I’m Hungry, really? For What?
Four Hungers May Cause You to Eat … Eat … Eat Some More
“I ate the whole thing!” I hear a lament like this so often. Clients who are unhappy about eating too much, eating the wrong things, eating at the wrong times. They are disappointed and angry with themselves and ashamed about the weight and health issues it leads to. As we explore these issues together, I have learned that they are dealing with four different types of hunger, one that under normal conditions doesn’t lead to such things as eating the “whole thing” and three others that can and often do.
I’d like to share these four pangs of hunger with you and the simple ways you can manage them better. I hope this information will help you to escape getting trapped in your food habits. Here they are.
The Four Hungers Stomach Hunger – Nourishment
This is the commonly understood definition of hunger. Your stomach tells you and your brain that you are hungry for nourishment. You need food. Your body wants fuel from the nutrients in fat, protein, and carbohydrates. It may growl or crumble. It may feel empty. You may have hunger pangs. Unless you have a metabolic disorder, medication, or a physical or mental illness that makes your stomach feel hungry without the need for fuel, stomach hunger goes away when the stomach is full. It says, “All done. I don’t want any more.” You are left with a pleasant, calm feeling you can enjoy. If offered more food when the stomach is full, it isn’t interesting and will tend to become physically uncomfortable if its disinterest is ignored and you eat anyway. As we’ll discuss later, your stomach can become the gauge by which you can be more in charge of when what, and how much you eat. One reason is that you won’t feel the stomach hunger sensations with the other types of hunger.
Heart Hunger – Comfort
Sometimes when we’re sad, anxious, angry, hurt, or under the weather, we get “hungry.” We want some “comfort food.” Our stomach need not be hungry for food. It may even be full. But we want to eat anyway. Other parts of our body are yearning for satiation. There may be a gnawing feeling, a yearning, a tension, a craving. It’s often felt in the chest or throat. They are hungering for a way to bathe your brain with certain neurotransmitters that will make you feel better. Neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, or dopamine. Particular foods do boost these neurotransmitters. In fact, the field of nutritional psychology studies the effects of food on our mood and sense of well-being. There are many other ways to boost these neurotransmitters, though, that do not involve food. So, if your stomach is full and isn’t telling you that your body needs fuel, you don’t have to eat to fulfill your Heart Hunger.
NOTE: There can be many complicated issues involved with eating. Some are genetic, biologic, psychological, personal, or cultural. If you find this information doesn’t address your issues, know that there is help for treating more complex challenges. Please contact your medical or psychological professional to find the help you need.
Mouth Hunger- Stimulation
When there is a particular food you really love to eat, your mouth may tell you you’re “hungry” for some. Perhaps you’re already eating it. Now your stomach is full, but your mouth hunger says, “I want some more.” Or maybe you’re not eating at the time, but for some reason your favorite food comes to mind, i.e., seeing it on TV, smelling the aroma while shopping, or just a memory of a time when you enjoyed it. Right then and there your mouth starts watering for some. It’s preparing for a bite to stimulate your taste buds. Usually, mouth hunger is for particular kinds of foods. Like sweet treats, salty chips, creaming fillings. Food manufacturers are fully aware of this and have purposely created foods like these so we “can’t eat just one.” In fact, we can easily eat the whole bag, the whole cake, “the whole thing.” These foods also bring in the neurotransmitters that make us feel good, so they are doubly tempting. Then there are those who eat when they’re bored. It’s something to do. “Ah, eating, why not go do that?”
Head Hunger – Reason
Head hunger is actually a thought. We tell ourselves it’s time to eat whether our stomach is hungry or not. For example, some people eat by the clock. “It’s 12:00. Time for lunch.” Other people eat by the directions in a diet book or a health plan like one that says you must something every 2-3 hours. Or because you are to only eat certain foods even if your stomach or mouth doesn’t enjoy them. Or you have pills you have to take with food, stomach wanting any or not. Or because that’s what you do at social events. One example of this is an overweight woman I worked with who desperately wanted to lose weight. But she was a very social person, visiting in friends’ homes or attending gatherings where food is served. She told me in dismay about all the “goodies” she “had to eat because it would be rude not to.” Generally speaking, we don’t check with our stomach to see if we need fuel when our head gives us a reason to eat.
