Mastering Your Hunger: The Essential Guide to Identifying, Managing, and Embracing the 3 Types of Hunger for a Healthy Relationship with Food
24 March 2023 | Roni Davis
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Table of Contents
Overview & Intro
Redefining Hunger - What it is and Isn’t
3 Main Driving Forces Your Hunger
Driving Force #1. Your Body
Driving Force #2 Your Heart
Driving Force #3: Your Mind
How to Effectively Manage Your Hunger
Key Takeaways & Summary
Overview and Intro
There’s no shortage of tips, tricks, programs, products, pills, potions (etc) designed to help you fight, resist, control, or ignore your hunger and I’m willing to bet that you’ve tried almost all of them. Perhaps you’ve even had some short-term success with some, only to find that eventually, like everything else you’ve tried, the short-lived success is replaced by feelings of failure and shame when it stops working.
In this post, I’m going to share three main types of hunger, how they affect why you eat the way you eat, how to identify them, tips for managing them, plus you’ll learn exactly why trying to fight, resist and control them not only doesn’t work, but is downright harmful.
By the time you’re done, you’ll have a new perspective on your hunger, so you can stop fighting it and start learning to listen and honor what it’s trying to tell you.
If you have any questions as you’re going through it, you can reach me here and I’ll get back to you as quickly as I can.
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Redefining Hunger - What It Is and Isn't
One of my most recent clients came into the Academy after having spent a number of years in an unbelievably restrictive, almost cult-like eating program that she finally left after it (predictably) began causing binge eating, among having a whole host of other negative impacts on her.
I think she said it was Bright Line Eating - and I hesitate to share that because it’s such a disgustingly unhealthy program that I’d rather a hole in the head than feel like I was giving them any type of attention, but I decided that I would in the hopes of warning you against it and other horrifically toxic, trauma-inducing programs like it.
Before we dive in, I have to again point out why I harp so incessantly on how unhealthy everything we’ve been taught about what it takes to eat healthy really is - this client is not unique.
Every single woman I’ve ever worked with in over a dozen years has the issues they have with food (and their bodies) because of programs exactly like this one - programs that claim to teach you the 'right' way to eat and live healthy but actively cause decades worth of serious harm to mental, emotional and physical health.
Programs like this are the norm in our culture. Disordered eating and eating disorders under the guise of ‘healthy living’ have become the norm and I will not shut up about it until they’re gone forever, because they are truly destroying decades of our lives… the level of unnecessary pain and suffering the rules and restrictions they are causing women everywhere… probably even you, infuriates me.
But I digress…
The client I spoke of often shares bits of their program theory as she works on healing and deprogramming the harmful messaging she learned from her time within it and one of their favorite tag lines is one such message:
Hunger is not an emergency.
I’ve never been in the program, so admittedly, I’m only guessing the meaning behind this line, but it sounds a whole lot like, as with most supposedly ‘healthy’ eating programs, it’s suggesting clients implement willpower and discipline to ignore or resist their hunger cues and today we’re going to explore not only how screwed up, and unhealthy that belief is, we’re going to explore what hunger really is and isn’t, along with different types of hunger, how you can tell the difference and the actually normal, natural, healthy approach to dealing with hunger.
To start, let’s put the phrase into perspective, because while on some level it’s technically true for most of us lucky enough not to suffer from food insecurity, there are millions of starving people in the world who would desperately disagree…
Hunger absolutely can be, and for some actually is, a life or death emergency.
Food is literally life-sustaining and hunger is not the enemy - it’s the vital communication we receive that alerts us when a need is present… it tells us when it’s time to eat, how much we need, and even, if we listen closely enough, what we need. It also tells us a whole host of other things but more on that in a bit.
When she shared that phrase, I suggested she trade the harmful old messaging for an outlook on hunger that’s not only more accurate but also more empowering and actually helpful… that is:
Hunger is not the enemy, it’s communication.
It’s alerting you of a current need.
It’s your life-partner. Your best friend.
Treating hunger like it’s something we should be ignoring, fighting or postponing dealing with, yanno because it’s supposedly not an emergency, is not only unhealthy but also completely unnatural, downright abusive and the epitome of diet-culture bullshit that we need to stop buying into.
It’s not promoting health or well-being.
Now, you might be thinking, but Roni… I’m hungry ALLLLL the time. If I don’t try to ignore or control my hunger, all I’d ever do is eat.
And trust me, I get that… I lived it.
My hunger used to be so out of control that I actually once pulled candy out of the trash and ate it, I was so desperate for sweets… I was even once hospitalized for a week because
I couldn’t stop eating.
So yeah, I get feeling like you’re hungry all the time and the fear behind not being able to stop eating or thinking about food.
But here’s the thing - even that’s okay, because again, when we learn to welcome and understand our hunger instead of fighting and resisting it, we can learn what those non-stop thoughts of food or desires to eat are trying to tell us about what we actually need so we can properly honor the underlying needs that are driving it.
