There are a few keys to having a life-long healthy, happy relationship with your body, and one of those is learning to recognize and obey hunger cues. Many of us have these eating habits that have been in our bones since childhood. You eat first thing when you wake up. Or you always eat lunch at noon. You always have dinner at 6pm. You have a snack when you get home from work every day (it was school as a kid). But we don’t question: well, am I hungry then? Do I need food then? We’re just following some arbitrary schedule. However, the only thing that should really be dictating when you eat is your own body. Culturally, we have these eating schedules. We meet friends for dinner between the hours of 6pm and 8pm (this may be more like 8pm and 10pm in some European countries). Or we do appetizers at 5pm with our happy hour drinks. These schedules do us some good. They allow us to stick to the rest of our schedule, like with work and family obligations. And they allow us to make meals social, as there is a general understanding of when lunch or dinner may occur if someone invites you over for lunch or dinner. But, ultimately, these customs can also interfere with our ability to catch our own hunger cues. In addition to arbitrary eating schedules, here are habits that interfere with hunger cues.
Drinking too much caffeine
The acidity in caffeine can irritate your stomach lining, creating a sensation that feels like hunger. Then, you may eat just to alleviate that sensation, but you aren’t actually hungry. Then, that can mess up your general eating schedule. You may still eat your scheduled lunch, though you aren’t necessarily hungry then, because your coffee drove you to having a hefty mid-morning snack. And you throw off the flow of the hungry-full-hungry-full sensations you should go through, throughout the day.
Consuming artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners can, like caffeine, simulate the sensation of hunger, driving you to eat in order to soothe an uncomfortable sensation in the stomach. Studies have even found that occasional consumers of artificial sweeteners experience an increase in appetite, directly after. So you’re best off putting real sugar in your iced tea.
Not being regular
Your intestines and your stomach are literally connected, and on a more figurative level, they’re also connected. Being constipated can interfere with the regular movement of the intestines, the rate at which food is processed, and the communication between your stomach and your intestines. To put it simply: being regular gives you a more accurate idea of when you’re actually hungry.
Not sleeping enough
When you’re low on sleep, your brain produces stress signals that can trigger the hunger reaction, even when it’s not time to eat yet. You’ve probably experienced this on, say, travel days when you’ve had to get up at 4am for the airport. Suddenly, you’re starving at 5:30 am – a time you wouldn’t normally eat. Your body is trying to supplement the lost energy from the low sleep, through food.
Eating a huge breakfast
We used to think that everyone should have sausage, eggs, biscuits, and yogurt, every single morning. But, we’re learning now that that can actually bog down the metabolism. Just a little food in the morning is all it takes to rev up the metabolism. It isn’t yet ready, first thing in the AM, for 1,000 calories, and that can throw off hunger signals the remainder of the day.
Eating high-sugar foods
We need to back up a little to address this issue. First, if your meals are low in protein, there is a good chance that you will later crave sugar. What your body really wants is energy, and giving it protein then would be a good idea. But, your brain tricks you into wanting sugar, for a rapid increase in energy. However, if you give into that and do eat, say, that sugary muffin instead of some cheese and nuts, the hunger signals can just keep coming all day, causing you to snack and snack.
Eating when we’re “supposed to”
You don’t have to eat if you aren’t hungry. It sounds so simple, but many of us do eat at arbitrary times. You’re taking a breakfast meeting, so you order a full breakfast, even though you aren’t hungry. It’s okay to just have an orange and a nut bar at that time. You meet a friend for lunch, and feel rude not ordering food, so you do, but you really just wanted a lemonade. Don’t give into societal pressure to eat at arbitrary times.
Not drinking enough water
Thirst can masquerade as hunger. And it often does. But how are we supposed to know that what feels like hunger is actually thirst? If you feel hungry, drink a big glass of water. Wait ten minutes. If you’re still hungry, then yes, you’re hungry. But you may often find that you’re no longer hungry. You were just dehydrated.
Intermittent fasting is all the rage these days. When I heard what it was I laughed because that’s something I’ve been doing accidentally for years thanks to a busy schedule, and now people are doing it on purpose. Intermittent fasting can mess with your hunger cues, though. If your body isn’t getting enough calories, your metabolism may slow down in response and stop sending you hunger cues.
Drinking too much alcohol
Alcohol does to the stomach what caffeine and artificial sweetener does: it simulates the sensation of hunger. Anything that does that will cause you to eat when you don’t yet need calories. And that interrupts your body’s general plan for sending out hunger cues.
Stress isn’t a behavior, necessarily, so you may feel that there isn’t much to do about it. When we are stressed, many of our senses become numbed. We don’t notice if we’re tired or cold or hungry. The important thing during times of high stress is to step away from the stressor a few times a day, check in with your body, and ask yourself if you’re hungry. You don’t want to miss and ignore hunger signals.
Over-eating is a big one. Of course, it can be tied to many issues, including emotional ones, so if that’s the case, you may want to speak to a therapist about the root of the over-eating. However, it’s important to know that you need to give your body the chance to feel hungry if it’s going to continue to produce hunger signals on time. If you’re always full, you won’t get those hunger signals.
Distraction while eating
We need to show our body that we listen to its signals. And that starts by paying close attention when we are eating. Don’t finish what’s on your plate because it’s there. Or to be polite. Or because you’re in a hurry. Or because you’re watching TV or having a conversation and not paying attention. Eat slowly, and check in with your fullness levels. Accidentally overeating at every meal interferes with hunger signals. And being distracted can do that.
Not having regular eating habits
Try to have as regular of eating habits as possible. Don’t have days when you do a good job of having three meals, and then days when you only eat one massive meal at the end of the day, plus lots of tiny snacks. There are many mixed opinions out there on what eating schedule is best, but most people can agree that whatever you choose to do, do that every day.
Stockpiling calories for a long day
Sometimes you may eat a lot now, just because you don’t know when you’ll have time to eat again. But any time you stuff yourself, you interrupt your body’s plans for sending hunger signals in a timely manner. Eat until you’re comfortable, and if you have a busy day ahead of you, pack snacks.