1. a feeling of discomfort or weakness caused by lack of food, coupled with the desire to eat.
2. a severe lack of food
3. a strong desire or craving
Those are the dictionary definitions of hunger. But what does hunger really mean? If you break hunger down to the most basic definition, what is it?
A medical definition states that hunger is “an uneasy sensation occasioned normally by the lack of food and resulting directly from stimulation of the sensory nerves of the stomach by the contraction and churning movement of the empty stomach.”
We’ve determined hunger is the contraction and churning of an empty stomach. Now when was the last time your stomach was truly empty? Claims vary on just how long a healthy, well-nourished person can survive without food; usually it’s somewhere in the area of three to ten weeks. However, the feeling of hunger usually happens after just a few hours of not eating.
Our resident nutrition expert, Mary Hartley, R.D., recommends using the Hunger-Fullness scale to determine how hungry you are. The scale goes from one to ten, with one being extremely hungry and ten being extremely full. “It’s best to train yourself to eat at 2.5-3.0 and stop at 7.5-8.0, and then get hungry again in 4-5 hours.”
By settling into this sort of pattern where you are listening to your body and gauging its needs, you avoid substituting hunger for something else. “If you’re not physically hungry, perhaps you ate recently, but you are very antsy and cannot stop thinking about food, then you have an emotional hunger,” Hartley said.
“People eat to avoid unpleasant feelings (boredom, anxiety, sadness, inadequacy and all kinds of hurts),” Hartley said. “Some have a problem with impulse control; some are out of touch with their feelings and live rote life, eating by the clock, eating everything on the plate, etc.”
Many of us were told as kids to “clean our plates.” While the idea of not being wasteful is certainly a good one, putting kids in the mindset of having to eat everything they are given can form habits of eating past the point of fullness. Knowing when you’re satiated, and stopping at that point, can help prevent the ill effects of eating when not actually hungry.
According to Hartley, there are long and short-term risks to eating when not hungry. In the short-term you can experience guilt, shame and sluggishness. If the tendency to eat for any reason other than actual hunger persists, it can lead to weight gain and related health problems.
Eating can be a way for people to deal with unpleasant emotions or situations, but it is also seen as a way to celebrate. Is there a birthday in the office? Have some cake! Win the big game? Let’s go out for ice cream! Eating because the food is there, or because it’s the thing to do is one of the biggest causes of eating without hunger.
“People have to take an honest look at their behaviors and feelings to see if anything is amiss,” Hartley said. “If they are routinely eating when they are not even hungry, then they have to set the intention to stop the behavior and then practice mindfulness and remain vigilant,” Hartley said.
“Whenever you cannot tell if you’re hungry, then you are not. Just wait,” Hartley said. “Hunger should be a fairly straight-forward physical feeling, like being cold (wear a sweater) or having to pee (go to the bathroom). Hungry? Eat. Not hungry, don’t eat.”