Hunger is supposed to be the signal that we get from our bodies that we should eat. It’s a biological imperative, and it’s there to keep you alive. But many of us respond to a number of different “hunger variations.” We eat a full tub of popcorn at the movie theater, even though we have had dinner. We soothe a broken heart with a tub of Rocky Road. We ease a bad day with an extra cookie or 3, nosh on extra chips to comfort boredom, and binge on chocolate when we are upset. Many things beyond the physical need for food can present as an urge to eat. Exploring some of the reasons for hunger can help us to separate out the real hunger from the myriad of other reasons we may be reaching for food when we don’t actually need it.
When your body truly needs food, it reacts in a physical way with signs like growling, cavernously empty feeling, hunger pangs, feeling light-headed, having trouble concentrating, headaches, or what we call “hangry”—a grumpy depressive disposition directly related to physical hunger. There are a few things your body will do in reaction to physical hunger, particularly if you ignore the signs.
- Increase the levels of neuropeptide Y, a brain chemical that encourages food (specifically carbohydrate) consumption.
- Increase the production of ghrelin, a hormone that increases hunger.
- Decrease the production of leptin, a hormone that enhances satiety.
This is not a great strategy for overall health—ignoring your body’s true hunger signs causes it’s own set of problems.
Listen to your body
Observe the signs and symptoms that your body exhibits. Become familiar, for example, of what comes before the “hangry” reactions, and try to have some snacks on hand to stave off the real physical hunger. Be sure to grab nutrient dense foods that will give your body what it needs to work optimally.
This is a biggie. Very few of us can say we’ve never reached for some comfort food out of emotional need rather than real hunger. It starts when you are small; Your mom gives you ice cream to soothe your skinned knee, or makes you a snack of milk and cookies after a bad day at school.
I’m not saying there isn’t a small place for this, but it can easily get out of hand. We can use the food as a crutch to get us through emotional difficulties, instead of truly dealing with our problems. Using food as an occasional mood-booster or in a celebratory manner isn’t unusual or unhealthy. However, regularly turning to food to soothe uncomfortable emotions can lead to disordered eating and worsened emotional health.
Manage your emotions
Before you eat, take a moment to check in. Are you really hungry? Do you feel your stomach growling? Did you just eat something? What is the food item you are going to eat? Is it healthy, or is it a whole bag of chips you want to munch on because you are nervous about your next exam or presentation? Try to pay attention to your true hunger cues and begin to sift out the ones that are emotionally driven. This can be challenging to overcome, so if you need to ask for help, consider joining a support group or seeking out professional help from a counselor.
Your surroundings can have a big impact on your food intake. Consider the color of your surroundings: it is known that red, orange and yellow stimulate the appetite, while gray, black, blue and purple tend to dampen hunger.
There are also places and activities that you may have a positive association with because it represents rest or love, people you have fun with, or comfort.
Examples of this kind of situational hunger might be when you get home from a long day and sit down on your couch. This may trigger snacking because you are resting, relaxing, and have the opportunity to have what you want at that point in the day. Or you may go have coffee with a good friend, and then have some sweet rolls or donuts to go along with it, simply because you are feeling relaxed.
For times like these, try to plan ahead for a healthier option. Forget the chips at the grocery store, and instead, pick up fruit, veggies and dip, and other healthier snack options. Plan your coffee outing or lunch at a restaurant that offers healthier items, so you can still enjoy what’s REALLY important—the interaction with your friends!
While hunger represents a biological imperative, it also nudges into so many more areas of our lives. Think, feel, and consider before you eat.
Written by Melissa Abramovich, ACE CPT, NASM CGT, AAHFRP Medical Exercise Specialist at Elite Sports Club-River Glen
Melissa Abramovich went into Personal Training and Group Exercise instruction after successfully losing 140 pounds through healthy diet and exercise. Her desire to help others drove her forward into a career helping others to make healthier choices. She is an ACE certified personal trainer and now also a Medical Exercise Specialist (AAHFRP), helping clients with a myriad of health issues at Elite Sports Clubs. She holds a Bachelor’s degree, and many group exercise related certifications as well.
This information is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. All material in this article is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise, or other health program.