So, these are the four pangs of hunger. Most likely you already know that uncontrolled eating in response to all of them can be problematic. But here’s what can you do if you want to be more in control than that of what, when, and how much to eat.
Ask Your Stomach.
Is your body hungry for nutrients from food? Do you really need energy? Or are you experiencing one the other kinds of hungers? If you want to know, ask your stomach. It will let you know. Your stomach is communicating with you all day long to let you know when you’re in need of fuel and when you’re not in need of any. It’s sending hunger and satiety cues from two hormones that monitor food intake for you.
Ghrelin is the hunger hormone. It says you need to eat to fill your tank with energy.
Leptin is the satiety/fullness hormone. It tells you; the tank is full. Time to stop eating.
This sounds so simple. But many of us aren’t tuned into our bodies. We don’t get these messages. We’ve stopped paying attention to the signals from our stomach. With the limits of daily demands and distractions, tight schedules, stress, or diet regimens, we’ve come to ignore these physical signs, or we’ve forgotten what they feel like. Chronic dieting can numb our hunger cues, as can depression. Those who “graze” all day don’t get a chance to get hungry. Some of us never learned the hunger cues. For example, infants who are fed on a schedule, or whose needs are neglected, don’t get to experience a relationship between what their stomach is telling them and when they get to eat.
Whatever the reason, if you don’t recognize or pay attention to your body’s cues, you won’t know what kind of “hunger” you’re experiencing. You will have lost control of “hunger.” So you can take control of your eating by becoming aware of and responding to the messages your stomach sends to let you know you’re hungry.
What to Listen For
While the stomach hunger cues vary from person to person, here are some common sensations people have when they’re hungry for fuel. Let’s start with the stomach cues:
Contracting or cramping feeling
Empty, hollow feeling inside
Acidy. Ghrelin releases acid to aid digestion and if we don’t eat, it starts burning
Of course, you have a desire to eat in response to these cues. When you don’t notice the stomach signs, there are other signs that develop in our body. These signs occur for many other reasons, though, so you need to check in with your stomach to confirm it is hunger for fuel and not something else:
- Lack of energy
- Shakiness or weakness
By pausing a moment when you think you’re hungry to notice whether your stomach is physically hungry, you put yourself in a position to make a conscious decision to be in control of your eating and more importantly, take care of your health. Pausing also gives you a chance to determine which other types of “hunger” you’re feeling so you can know what to do about it.
Are You Full Yet?
Equally important is listening to your stomach telling you it’s time to stop eating. Often, we eat so mindlessly that we go right on past being full and just keep eating. We’re talking, working on the computer, reading, watching TV. We’re not paying attention to how much we’re putting in our mouths. Sometimes we gobble our food down so fast the stomach doesn’t have time to register that we’re full. So, to be sure you don’t overeat, you need to pay attention to your body while you’re eating.
Satiety (fullness) occurs gradually. The stomach expands as it fills. If you notice, you can feel the expanding stomach stretching. As it keeps stretching, it starts to feel tight and begins to push against other organs, making you feel uncomfortable. First, you feel a little bit uncomfortable. At this point, you should start to lose interest in eating anymore, but if you miss this sign or ignore it because you like what you’re eating and enjoy the taste (mouth hunger), you start to feel quite uncomfortably full. Your stomach begins really pooching. You start to feel bloated and may need to loosen your clothes. If you keep on, you start to feel “stuffed.” You may become so full you feel nauseated. We need to notice and pay attention to our slight discomfort. That’s your point of power for managing your eating.
If overeating is a habit, you may need to use your Brain Hunger Meter to tell yourself to stop eating artificially. Asking yourself “Do you notice your stomach and organs are uncomfortable? You have to stop eating now.” You may need to do this until you become sufficiently aware of the feelings of fullness that this process can occur naturally.
Note: Eating balanced, healthy natural foods provides the nutrients your body needs. Sometimes you can be full and have no stomach signs of stomach hunger, but your body may still be hungry for missing nutrients. So be sure you’re not filling up on empty calories. For tips on how to eat for your body’s needs see 5 of The Best Natural Ways to Improve Your Diet and Brain Health.
If It’s Not Stomach Hunger, Then What?
