One of the most challenging and elusive elements of eating “intuitively”, which I define as eating in a way that involves deep connection to and awareness of our bodies, is hunger and satiety. After dieting for years, following meal plans, over-exercising, overeating, eating due to emotions, starving, binging, etc., getting in touch with our hunger and satiety cues can seem damn near impossible.
In the beginning, it can feel quite uncomfortable, which is a common response to an increased level of awareness in any area of our lives. The blinders are off, so if we’re neglecting or acting in spite of our feelings of hunger and satiety, we’re doing so consciously. This means we have an increased level of responsibility and can no longer claim ignorance or unawareness as an excuse.
While awareness or mindfulness is a mandatory component of eating according to hunger and satiety, it can also be difficult to actually tune into what our bodies are telling us. And this is not due to lack of awareness, effort, or responsibility. Our physical cues may have simply been suppressed or neglected for so long that it can take some time for them to regulate and to be felt clearly.
Additionally, our feelings of hunger and satiety will vary from person to person and from day to day – especially for women due to our monthly fluctuations in hormones. What works for us one day may not work the next, so understanding these physical or lifestyle changes and their impacts is also important.
To begin getting in touch with our hunger and satiety cues, we need to dedicate a few weeks of effort and attention to what our bodies are telling us. Again, this is always more difficult in the beginning, but it will become automated with some time and practice.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to map out your individual responses to the seven stages of hunger and satiety. It’s very common to experience difficulty when defining physical cues in a few of the stages, as we usually haven’t practiced enough awareness, so if you draw a few blanks while completing this exercise, please be patient with yourself and understand that it’s a very common response.
The objective of completing this exercise is to 1) bring awareness to your body’s physical cues and the notion that our bodies are sending us different signals depending on the level of hunger or satiety it’s experiencing 2) enable us to identify and monitor in which stages we’re spending the most time in 3) understand how we can better navigate these various stages to ensure we don’t frequently live in one end of the spectrum or another.
The Seven Stages
The stages are defined defined, and I have included a few examples of physical sensations that may be experienced. However, please be aware that everyone’s signals will vary to some degree, so it’s important to tune into what each of these looks like for YOU.
1. Stage One - Feeling famished and uncomfortably hungry
- Lightheaded, dizzy, seeing spots, shaky, nauseous, headache, unable to concentrate or think about anything other than food. Intense urgency to eat.
2. Stage Two - Letting yourself go a little too long without food, to the point where your hunger feels almost unmanageable, but you’re still able to focus on other things.
- Some difficulty concentrating, intense hunger pangs, some light-headedness, mild headache. Essentially less severe signals from Stage One, so the urgency to eat isn’t as heightened.
3. Stage Three - Feelings of comfortable and manageable hunger.
- Stomach growling without it being a distraction, sensation of warmth and emptiness in stomach.
4. Stage Four - Feelings of complete hunger neutrality, where you’re neither hungry nor full. This typically occurs after eating a light snack or 1-2 hours after a sufficient meal (that brings you to stage five).
- Light and energetic, stomach is neither empty nor distended, can’t feel food in stomach. Able to complete a workout comfortably and move freely in this stage. Strong mental energy.
5. Stage Five - Being satisfied from eating, at around 80% full. This isn’t a feeling of fullness, but rather knowing you have eaten to a point where you won’t be hungry for a few hours. You could still eat more at this point.
- Feel comfortable and content, yet not as light as in stage four. Can feel the presence of food in stomach, maybe a slight decrease in mental energy as compared to stage four. Can go for a light walk with ease.
6. Stage Six - Having eaten slightly beyond the point of satisfaction. This is a feeling of being full and realizing you have overeaten, but there isn’t any severe pain or discomfort present.
- Stomach slightly distended or bloated with feelings of pressure, decrease in energy, heartburn, lack of desire to be active. Not very comfortable but also not in pain.
7. Stage Seven - Eating to the point of pure discomfort and maybe pain. This is often classified as a binge.
- Throbbing in stomach, distended stomach, intense pressure, discomfort with moving, difficulty breathing. Feelings can be alleviated by lying on back or side. Extreme lethargy.
In order to become clear on what your physical cues are in each stage, I recommend journaling throughout the day for 7-10 days to take note of your experiences. Stages one and seven may be far and few between, so referencing memories is often the best route for those.
Ideally, the goal is to stay within stages three and five, as we want to avoid extremes and the likelihood of sending our bodies into a form of distress. However, this isn’t intended to trigger feelings of guilt or shame, especially if you find yourself in stages six or seven. Rather, it’s intended to help you understand your body, its signals, how you currently respond, and how you can respond differently in the future if you choose to do so.
Why is it important to understand our physical hunger and satiety cues?
- We can recognize and acknowledge when we’re truly hungry and when we eating out of boredom, convenience, or emotion.
- We can recognize when we’re eating beyond the point of satisfaction (stage 5) and better understand what is driving us to do so.
- We will better understand what meal sizes, food types, food quality, and timing provides the greatest amount of satiety and its duration.
- We will know what signals to look for that notify us that we’re going too far in either direction.
- We will continue to develop a synergistic relationship with our bodies, as it becomes more difficult to ignore the signals as this practice develops.
Understanding our hunger and satiety signals is a fundamental and extremely important part of developing an intuitive relationship with our bodies. Without it, we will continue to feel as though we’re at war with our body, that it’s an entity separate from us, and that it isn’t our responsibility to honor its voice.
It’s important to note that while I believe in honoring our hunger and satiety signals most of the time, there are instances where this won’t be the case, but these will ideally occur with a high level of consciousness and awareness. You may need to override hunger or satiety signals in the beginning if you’ve been chronically undereating for a while, but I typically recommend eating more calorically dense foods with the same volume when this is the case.
Alternatively, there are times when we’re going to choose to eat beyond stage five and will find ourselves in stages six and seven, and that’s fine! We just don’t want it to be a mindless habit, as that’s a form of disrespect and disconnection from our bodies.
Finally, as is usually the case around here, mindfulness is an essential part of the process. In order to tune into what our bodies are telling us, as opposed to leveraging the experiences and signals of others, we need to slow down, get silent, and become familiar with our physical bodies. This can be accomplished through mindful, slow movement, such as yoga, dance, or walking, or it can be accomplished through stillness, such as meditation.
This process may be a bumpy one in the beginning, and this is especially true if we’ve been neglecting our body’s signals in an extreme manner for many years. Emotions surface – don’t avoid them. Sit with them, observe them, and get curious rather than judgmental. You may be coming home after a long period of distance and neglect, so forgiveness and patience are paramount.