. Research has shown that smoking can suppress appetite due to the effects of nicotine on the brain (4). This means that if you’re a smoker, you’re much more likely to under-eat, whether or not it’s intentional, as it’s harder to listen to your hunger cues. 

Alcohol, on the other hand, can cause us to feel hungrier. Studies on mice have shown that certain neurons in the brain that deal with hunger are activated when we get intoxicated, making your brain think it’s starving – which may be a reason for getting the ‘munchies’ after a heavy drinking session (5). 

Other drugs have various impacts on hunger and the drive to eat. For example, certain types of marijuana can lead to ‘the munchies’ whereas other types may not impact hunger. 

Substance abuse and dependency can also make it difficult to listen and respond to bodily signals and needs.  

Conclusion 

Addressing any of these hunger disruptors is a great first step towards intuitive eating and learning how to listen to your body again.

This isn’t to say you should set rigid rules around only eating when you’re truly hungry – sometimes you might have to eat at a specific time due to your work schedule, and flexibility and allowing yourself to eat for pure enjoyment is also important. But being mindful of what can impact your feelings of hunger will help you become more responsive to the signals your body is giving you.

If you would like support with your relationship with food or becoming an intuitive eater, you can find information about our one to one support services here

References

  1. Jenkins, A., Au-Yeung, F., Jovanovski, E., Zurbau, A., Ho, T., & Vuksan, V. (2018). Effect of Substituting Starchy Noodles with Konjac Fiber Noodles on Satiety, Palatability and Subsequent Food Intake in Healthy Individuals: A Dose Response Study. The FASEB Journal, 31(S1), 311.7-311.7. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1096/fasebj.31.1_supplement.311.7
  2. Park, E., Edirisinghe, I., Inui, T., Kergoat, S., Kelley, M., & Burton-Freeman, B. (2016). Short-term effects of chewing gum on satiety and afternoon snack intake in healthy weight and obese women. Physiology &Amp; Behavior, 159, 64-71. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.03.002
  3. Eccles R. (2005). Understanding the symptoms of the common cold and influenza. The Lancet. Infectious diseases, 5(11), 718–725. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(05)70270-X 
  4. Perkins, K., Epstein, L., Stiller, R., Fernstrom, M., Sexton, J., Jacob, R., & Solberg, R. (1991). Acute effects of nicotine on hunger and caloric intake in smokers and nonsmokers. Psychopharmacology, 103(1), 103-109. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf02244083
  5. Cains, S., Blomeley, C., Kollo, M., Rácz, R., & Burdakov, D. (2017). Agrp neuron activity is required for alcohol-induced overeating. Nature Communications, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms14014

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