Ok, so you don’t need fuel. What is it you want? Can you eat anyway? Of course. You probably already do. But if you don’t like packing on the pounds or feeling bad from overeating more than what your body needs, notice which of the other hungers are driving you to overeat. This will enable you to make a choice of if, when, and how much more you eat and help you discover other ways to satisfy what you’re “hungering” for. Any of these hungers can take you into a Bottomless Hunger Pit of “Oh, no, I ate the whole thing!”
Heart Hunger – Seeking Comfort – Do you reward yourself with food? Is that what your mother did? “Oh, honey, you’re not feeling well. Let me get you a little something to eat.” There are so many other ways to comfort ourselves besides food. If you have a habit of turning to comfort food, you’ll need to discover what else would be comforting to you. One of my clients found that taking the time to sit in her comfy chair with a cup of her favorite tea did the trick. Another found the answer in talking to a comforting friend. One found cuddling up in bed for a nap with her cozy down comfort did the job. Puttering around with his tools in the workshop was a real comfort for another client. Many others find a good substitute for food is “treating” themselves with some form of pampering. Take a soothing bath. Walking in nature. Listening to relaxing music. Having some silent downtime. Watching a movie with a friend. Getting a manicure.
What are yours? As with all these other “hungers,” finding replacements may take some time. They might not be as convenient or readily available as food, which seems to be everywhere all the time. So it may take some adjustment to find new ways of fulfilling your comfort hunger. For example, it might be as simple as putting your feet up and closing your eyes for a few minutes of work. Or actually take your break instead of working through it. If you want to break the overeating habit, such adjustments are worth it and so are you.
Mouth Hunger – Seeking Stimulation through Your Taste Buds – “Um, um. That tastes sooo good. I’ve gotta have some more.” The best trick to circumvent the “eating the whole thing” challenge is focused awareness. Become aware right away when you get that “just one more” feeling and pause immediately to check with your stomach. Is it hungry or full? If it’s full, remind yourself that your stomach will not be comfortable if you keep stuffing food into it, no matter how good it tastes. Remember that you will probably not be happy with yourself after you’re finished eating more than your body needs. When we do, it’s typical to feel ashamed, disappointed, or angry with ourselves. “How could I have done this again!”
If this is your pattern, skip these negative feelings. They are part of the “The Whole Thing” Cycle:
Desire – Eating “The Whole Thing” – Brief Enjoyment – Discomfort, Blame and Disappointment – Promise Never Again – Repeat
Instead of completing this pattern, assure yourself that you will be able to eat this goodie again when you are hungry. You don’t have to eat keep eating it now. You can anticipate eating it in the future. Sometimes setting a limit or goal on this type of food will help. For example, a serving of potato chips might be 15 pieces, take 15 out of the bag and put them in a bowl. Then close the bag and put it away, far away, from where you’ll eat your chips. Another option, not keeping irresistible foods in your house can help too. Save getting them for special times, perhaps when you’ll be sharing them with lots of others.
Confession: Brownies, Chocolate Cake, Fudge and Scones are never allowed in our home. Can’t resist them.
When you get good at listening to your stomach, you may be able to notice a negative reaction from your stomach even for things you would otherwise love to eat. This reaction from your stomach is very helpful. So give it a chance to be heard and then shift your attention to something else you enjoy besides eating.
Head Hunger – Having a Reason to Eat – There are so many reasons we tell ourselves for eating whether our body needs nutrients or not. Here are few common ones. “It’s 6:00. Time to eat dinner.” “You better eat up now because you could get hungry later.” “Everyone else is eating. Everyone is pressing me to join in.” “My diet says I need a snack every two hours.” “It’s my lunch break.” “You can have one more.” Some of these reasons turn into habits and we don’t even notice them. “We always eat at 6:00 PM.” “Lunch break is always at 12:30.” “Everyone always enjoys goodies from the buffet after church service” or the staff meeting, etc. “It would be rude to turn down food.” “You don’t want this food to go to waste.”
This means you have to pay attention to what you’re telling yourself when you are considering eating. Once again, it’s a matter of checking with your stomach. Is it hungry? Despite what your head is saying, does it really make sense to eat if you don’t need any fuel? Should you listen to your stomach instead of your head? Sometimes what you say to yourself about eating does make sense and is helpful. For example, it can be a voice that says “Stop eating! You’re not hungry.” “You haven’t eaten all day. Are you hungry?” “You’re eating too much-processed junk food. Let’s find some delicious healthy things to eat.” “You don’t have to eat just because someone offers you some food.”
