Over the past five years working with women through Nutshell as an RD and now caring for women everyday as a Nurse Practitioner (in addition to every day friendships and conversations) I’ve noticed a theme when the topic of hunger comes up….that being, we tend to resist our hunger. And with that resistance comes judgement telling women they shouldn’t be hungry. And out of that judgement can come frustration and shame. As if hunger is some pathological problem that shouldn’t be happening in our bodies. The only way to make physiological hunger go away is to eat. Not to chug water or make a cup of coffee or distract yourself. Only eating will satisfy hunger. And eating means calories. And in a calorie obsessed world, ingesting calories (which is simply a form of energy that our body requires to sustain life) has somehow become a fear based behavior. A normal, necessary, behavior – just like breathing in oxygen – has been twisted into something we no longer do intuitively, but rather with obsession, great attention and even resistance.
But it’s not really all our fault for these judgmental thoughts and shameful feelings around hunger. If we aren’t actively disengaging from diet mentality, we will become consumed by it. Non diet talk and thinking is not the norm. We live in a world absolutely consumed by diet and exercise. A world where thin and skinny are associated with worth and beauty. A world where appetite and hunger is almost seen as unladylike…or something like that. I think that’s changing and we will see a huge shift in our generation, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
Hunger is not something to suppress or associate with shame or judgement. I’ve found if I can help clients shift from judgement to curiosity around hunger, it opens up a whole new opportunity of discovery. Hunger is a good thing, it’s actually a sign of good hormonal health and regular hunger is a firm indication of metabolic efficiency. Waking up and becoming hungry soon after is awesome. Hunger tells us our body is burning through what we’re eating and utilizing that for energy. It tells us our hunger hormone, ghrelin is working rather than being suppressed. (Also: there are reasons to not wake up hungry, this isn’t a 100% sort of thing – a big dinner the night before, eating late at night, illness, stress etc etc happens and that is OKAY and normal too) More so, feeling hungry throughout the day is great both hormonally and metabolically too. Having an appetite and consistent hunger should be something we are excited about. If hunger is our body telling us to eat (and food is one of life’s pleasures) shouldn’t we be embracing hunger?
You have two primary appetite hormones, ghrelin and leptin. Experiencing regular hunger and fullness means ghrelin and leptin are in sync. If we take emotions out of hunger and fullness and strip down to just the physiology, these hormones signal that your body has burned the energy you last put in and now your body needs more energy. Simple as that. If you never feel hungry, that’s something to look into. Are there hormonal and metabolic factors contributing to that? Are there areas of intuitive eating that could be explored?
With ignored hunger ghrelin continues to increase and over time, if you continue ignoring that hunger your body now goes into energy conservation mode because it’s not getting the energy it needs – it’s how the body compensates. And when this happens over time, it’s harder for our bodies to settle into their set points. In a diet riddled world, I’ve found this cascade of things happen:
Ignore/suppress hunger >> ghrelin levels rise >> ignore/suppress hunger >> stress hormones rise because of assumed starvation >> body compensates by conserving energy >> frustration because 1) you’re eating less and not achieving your goal of losing weight (which isn’t a healthy goal to begin with) OR even more frustrating, weight gain occurs from elevated stress hormones (which isn’t crisis, it’s just your body communicating to you). Our bodies are pretty awesome at burning through energy and maintaining our own, unique healthy set point f we give it the tools to do so. And that means enough nourishing food.
One of the most rewarding things about working with women at Nutshell in addition to seeing women regain their menstrual cycles naturally – is watching the freedom that comes with embracing their hunger through intuitive eating and the “a-ha” moment when they realize the high metabolic capacity of the body. The human body has a high metabolic potential if we are eating intuitively, nourishing our bodies well and not fighting our genetic set point. With all that in mind, our bodies can and will burn through pretty much anything we put in it.
Your identity is not found in how little food you need to consume to feel full. And your worth is not found in how much or how little space you take up. And being hungry or ravenous is not something we should be ashamed about. Having an appetite and eating more than toddler sized portions doesn’t make you less of a lady. And it certainly isn’t something we should ignore in an effort to lose weight or lose those last damn five pounds. Because even though your weight doesn’t matter, ignoring that hunger and eating less is probably exactly why any weight your frustrated with is there in the first place. And even more importantly, it’s never about your weight. It’s about something so much deeper. Your body can manage its weight and size so you don’t have to. You just have to take care of yourself. And that includes both rest and movement and both cupcakes and kale.