An increasing number of people are turning to intuitive eating to adopt a healthier relationship with food. Intuitive eating is amazing in the way it can promote your physical and mental health. But as intuitive eating gains traction, there are more and more people promoting a watered-down version of it sometimes called the hunger-fullness diet.
Sure, “honor your hunger” and “feel your fullness” are two principles of intuitive eating, but there are eight more principles to this non-diet approach. Even when it comes to hunger itself, intuitive eating is about more than just eating when you’re physically hungry and stopping when you’re full. In fact, it’s also about eating when you're not physically hungry. Here’s what I mean.
The different types of hunger in intuitive eating
What comes to mind when you think of hunger? For many people, biological hunger comes to mind—the kind where your belly is growling, you feel low energy, or you’re more irritable. This is an absolutely valid form of hunger, and starting to notice signs of biological hunger (especially subtle signs like thinking about food or having trouble concentrating on work) takes time and intention. Yet, when we stop at this form of hunger, we rob ourselves of developing a more nuanced and dynamic relationship with food.
There are actually four types of hunger recognized in intuitive eating. They are biological, practical, taste, and emotional hunger. Biological hunger is the kind we’ve already talked about; it’s the one most of us think of when we think of hunger. However, the other three are often overlooked.
If you work a conventional 9-to-5 job, you may have a specific time you can break for lunch. If you weren’t biologically hungry right at that time, would you skip your meal?
Deciding to eat when you’re not hungry because you know you can’t eat for a while is honoring practical hunger.
Practical hunger is planning ahead, according to the authors of Intuitive Eating, registered dietitian nutritionists Evelyn Tribole, RDN, and Elyse Resch, RDN. I like to think of it as a proactive form of self-care. There are times when you may not feel biologically hungry, but eating makes sense because you know you won’t have the chance to eat when hunger strikes. If you don’t eat when you have the chance, it’s more likely you’ll end up ravenously hungry, which could culminate in binge eating.
When you’re at a birthday party, if the cake looks good and everyone’s eating it, it’s totally fine to eat it even if you’re not biologically hungry. Again, intuitive eating is about being flexible and breaking free from black-and-white rules typical of diets.
There will certainly be times besides birthday parties when you’re not biologically hungry but you have a taste for something or the situation calls for it. Maybe after a savory dinner, you’re pretty full but you’re craving something sweet, so you eat a piece of chocolate. That’s a way of honoring taste hunger. There’s nothing wrong with that; you’re just honoring your body in a more nuanced way.
A big part of intuitive eating is connecting to your internal cues to guide your eating rather than following external rules and restrictions. Those internal cues don’t only signal biological hunger but also taste hunger. So, connecting to and honoring this form of hunger is also a valuable part of intuitive eating.
Plus, when you ignore cravings, it makes it more likely you’ll start obsessing over the food you’re restricting. Honoring cravings helps you find the satisfaction your body and mind need so you can move on with your day.
Boredom, loneliness, anger, and stress can all trigger emotional eating. Eating can be a source of comfort when you’re feeling down or something to do when you’re bored. Oftentimes, this type of eating gets demonized.
In reality, emotional eating is totally normal. I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back: Emotional eating is totally normal!
All jokes aside, there are lots of ways our emotions are connected to food. It could be that you have fond memories of your family cooking you a certain dish when you were a kid so you turn to it for comfort now. It could be that you’re used to food being a representation of love, as is common in certain cultures. Or maybe you just want to feel good by having some ice cream after a bad day.
Food is meant to give us pleasure. If it didn’t give us pleasure, we wouldn’t have the drive to eat—something we literally need to do to survive. So there’s no shame in feeling pleasure from food.
That being said, if there’s something deeper going on for you emotionally, it may be worth ensuring you have other coping skills in your metaphorical toolbelt to get to the root of the problem.
It’s also worth noting that many people label themselves as “emotional eaters” when in reality, they’re just not eating enough. If you often find yourself eating a full bag of chips or a full box of cookies on the couch at night, before you label it as stress-eating, consider whether you ate enough throughout the day. The nighttime “emotional eating” could, in actuality, be your body making up for inadequate food throughout the day. If you’re not sure whether you’re eating enough, working with a registered dietitian trained in intuitive eating could help.
Learning to distinguish between the 4 types of hunger
Now that you know the four types of hunger in intuitive eating, you may be wondering how to differentiate between them in your own life.
I encourage you to take a curious, non-judgmental approach. Start being more intentional about understanding what drives your urge to eat, whether you ignore your hunger or cravings, or whether you feel completely disconnected from your body’s cues.
Let me be clear here. This isn’t meant to be a way to monitor or “control” your intake; it’s just a way of building a connection to these different types of hunger. If you notice yourself starting to become perfectionistic about honoring hunger or judgmental about certain kinds of hunger, take a step back. Remember, it’s okay to eat when you're not hungry or for reasons beyond biological hunger.
Final thoughts on why it's okay to eat when you're not hungry
When you reach for something to eat, there are a few different types of hunger that could be driving that, and that’s totally normal. Rather than restricting yourself to only eating when you’re biologically hungry, consider how you can honor the other forms of hunger—practical, taste, and emotional—too.
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