It’s very common for individuals who have an eating disorder, or even just disordered eating due to “normal” dieting, to say they don’t feel hungry. And so the question is, if you don’t have hunger, how can you eat intuitively? In this post, we’ll talk about what might be interfering with your hunger cues and what to do about it.
What are Hunger Cues?
First, it’s important to understand that when we typically talk about hunger, we’re referring to the grumbling or gnawing sensations in our stomachs. However, our bodies actually give us a range of other hunger cues that you might be missing, even if you’re not feeling anything in your tummy. Some other clues that you’re hungry and need to eat include:
- Low energy
- Trouble concentrating
- Thinking about food
What Causes People to Stop Experiencing Hunger?
When we disrupt our bodies’ normal rhythms through restriction and/or chaotic eating patterns, our bodies adjust. If you’ve spent a lot of time ignoring your hunger, your body will sometimes stop sending you those sensations because it’s a waste of energy. It’s like a crying baby who crying eventually gives up when no one responds to them.
Another thing that could be happening is that your digestive system has slowed down. When this occurs, your stomach feels fuller sooner and longer because food empties from the stomach slower than it normally would. Called gastroparesis, this condition is common with restrictive eating disorders, and can include other symptoms such as heartburn, nausea, bloating, and vomiting. If you think you have gastroparesis, I highly suggest working with a gastroenterologist familiar with eating disorders.
Lastly, the other thing I often see with clients who don’t experience hunger is that they aren’t allowing themselves enough time between eating to feel hungry. If you eat more often than your body needs, you’re going to beat your hunger to the punch, so to speak.
How to Eat if You Don’t Feel Hunger
The first step is to put some structure in place in regards to your eating. Start by eating breakfast, even if it’s small, within an hour of waking up. (No, coffee is not breakfast!) Then eat every 3-4 hours, whether you are hungry or not. That likely would have you eating 3 meals a day, with 1-2 snacks. Do not eat before your snack or meal time. Don’t skip any, even if you binged.
I can imagine that you might be asking right now, “How is that intuitive eating?”
But I promise, it’s a necessary part of the healing process that makes intuitive eating possible. I heard Evelyn Tribole, co-author of Intuitive Eating, describe structured meals and snacks like putting a cast on a broken bone. The structure is necessary for healing, but it’s not meant to stay on forever. Once the bone (i.e. your relationship with food) is healed enough, you take the cast off.
Besides, contrary to the misconception that intuitive eating is simply about “eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full,” there’s more to it than that. Intuitive eating is not 100% instinct. It’s also based on logic, and when our hunger signals aren’t working properly, logic can ensure that our bodies still get what they need.
The goal is for regular eating of sufficient calories to restore normal digestive function and hopefully, normal hunger sensations. But until that happens, you can still practice attunement with your body by starting to notice other hunger cues that you’re likely missing if you’re focused solely on what’s going on in your stomach.
For more information about this topic, check out this Intuitive Bites podcast episode by Kirsten Ackerman, RD.
One More Thing…
Remember that intuitive eating involves ten principles. Only two of them are about hunger and fullness. Which means, even while you are working on restoring hunger, you can be practicing the other 8 principles related to rejecting diet mentality, making peace with food, respecting your body, and all the rest.
DISCLAIMER: These are general principles I hope you find helpful, but I highly encourage you to work with an eating disorder therapist or dietitian who can help you with this process! Recovery really is an individual thing and you need professionals who understand your unique physical and emotional needs to customize a suitable treatment plan for you. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
I’m Cherie Miller, MS, LPC-S, founder of Nourished Soul Center for Healing and @foodfreedomtherapist on Instagram. We offer therapy and nutrition counseling for chronic dieting as well eating disorders like Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, Orthorexia, ARFID, and other food issues. As anti-diet professionals, we are passionate about intuitive eating and Health at Every Size philosophies. Contact us here to schedule a therapy or nutrition appointment.