And when we actually meet the needs that are being communicated through our hunger, the hunger stops.
Three Main Driving Forces of Hunger
To understand what our hunger is trying to communicate to us, it’s important to recognize that there are different types of hunger …and it’s all trying to communicate different things.
There are a lot of ideas floating around about how many different types of hunger there are and what they are but I really like to keep things as simple as possible so I really just see them all as coming from one of three places, generally speaking.
Driving Force #1: Your Body
Hunger driven by our bodies is the hunger that most people are familiar with and that most people associate all other types of hunger with, this is physical hunger. This type of hunger is driven by biological need and occurs when the body needs fuel to function properly. It is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as stomach growling, and irritability.
Interestingly, it’s often the least common reason we eat.
When ignored or suppressed, it can lead to binge or overeating. It typically builds up over time and is addressed quickly and easily by simply listening and honoring our bodies’ need for food by eating.
Physical hunger is a normal, natural and important signal from our body that communicates our physiological need for energy and nutrients.
It is a communication tool that our body uses to let us know when it needs fuel to function properly. By listening to that communication and responding appropriately, we can nourish our body and maintain healthy relationships with not only food but our bodies… and ourselves… and by honoring that communication by giving ourselves what it’s telling us we need, we’re able to actively support our overall health and well-being in the best way possible.
Treating hunger like an enemy, or fighting to ignore or resist it is actively unhealthy because it forces you to ignore or fight against the individual moment to moment needs of your body, not to mention how much it messes up your relationship with food and your body.
In addition to being unable to actually meet your own needs when you’re fighting or ignoring your hunger, it also leads to food cravings, compulsions, binge eating, or other eating disorders, and it can leave you feeling like garbage and negatively affect not only your energy levels but your physical health as a whole.
Not to mention the levels of guilt, shame and anxiety it creates around food which negatively affects our mental and emotional health, makes it hard to enjoy food or feel good about yourself and contributes to self-punishing behaviors rather than self-nurturing ones.
Driving Force #2: Your Heart
Hunger driven by heart is emotional hunger. Emotional hunger is a desire to eat or craving for food that arises from feelings of fear, stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, a need for love (self or otherwise) and a million other negative emotional states though positive emotions can also cause it. Emotional hunger is often characterized by a desire for specific types of foods, such as comfort foods, sugary snacks, or salty snacks and felt in the chest, throat, or even belly but if it’s felt in the belly, it’s not the same physical sensation of grumbling or growling that physical hunger causes.
This type of hunger is very difficult to suppress or ignore, especially if we don’t have any other emotional regulation strategies or tools. If we do manage to suppress it, life gets really, really hard because without being able to manage or regulate our emotions, they can consume us.
Emotional hunger, emotional eating, serves as important a purpose as physical hunger, it’s a tool to cope with or regulate emotions - often the only way we have learned to do so… is it the best way to do that?
Sometimes, perhaps… but not always, especially if it’s your only emotional regulation tool because while it may temporarily provide a sense of comfort or respite from emotions that can feel too overwhelming to manage on our own, stuffing, numbing or otherwise avoiding and repressing feelings doesn't actually help long term.
And this is one of the types of hunger that can make us feel hungry literally all day, every day… because we’re experiencing emotions all day, every day… they’re inescapable.
One client one day, in the middle of recalling a particularly painful childhood memory, stopped mid sentence to comment how weird it was that she just noticed she was hungry all of a sudden… and that it was weird because she had just finished eating so didn’t think she should be hungry again so soon. I had her explore where she was feeling the hunger in that moment and when she explored her body, she noticed it was in her chest.
That’s emotional hunger. Heart hunger. When her brain sensed the fear and pain present in that moment, it automatically triggered a need to eat to soothe or numb it.
This is what I mean… using food to soothe becomes so automatic that we just think we’re too weak-willed to stop eating and we’re so disconnected from our bodies that we can’t translate the messages we’re getting about what we actually need.
When we become conditioned to use food as a coping strategy or emotional regulation tool, our brains eventually become conditioned to respond to emotions basically as a problem that’s solved by eating so we feel driven to eat, or mindlessly munch.
Remember how that auto-pilot cycle works… when the brain detects a threat, in this case, emotions, it searches its memory banks for how it’s protected you from that threat in the past and drives you straight to food.
A desire to eat becomes the automatic response any time an emotion pops us…
And many of us, in fact most of the women I’ve worked with over the years, learned early on that emotions weren’t safe. We weren’t allowed to feel or express emotions… without being either judged, getting in trouble for it, or both.
We learn to numb, suppress, fear, disconnect from, stuff, and reject our emotions or emotional responses - but our emotions aren’t the enemy, like all forms of messages from our bodies, they’re communication… they’re communicating a need within us.
