Dear Dr. Sibel,

I just started making changes with food. I never want to diet again, and I’d like to eat intuitively and mindfully, but I’m having a lot of trouble figuring out if I’m really hungry or not. I’ve been on and off so many diets that I’m not sure how to access my hunger anymore.

Thank you,
Hunger Hiding

Dear Hunger Hiding,

I can so appreciate your experience! It makes sense that you’re having trouble recognizing when you’re hungry. Dieting can certainly be a culprit, as food is restricted, and hunger signals are pushed away. We learn to suppress hunger in a variety of ways—by drinking water or diet beverages, chewing gum, ignoring hunger when you’re working, skipping meals because you’re busy (or think you ought to), to name a few.

One thing that I recommend is making sure that you’re eating regularly. In the book, Intuitive Eating, the suggestion is to go no longer than 5 hours without eating. I know this may not sound intuitive at all, but it helps to reclaim hunger signals—so you can really listen for them, and respond! Maybe it’s a stomach gurgle, or feeling light-headed or “edgy”. Really listen to how your body responds; trusting what your own experience is, which may be different from anyone else.

For some, it can be really hard to think about going 5 hours without eating! So another recommendation would be to listen and feel for even one tiny hunger cue. This may mean going longer than you usually go without eating, so it may be uncomfortable, but it’s great to try this and celebrate your hunger! Welcome your hunger cue–“Hello, lovely! I get to feed you well now!”

Then, you can start keeping track of your hunger level when you begin eating. Think of zero as running on empty, and 10 as super-over-stuffed. Where are you on the hunger scale when you begin eating?  Also, notice where you are when you stop. Keep noticing what your hunger level might be at various times during the day. In the beginning, it may feel like you’re learning a new language and just “not getting it”. That’s to be expected, so take heart, and be patient! This is a very different process than dieting, right? You are first getting to know your body again, reading the signals; reclaiming your natural body cues. After a while, you will begin to see patterns. Waiting until you’re hungry can bring up anxiety, so that’s also something to really pay attention to. That’s when emotional eating can take over. Try some deep breathing. Read about how to breathe from your belly here.

See if you can get through the anxiety a little longer before reaching for food. It’s ok if this is hard, and it’s ok if you reach for the food. You are learning more and more about your relationship with food every day!

When you are in the process of tracking your hunger you may start realizing some things about how you are structuring your day that are no longer serving you well. Have you been skipping breakfast only to become ravenous by lunchtime and then eat to an 8 or 9? Knowing this, you can make adjustments, like having something for breakfast and maybe a mid-morning snack. When you start to become more aware of your hunger over time, you can also be aware of what is truly satisfying and fulfilling to eat, and when and how long it keeps you going in your day. Try this and let me know how you’re doing!