What is Hunger?
How we experience hunger is personal to each of us but it largely originates in the brain (don’t fall asleep just yet!). A really simple way to understand this, is that when it comes to food, we have a Wanting Brain and a Liking Brain.
Our Wanting Brain monitors nutrition and is truly content when we have enough nutrition going into our bodies. When we take care of ourselves and eat nutrient dense food, we meet the needs of our Wanting Brain and it feels satisfied.
Our Liking Brain monitors our pleasure and is truly happy when we enjoy our food (e.g. the flavour, texture, colour). When we take care of ourselves and give ourselves time and permission to enjoy our food the Liking Brain feels satisfied.
The Secret to Regulating Hunger
In order to regulate our hunger, we need to meet the needs of BOTH the Wanting Brain and the Liking Brain. If we don’t, we will crave more, no matter how much food we have eaten.
When we eat food we enjoy that has little nutrition, we ONLY satisfy the Liking Brain. When we eat nutritious foods that we don’t really enjoy, we ONLY satisfy the Wanting Brain.
Meeting the needs of BOTH is how we regulate our hunger.
You may have noticed that there is no mention of calories. That’s because both the Wanting and Liking Brain don’t understand the concept of calories!
The Diet and 'Wellness' Industry can be obsessed with calories but it means NOTHING to either our Wanting and Liking Brain. Calories are not made equal and do NOT help us to regulate hunger effectively. Just take a look at the following;
Option 1: 200 calories of nutritious food that brings little or no pleasure
Option 2: 200 calories of food that fills us with pleasure but has little or no nutrition
Option 3: 200 calories that offer both nutrition and pleasure.
Option 3 will help us to regulate hunger because the needs of both the Wanting and Liking Brain are met. If we choose Option 1 or 2 we are unlikely to be satisfied and will soon be looking for more to eat.
Meeting both our nutritional need (Wanting Brain) and need for pleasure (Liking Brain) will help us to regulate our hunger and support our body to feel nourished and satisfied. Counting calories is literally a road to nowhere!
Dietary chaos is common in Disordered Eating and brings significant confusion. This confusion feels unsafe and often keeps our body in survival mode, affecting our appetite, metabolism, hormones, mood, sleep, concentration and memory.
When we don’t eat enough or don’t eat regularly (e.g. by skipping meals), this signals to the body that there isn’t enough food and our body moves survival mode. When we deliberately restrict our food, even just a little, our focus begins to narrow. We become preoccupied with food, particularly foods high in energy. This is our body responding to what it perceives as a famine in order to survive.
Let’s be clear, this has nothing to do with will power and EVERYTHING to do with our body's natural survival response.
Restricting our food, even just a little, does not satisfy the needs of either the Liking and Wanting brain and we will eventually respond by either binge eating or overeating. Our bodies are designed for survival and its futile to fight against this!
Learning to fuel our bodies properly by eating regularly and eating enough, is essential if we are to give ourselves the best chance of recovery from Disordered Eating. This ALSO meets the needs of both the Wanting and Liking Brain.
If we have been in dietary chaos for some time, we often have difficulty recognising our hunger and fullness cues. So in the early stages of recovery, we follow a clear and simple eating plan. We work towards eating 3 meals and 2 snacks spread over the course of a day, a great way to support ourselves. The plan supports us until we can begin to reconnect with our natural hunger and fullness cues.
Eating mindfully is also hugely supportive. It helps us to slow down while eating giving the body the extra time it needs to send signals to our Wanting and Liking Brain.
Many of us who eat in a disordered way, experience disconnection when eating so we can tolerate the loss of control or the intensity of our feelings. When disconnected in this way, we are not fully conscious of what or how much we are eating. This means it takes longer for the body to send signals to both the Wanting and Liking Brain and we are likely to feel unsatisfied for longer.
Eating mindfully, helps the body send clearer signals to both the Wanting and Liking Brain.
It can take the body time to recover from being in dietary chaos and how long this takes varies for each of us. Working with our body means meeting the needs of both our Wanting and Liking Brain.
By attending to these needs and learning how to eat enough and eat regularly, nutritious and delicious food we can best support ourselves through recovery. As recovery progresses, our appetite, metabolism, and hormones will stabilise, our natural hunger and fullness cues will return and our mood, sleep, concentration and memory will improve.
Download my FREE Guide here.
If you haven't already accessed this, I'd love to share my free guide on Hunger and Fullness in Disordered Eating recovery. It's great FIRST STEP and includes info on keeping your fuel tank topped up, getting started with the Hunger and Fullness Scale and the Hunger Scale Check In. A great way to support yourself throughout recovery!
Celia Clark is a Disordered Eating Specialist and Programme Lead for Beyond the Body® an online recovery programme for Disordered Eating based on a Parts Work model.
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