Have ‘Off’ Hunger Cues? Here’s What To Do if Intuitive Eating Doesn’t Work for You

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ICYMI or need a quick refresher, intuitive eating is an evidence-based framework and non-diet approach to food. In short, it’s “a way of eating without judgment, just curiosity,” dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman previously told Well+Good.

While intuitive eating has 10 principles, one of the main understandings, generally, is listening to your body—aka, recognizing hunger cues, as well as fullness cues, eating when you’re hungry, making peace with food, and rejecting diet culture, that sort of thing.

But for various reasons (which we’ll dive into below), many folks report not being able to tell when they're hungry and full. When your body doesn’t let you know when to eat, and the only other framework you have to go off of is diet culture (no thank you!), what do you do?

Experts In This Article

Why you may struggle with recognizing hunger cues

First, an important disclaimer: “I think it’s important to acknowledge that we are all different,” says Anna Lutz, MPH, RD, LDN, CEDRD-S, a dietitian with Lutz, Alexander & Associates Nutrition Therapy. “We may all feel and respond to our hunger and [satiety] cues differently, and there is not a wrong or right way to feel them or respond (as diet culture wants us to believe).”

Keeping that in mind, one major reason for not recognizing hunger cues is a past history of dieting, restricting, or an eating disorder. “I work with individuals with eating disorders, and it is common if someone has one, their hunger/fullness cues are either not there or difficult to feel,” Lutz says. Other possibilities, Lutz adds, include trauma, food insecurity, certain illnesses, and medications.

The beginning stages of those cues can be especially tricky. “For many people, they may find themselves attuned to the more extreme feelings of hunger and fullness, like being really, really hungry or ‘Thanksgiving’-full,” adds Brenna O’Malley, RD, a non-diet dietitian and owner of the private practice The Wellful. So, she works with clients on noticing the feelings in between those extremes to avoid that discomfort.

What dietitians advise in those situations

Eat enough, regularly

To start, Lutz would be curious about how much you’re eating. She says undereating can contribute to not feeling the signals. “An individual who isn’t eating enough food will experience a slowed gastrointestinal tract,” she explains. “Often, eating an adequate intake is a first step to feeling hunger/fullness again.”

Eating regularly—not just at mealtimes—is crucial, too. O’Malley recommends eating every three to four hours as a starting point. (Set alarms if you need to.)

“We know that bodies generally do well when we eat consistently—without long gaps between meals—throughout the day,” she says. “Eating regular meals and snacks is a first step in reestablishing hunger cues: It helps establish body trust that you will give your body food throughout the day.”

Need snack ideas? We wholeheartedly suggest these protein-packed peanut butter banana bread breakfast bars (say that three times fast) and pre-workout snacks (even if you aren’t about to hit the gym). Also, don’t forget about the importance of a hearty breakfast.

Don’t dismiss any cues you notice

Between diet culture’s messages and busy workdays, it’s tempting to just tell yourself you’ll eat later or question if you’re really hungry. But O’Malley says it’s best to listen to hunger signals, no questions asked, and notice how you feel after.

“Sometimes, especially when we are unfamiliar with our cues, it can be confusing to know exactly what our body is telling us,” she explains. “But allowing yourself to have something to eat, and [seeing] how you feel after gives you more information about your own body’s cues.”

On that note, remember that hunger cues can show up in a variety of ways, not just “a grumbling stomach.” For example, feeling irritable, fatigued, unfocused, and weak are other examples of hunger signs that merely scratch the surface.

Use a hunger/fullness scale

Lutz also recommends people practice rating how hungry or full they are, using a scale. “Diets tell us to ignore our body’s sensations, and we have to get back in the practice of asking ourselves and responding,” she says, explaining it’s like using a muscle you haven’t used in a while.

See a non-diet professional

Last but not least, seeing a trauma-informed, non-diet dietitian and therapist, if possible, is a smart idea. Check out Open Path Collective for more affordable therapists, and the intuitive eating counselor directory for dietitians.

Lutz especially recommends this to folks who have trauma or have experienced food insecurity so they can work toward somatic healing, referring to the therapeutic approach that integrates the mind and body, utilizing physical sensations and movements to address and release emotional and psychological distress. “As someone feels safer in their body, they may be able to hear/feel those sensations more,” she explains.

Recognizing hunger cues can be challenging for various reasons, and it's essential to acknowledge the individuality of these experiences. Listening to hunger signals without questioning or dismissing them, exploring different manifestations of hunger cues beyond a grumbling stomach, and using a hunger/fullness scale are recommended practices to reconnect with the body's natural cues. Additionally, seeking support from non-diet nutrition professionals can also help you build a stronger mind-body connection between you and your hunger cues.

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