They need to be seen, acknowledged, allowed, felt and honored…but when we avoid, or stuff them, when we fight, resist and try to control our hunger… we’re abandoning ourselves, rejecting parts of ourselves and dismissing our current needs.
I think of emotional hunger as heart hunger because I think it represents the place in us that feels and suffers from this abandonment most.
Since ancient times, our hearts have been seen as the center of our emotions, the place in us that is pure love and acceptance - it’s the place in us that tells our truth, that guides us, that allows us to love, accept and connect with ourselves and others on a meaningful level.
But if all we’re doing is stuffing, rejecting and ignoring our emotions, we’re turning our backs on those things and abandoning ourselves over and over and over again. Rather than being a space of love and acceptance, our hearts become storage containers for all the pain, fear, grief, hurt, and sadness that we stuff down with food over the years… sealed up tight so they can never be allowed out… and nothing else can be allowed in.
And in fact, science has discovered a physical link between our emotions and heart health.
Several studies strongly suggest that certain psychosocial factors such as grief, depression, and job loss contribute to heart attack and cardiac arrest. Stress may affect risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure.
Repressing emotions can have harmful impacts on both our mental and physical health.
Here are some examples:
It is important to find healthy ways to express and manage our emotions to avoid these negative effects, because no matter how hard we try, we cannot ever escape the fact that we are human, and as humans, we all experience emotions and emotional triggers all day every day throughout our entire lives.
Heart hunger is the place in us that is most desperate to be seen, felt, allowed, accepted, and loved unconditionally.
It’s the place in us that is screaming… please see me… love me… accept me… it’s the insatiable yearning for relief from the negative emotions we’re scared to honor and from the pain of the disconnection and self-abandonment that results.
Learning to honor this type of hunger in more life-affirming ways was one of the most difficult things I ever learned to do in my life - but also the most rewarding because it allows me to show up for myself and my own unique emotional needs in ways I never knew possible and to reconnect with and trust the truth of who I am… beneath the stories, the conditioning, the beliefs and patterns so I could start moving beyond those things that had been such an all-consuming source of suffering in my life for so many years by fueling the weight and food obsessions, self-loathing, shame, you name it.
Driving Force #3: Your Head
Hunger driven by our heads refers to the auto-pilot patterns we develop with food over the course of our lives. As I mentioned above, there is some overlap with the last one because heart or emotional hunger definitely becomes an autopilot pattern, but it’s not the only way we get stuck in patterns with food. Head hunger refers to anything driven by our conditioning, not just emotional eating.
This type of hunger is driven by our conditioning, our habits, and beyond the emotional eating habits we get stuck in, it’s usually largely driven by the rules we learn around what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ eat.
It’s the type of hunger that drives you into the box of donuts an hour after you just promised yourself you were going to ‘be good with food today’ while you’re busy wondering how you got there and admonishing yourself for ‘screwing up’ again.
Remember the three biggest reasons why we get stuck in compulsive patterns with food or feel addicted to certain foods that I’ve talked about before… as a reminder, they’re: restriction, self-punishment and emotions… these all fall into this category.
Head hunger is driven almost entirely by years, even decades of conditioning… subconscious patterns that you’re probably not even aware of and it’s the type of hunger behind most compulsive issues with food or feelings of food addiction.
This type of hunger is typically almost impossible to ignore because it comes on without warning, happens on auto-pilot, completely mindlessly and is behind that ‘I don’t even know why I’m eating this but I can’t make myself stop’ feeling we all know so well. You feel out of control when you are driven by this type of hunger, because you’re not present or connected when you’re eating from head hunger… because you’re not present or connected, you’re not in control… your conditioning is.
I often share the Buddhist short story of a man on a horse.
The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don't know! Ask the horse!”
The horse represents our conditioning.
When we’re driven by this type of hunger, we’re in a completely mindless state, disconnected from not only the present moment but our bodies and current needs, but we’re also disconnected from the decision-making part of our brains… the habit center is fully in control and we have completely checked out…logic, reason, rationality, intellect, they’ve all checked out.
It’s also the most common reason we tend to eat, or overeat, because most of us live in this disconnected, dissociated, auto-pilot state basically all day every day.
As with the others, there are a number of ways you can recognize this type of hunger, but the simplest is to be present and curious about your thoughts.
Typically, this type of hunger starts in your head and is largely driven by your thoughts, especially all those obsessive, ruminating back and forth thoughts over what, when or how much you should or shouldn’t be eating.
How to Effectively Manage Your Hunger
So, if hunger is communication and not supposed to be suppressed or resisted, what do you do about it?
I’m so glad you asked.
Whatever type of hunger is showing up for you at any given moment, they are all best addressed, as I teach in E-CET, by being present, connected, curious and intentional.
