What does hunger feel like? Signals you may be missing.

Jul 9, 2021 | Intuitive Eating

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Have you asked yourself, “What does hunger feel like, anyway?” Maybe you’re not sure what hunger feels like. Trust me, you’re not alone.

You could be sitting at your desk and you feel hunger pangs in your stomach. You think, “I can’t be hungry. I just ate a couple of hours ago.” You feel it again and, again, you wonder, “Why am I always hungry?” Or, “Why and I so hungry?”

Or, maybe the way you know you’re hungry is when your co-workers tell you to eat because“You’re being a bitch!” (Yes, one of my clients actually said that was how she knew she was hungry.)

These things happen to my clients. And, if they happen to you, it is normal – but it doesn’t have to be.

Understanding what hunger is and how your body signals hunger can help you learn to eat when your body says it is hungry and how to distinguish physical hunger from other types of hunger.

What is hunger?

While hunger seems straightforward at first, did you know that there are actually different types of hunger? There is biological hunger and other types of hunger. Biological hunger is “a feeling of discomfort or weakness caused by lack of food, coupled with the desire to eat.”1 Your body is signaling it needs energy which comes in the form of food.

Other types of hunger could be head hunger, emotional hunger, or kuchisabishii which is a Japanese word for “lonely mouth”2. While these other types of hunger do exist, this article is about physical hunger. (In a future blog, I’ll talk about emotional hunger. If you want to learn more about how to deal with emotional hunger and emotional eating, check out my 30-minute webinar “Understanding & Overcoming Emotional Eating.”)

What causes hunger?

There are two main hormones involved in causing biological hunger: grehlin and leptin.

Your stomach and small intestine produce grehlin which travels to the brain. In response, the brain tells you that you are hungry.

Leptin tells you when you aren’t and are hungry. When the body senses that leptin is low, those same chemicals produced in the brain in response to ghrelin are released.

We can feel biological hunger when grehlin is rising or high and when leptin is low, or both.

Getting disconnected from hunger

When you were a baby, you knew when you were hungry. Your response was to cry until you were fed. As you grew up, you learned that you didn’t have to immediately respond to the discomfort caused by hunger. You learned to start ignoring when your body said it was hungry.

You probably also heard that you couldn’t trust your body’s hunger signals. Maybe your mom said, “You just ate. You can’t be hungry.” And, you started hearing messages from diet culture telling you that, “You aren’t really hungry – you’re thirsty. Have a drink of water instead.”

The desire to lose weight and dieting are huge contributors to disconnecting from your body’s hunger signals. You’re told to only eat on schedule and what is on your plan regardless of your level of hunger.

All of these messages and learnings conspired to teach you that you don’t have to honor your body’s request for energy and food.

Hunger can feel different for each person and the benefits of knowing what your hunger feels like

Here’s a secret. . . Did you know that there isn’t a universal way to identify hunger? It’s TRUE!

Hunger can feel different for you than for someone else. When I ask my clients what hunger feels like, they usually give me a look like, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Then, they pause, think about it, and often say, “I don’t know.”

Realizing that you don’t really know how hunger feels to you is the first step in learning to recognize your body’s signals when it needs food. And the benefit of being in tune with your body are:

  • Eating when your body needs fuel (and it is OK to eat for other reasons, too. Hunger is the primary reason to eat.)
  • Eating before snapping your partner’s (or dog’s) head off because you didn’t realize you were hungry and got so hungry you were hangry
  • Avoiding the afternoon slump because you no longer ignore when your body needs some fuel to make it until dinner
  • Having amazing workouts because you’ve learned your body needs a fuel top-off before going for that run, ride, or hike rather than running out of gas halfway through and thinking “OMG! I’ve still got to get back home!”

Here are a few ways your body can signal hunger:

  • Empty feeling in your stomach
  • Stomach growling or rumbling
  • Hands shaking
  • Body shaking
  • Headache
  • Fuzzy thinking
  • Lightheadedness
  • Anxious feelings
  • Short temper
  • Hangry (hungry and angry)

What does hunger feel like for you?

Hunger can feel different for you than it does for me. My feelings of hunger include a feeling of emptiness in my stomach and maybe some rumbling. I could also start feeling anxious. If I ignore my hunger for a while, I’ll get shaky and grumpy. If I wait too long, I get hangry – you know the Betty White character in the Snickers commercials.

How can you start figuring out how hunger feels to you? Here are three ways:

  1. Ask yourself before you start eating if you are hungry. If you are, look for the feelings and sensations in your body that tell you you’re hungry and note them in your head, in a notebook, or on your phone.
  2. Periodically through the day (maybe use a timer or alarm on your phone or watch) stop and ask yourself if you’re hungry. If you are hungry or if you’re not sure, ask yourself, “How hungry?” (See #3 below for a hunger scale.) Next, do a body scan (pay attention to how you feel from the top of your head to your toes) and note where you feel hunger. Again, make a note of those things in your head, in a notebook, or on your phone so you can remind yourself what the different levels of hunger feel like to you.
  3. Use a hunger scale to help you get in touch with typical sensations of hunger. Hunger scales go from 1 to 10 with 1 being “starving and beyond, and ten being “Thanksgiving full/very uncomfortable maybe even painful.” (If you want one, send me an email and I’ll send you the one I use with my clients.)

Learning to honor your body’s request for food

When your body says that your bladder is full and it needs to pee, do you listen? What happens if you don’t?

The consequences of not listening when your body says it needs food usually aren’t as disastrous as if you don’t listen to your body’s request to pee. At least not in the short term.

Not listening to your body’s request for food in the long term can mean that your body stops sending those signals (all of how this works isn’t fully understood). You can reverse this process by starting to listen.

Using those three ways to identify your hunger listed above can help you understand how hunger feels to you. Once you know what hunger feels like to you when you notice those feelings and sensations, the lightbulb will go on and you’ll know, “I need to eat.” Then, you can get something to eat.

If it helps, you can think of your body as little Oliver Twist asking you “please, can I have some more?” when it is sending you signals saying it is hungry.

As someone who is able to tune into your body’s messages, you’ll enjoy those benefits listed above (and your partner, friends, and do will thank you, too).

Key takeaways: What does hunger feel like?

  • Start paying attention to how hunger feels to you. Choose one or more of the three ways mentioned above and start making notes.
  • Ask yourself why you started ignoring your body’s requests for food. Once you understand the why, you can start coming up with reasons to pay attention to your body when it asks for food.
  • Like and follow my Facebook page to get more tips about paying attention to your hunger. (https://www.facebook.com/DrPennyWilson)
  • If you, your partner (or dog) are ready to stop the hangry Betty White from showing up in your lives, work with me so she disappears forever (and you won’t need a lifetime supply of Snickers bars).

1 From the Oxford Dictionary

2 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/kuchisabishii-lonely-mouth-mindless-eating_l_5ebdccc3c5b698a29045b714

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