Understanding Hunger

Understanding hunger. This article will help explain the science behind feeling hungry. And how you might regulate this better in order to assist you with your personal health improvement goals.

OK so right off the bat this article is a little lengthy, but for good reason. Hunger is much more complex than “feeling starving.” If like me you like to nerd out on all the finer details then I fully encourage you to examine and soak up the information provided. If though you’re more a “hit me with the facts, quick!” kinda person, then we have summarised the more important and practical information for your use near the bottom. Skip to “When & When Not To Eat”

That said let’s get into it.

What Is Hunger?

Generally, the type of hunger we experience in the developed world is a physical non permanent (providing we eat) stomach discomfort and the sensation to seek food.  This may also include a grumbling belly and mild light-headedness. Emotionally we may feel moody, nauseous or perhaps dizzy.

The experience and affects of hunger are interpreted differently by each person. Appetite of some people is lower, whilst others may become hungry more often and experience greater intensities of hunger aches. Which makes eating at set times irrelevant. But hunger pangs don’t always mean you’re actually hungry.

The feeling of hunger usually calm around 20 minutes after eating, but they can also decline even if you don’t eat. Our bodies ar very clever and able to adjust to new levels of normal, but this can take time. If though you continually deprive yourself of the right nutrition and amounts it will become much harder for you to reduce the feelings go hunger.

Seeking Food

Your mind and body consistently analysis’ itself to ensure you have enough energy for survival and activity. Your mind likes your body to be at a comfortable level where you have enough “energy stores” in order to meet the fuelling demands its used to. It will cleverly adapt according to your diet and lifestyle. So for instance let’s say you go on a 10 day aggressive diet. Your body will quickly sense a dramatic restriction in energy consumed. Energy being calories. In response to keep you safe it will likely increase certain hormones to make you feel more hungry, less satisfied after meals and literally slow your movements down. It works both ways overeat dramatically and your body we attempt to repeal you from consuming food.

Annoyingly though our bodies would rather have us “over fed” than “under fed” so you’ll experience an increased intensity of hunger pangs when you’re under eating, but minimal resistance when you’re overeating. It’s all about survival. The more energy stores you have (body fat) the longer you will survive in case of famine.

You have a set point that your body has become comfortably accepting of and will work to keep you in that range.  A dramatic shift in either direction will invoke a bodily response to adjust your new behaviours.

We seek food for 2 reasons. Firstly for necessity. Eating because your body and brain genuinely need the energy for fuel to survive and perform. And secondly, we seek and consume food to invoke a positive emotion.

Who can relate to something like this:  Eating a decent breakfast that’s healthy, filling and substantial. Only then to see a bakery program on TV 2 hours later, showcasing all the wonderful cakes and fillings. And sitting there thinking “yeah I could eat that.” And now your stuck for an hour or so obsessing over cake?! Then we have two options eat or don’t eat.

This is because we seek and consume food in two ways; the homeostatic and hedonic pathway.

Homeostatic Eating

We eat to get the energy our body needs, and to keep our biological system balanced, aka homeostasis. Simply homeostatic eating refers to the brains perception for the necessity of consuming energy in order to fuel our bodies for life and movement. You’ll experience genuine hunger pangs and you’ll need to eat in order to sustain your bodily performance. Your body encourages you to seek food for its energy requirements 

Hedonic Eating

This is where we eat for pleasure (aka hedonism), or to manage our emotions. You’re essentially seeking food to satisfy an emotional stimuli or a habitual behaviour, you’re not actually hungry. Research has shown that chronic consumption of highly palatable foods can alter brain function in ways similar to drug abuse, particularly within the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway. To put this in a different way, eating lots of calorically dense foods creates a perceived emotional “happiness.” Repeated over time you create habits and behaviours that seek this response more often. This is a reason why poor nutritional choices are hard to change. Essentially your body seeks food for emotional reasons.

Nutritional coaching will help to expand your understanding so that you can change you body and health and keep it that way. Book here for our support.

Hunger & Body Composition

Body composition refers to your fat percentage, muscle mass, bone weight, water weight, height and overall body weight. Your individual make up will impact the intensity and regularity that you experience hunger. In addition to this your genetics also have a considerable impact on your natural hunger levels also.

For example let’s say you’re a person who is considered “morbidly obese” and have been for many years.  Your body has become used to this and likely perceives as your “normal” state. The likelihood also is that ghrelin will be lower and leptin higher, due to the fact you have higher body fat. But try and loose weight, especially aggressively and your body will resist like it would with anyone. So you’ll still feel hungry, but for you it might be more about addressing your approach to hedonic eating. Homeostatic eating is still important, but you have become obese because you’ve over eaten which suggests you’ve repeatedly eaten in relation to the hedonic pathway and likely strengthened the neurological reward systems along the way. Which may mean that for habits and behaviour changes could be your biggest challenge, but also increasing your knowledge about nutrition and how to eat well.

In contrast let’s say you’re considered a “healthy weight,” low body fat percentage and decent muscle mass. You want to lean down further for a holiday or perhaps a sport like body building. again, your body will resist calorie restriction. Its likely though that you’ve learned to manage eating in the hedonic state, or so your leanness suggests. In this instance your ghrelin levels will likely be elevated, with leptin much lower and less impactful. Which means you’ll likely experience true hunger more often, with meals having less satiating properties even if your eating well. Your body senses depleting body fat reserves. It doesn’t like that and will fight.

Mastering both hedonic and homeostatic eating is key if your to achieve your goals. Be aware that being too lean (below 10% body fat) is not necessarily healthy. In fact it can be dangerous, causing physical and emotional problems. Physical problems may include: lower sex drive, lower energy, dizziness, sleeping issue, getting ill more, plus others. Whilst emotional problems may include: depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, bulimia nervosa, anorexia, binge eating to make but a few.

Some Of The “Hunger Hormones”

In short the more motilin present, the quicker food is processed and the hungrier you’re likely to feel. Eating little and often can reduce hunger throughout the day.

Practically this mean that when under periods of chronic stress, it is increasingly hard to maintain healthy eating habits.

To summarise. Your hormones work indirectly to firstly detect change and then signal to the brain, any concerns it has about what’s going on. Aggressive calorie restriction, weight loss and increased stress can trigger a survival response designed to keep you at what you body thinks is a safe and understood level of health. In practical terms, if you’re considered morbidly obese, obese or  overweight then its fine to loose a few pounds. Go under 10% body fat (for men) and 15% (for women) and you may enter a level where your body really fights back. Making continued weight loss harder.

When & When Not To Eat

Controlling your hunger and managing your cravings are two fundamental weight management skills. You’ll likely need to have a good grasp on what works for you in order for to achieve and  sustain weight loss. Below is a self assessment chart you can use mentally to gauge your hunger levels. Being honest in your perceived hunger levels can help you identify when and when not to eat. Ideally you always stay between numbers 3 – 6.

The Hunger Scale

Positive Eating Behaviours

Below are some of the fundementals you can start to practice. Most are backed by research that positively identifies them as simple behaviours and actions hat can considerably help you loose weight and stay lean.

Some important takeaways for you:

Digest (pun intended) this article and you’ll have a head start on successful strategies you can use to improve your acquisition of your results.


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