But note. These messages aren’t examples of Head Hunger. Compare the examples in the previous two paragraphs. If you think about the first of these two paragraphs, they are Head Hunger messages. They are giving you permissions, commands or excuses to ignore your stomach when it’s full. The messages in the second of these paragraphs are helpful messages about eating well. In fact, as mentioned earlier, until checking our stomach for hunger or fullness becomes a habit, you may need to depend on messages for our Head Hunger Meter to point out whether you’re hungry or full. “Stop. Wait before you take that bite. Did you check with your stomach?” “You’re bloating up. Your stomach is uncomfortable. Better stop eating.”
The Real Challenge: When the Hungers Collude.
The most difficult challenge to escaping from “I Ate the Whole Thing” is when all the hungers team up at once, each re-enforcing the other. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen to you. But if it does, you’ll recognize it. Here’s one scenario.
– Your stomach is hungry. You start eating.
– You miss the cue that it’s full because you’re eating fast and what you’re eating is fulfilling your need for
comfort and a reward “Boy, what a wonderful big meal. This is just what I need after such a stressful day.”
Heart hunger has taken over.
– This is so delicious. My taste buds want more … and more. Now mouth hunger has jumped in to take charge.
– Your Head Hunger says, “Yes, you deserve this. You can cut back tomorrow.”
Here’s another one:
– You finished the main course of dinner but didn’t leave room in your stomach for the dessert, but …
– You’re salivating for that piece of chocolate cake. (Mouth)
– Eating the cake is the reward or bribe for doing what lies ahead. (Heart)
– There’s nothing wrong with having dessert. (Head)
A 45-year-old woman I’ll call Esther had been working hard on eating with the guidance of her stomach. One night at midnight, she and her husband went to the kitchen to let the dogs out before bed as they always do. Her husband decided to have a bowl of ice cream. She checked her stomach. “It’s not hungry. It was peaceful and content.” But she really wanted to have some ice cream too. She struggled with this desire. Where is it in her body? “It’ was in the back of my throat.” Ah, mouth hunger, but it was relentless. “I could feel an ache in my throat and saliva forming to in my mouth for the first bite.” Then she heard Head Hunger join in to collude with the desire in her mouth. It said, “You haven’t eaten that much today. It won’t hurt to have some ice cream? Why should he get a midnight treat and you get don’t?”
She stood there in the kitchen for a moment and really focused on the feeling in her mouth. “Wow! It was putting up a fight.” She could feel its tug. She paused and thought of her stomach. It was so calm and still. “I thought of how I had felt before when I ate something late at night. How unpleasant I felt trying to get to sleep, sort of bloated-like.” She thought of how in the morning she hadn’t been hungry for breakfast but had to eat anyway before leaving for work. “Again, that had been unpleasant. I was so disappointed in myself. “I had done it again.” Having the ice cream, finishing the quart with her husband, as she knew they would, “that’s exactly what I no longer want to do.” So she went to bed, ready to drift comfortably off to sleep.
Your Real Point of Power
There are so many more examples of how we get tangled in the web of our four hungers. But the way out is always the same: checking in with your stomach before and while eating. Make friends with your stomach and get to know it really well. At whatever point you notice that all may not be well down there, check-in. “Is my stomach hungry? Or is it sending signs it’s full?” This simple check is your point of power. You can stop before you eat and find other ways to fulfill the other hungers that would keep you eating. For example, saying to yourself:
“Let’s find another reward.” “What else would be a treat your jangled nerve?”(Heart)
“You can have some of this when you get hungry for dinner.” (Mouth)
“You don’t have to finish it just because you started eating it.” Or” just because there’s some left.” Or “because it might go to waste.” “You don’t have to clean your plate.” (Head)
It all comes down to awareness. Seize the reins on your galloping hungers. Turn to your stomach. You can let it be in control and come to enjoy the pleasant, calm, peaceful, feeling of having had enough to eat … and no more.
I Hope This Information Helps
Sometimes it’s hard to do this on your own. Please let me know if I can help. Or reach out to a medical or nutrition professional. You don’t have to live endlessly “Eating the Whole Thing.”
If you are interested in any subject on this site, please contact me.
(c) 2022 Dr. Sarah A. Edwards