Rather than treating our hunger like an enemy that we need to overcome, fight, resist, or ignore, we must begin approaching it for what it actually is… communication.
That means turning towards our hunger so we can start listening to it and honoring it the best way we can based on whatever type of hunger we’re experiencing.
We can only do this when we’re present and connected, in the moment and in our bodies, curious about what information we’re getting, what that information is telling us we actually need and then intentional about how we choose to respond to those needs… intentionally choosing the kindest, most compassionate and loving choice we can.
It requires being aware of when it’s happening, and learning to rewire the patterns in your brain that’s driving it. For example, if emotional eating is behind some of your patterns, you’ll need to learn new tools and skills for managing emotions without food.
If restriction is driving it, you can practice the permission element from E-CET.
Because it takes time and purposeful, consistent effort to change these patterns with food, it’s helpful to first decide how important it is to you by assessing how negatively your patterns with food are affecting you.
For example, if you’re in the habit of mindlessly grabbing a particular type of sweet once a week when you’re at one particular store and it’s not negatively interfering with your health or how it feels to live in your body, it’s probably not something that’s worth putting the effort into changing. The biggest problem in a situation like that is likely your judgment over the habit rather than the actual habit itself.
If, on the other hand, you’re like I was and your patterns with food are driving disordered or other unhealthy behaviors that are negatively impacting your health (mental, physical or emotional) or your life, then they’re probably worth putting the effort into changing so you can live the life you deserve, free from those things.
Changing our patterns with food and weight is not easy, but it’s better than the alternative - continuing to live at war with ourselves, food and our bodies… life is way too short and way too beautiful to waste it living like that.
All the ways we’ve learned to demonize hunger (likewise when we categorize foods as either "good" or "bad" based on their nutritional value or calorie content), through all these diets and healthy eating rules and programs, is a huge part of why we get stuck in these patterns in the first place… including the feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety around eating.
None of which is normal or healthy and all of which contributes to or causes massive amounts of suffering through disordered and unhealthy eating patterns.
When you learned that hunger is the enemy to be controlled, resisted, or ignored, that it’s a sign of weakness or lack of willpower, it caused you to feel ashamed or embarrassed about your hunger cues, leading to not only ignoring or suppressing your hunger signals, which can cause physiological and psychological harm, including low energy, poor concentration, irritability, and anxiety… but worse, it can contribute to or cause you to not only distrust yourself and our body but completely disconnect and disassociate from your body entirely.
It also perpetuates weight stigma and discrimination, leading to negative self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and worse overall health outcomes.
It’s important to remember that every single one of us eats for all of those reasons, at least a little bit, sometimes, and there’s no right or wrong reason to eat; only conditioning that drives us and is often either serving our well-being or contributing to our suffering… conditioning that can be changed if it’s doing the latter.
And being stuck in conditioning that’s not serving us isn’t a weakness, lack of willpower or discipline or anything else you’ve been telling yourself. It’s not your fault and not something you can will yourself to change.
It takes time, learning new ways of being, lots of practice and support.
It's SO important to adopt a non-judgmental and compassionate approach to food and hunger, where all foods are allowed and hunger is seen as a natural and welcome form of communication that we respond to by turning towards it, listening and then honoring it with kindness and compassion.
This helps to promote a healthier relationship with not only food, but ourselves and our bodies, and better physical and mental health outcomes, overall.
This is what I help clients with through my E-CET process and wholehearted being, as I’ve talked about before.
Click here to grab a free copy of my PEACE framework to get started with this non-judgmental and compassionate approach to food and understanding your hunger through wholehearted being.
PEACE is a simple 5-step framework I developed to help you practice using this approach and is so vital because before you can properly honor your hunger, you must first understand it.
Feeling hungry right now? Why? Why do you want to eat that thing? Is your head, heart or body driving it?
PEACE is a simple tool I created to help you begin to answer those questions by helping you get present, connected, curious and then respond with intention.
It works most effectively when implemented together with the entire E-CET process but you can still start practicing with the framework right now for free if you head over and grab the .pdf here.
Key Takeaways and Summary
I hope this beginner's guide to understanding and honoring your hunger will help you stop thinking about your hunger as an enemy you feel like you have to keep trying to fight and resist, so you can start treating it for what it actually is - vital communication about your unique moment to moment needs.
The only truly healthy way to eat or live is whatever helps best support your unique moment to moment needs; physically, mentally and emotionally.
The only way you can ever truly do that is if you’re tuned into and turning towards those needs - but you can’t be either of those things if you’re always trying to fight, resist, control or ignore the very messages that are trying to communicate those needs to you.
E-CET is a proven, repeatable process I created to help you do just that and I’ve been using it to help others just like you transform their hunger for many years.
Do you want to learn more about E-CET? Foundations for Peace is a 6-week introductory course I created to get you started with the foundational principles that underscore everything we do in the full E-CET program.
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