Understanding Hunger: Physical and psychological cues
Have you ever had a sudden urge to eat something or following a meal had a significant desire to eat more, especially something sweet? Why is it that this seems to happen at the same time of day each day or in certain environments? In this article we look at hunger and try to determine what hunger actually is, what contributes to true hunger and the sensations we experience, what is more of an emotional hunger, perhaps not hunger at all, but something that drives us to want and desire foods even when we can’t or shouldn’t be hungry.
What is physical hunger?
Many of us recognise hunger or associate it to hunger pangs. This physical response is caused by contractions of the stomach when it is empty. Perhaps they are caused by a need to eat, or they are simply a reflection of a routine of eating, perhaps you normally eat at that time and so the body is cuing you to eat again at that time. If there is one thing the body adheres to it is rhythm and consistency.
Hunger though is much more complex than a few contractions going on in the stomach, it is also influenced by certain hormones in the body as well. Two of the most famous appetite regulating hormones are leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is released from fat cells and suppresses hunger by acting on certain cells in the brain, whereas ghrelin a hormone made in the stomach which also then acts upon cells in the brain cause us to experience some of the physical reminders to eat such as the hunger pangs we mentioned earlier.
As people gain body fat they may become resistant to leptin, this can happen with a number of hormones, if we secrete excessive amounts over a sustained period of time the cells that the hormones communicate with may stop listening as effectively as they did before, thus leptin resistance may occur, and appetite control can become an issue. This is often why those who have struggled with their weight for a long period of time are not just changing psychological patterns and habits with food but actually fighting against physical cues telling them to eat more than they require. You can see how this could make following a calorie restricted diet for weight loss harder for one person than the next.
Other chemicals in the body can also influence hunger as well. Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters (types of brain chemicals) which can influence mood, especially around eating. Many foods act like drugs, they act upon the reward centres in the brain, much like many drugs do, therefore we can become addicted to certain foods or certain foods at certain times.
In the past those foods may have provided comfort or distraction from certain emotions and now they find themselves engrained into our routine, perhaps being desired at the same time each day. The post evening meal sweet food treat or alcohol drink is a great example of this in so many of my clients, perhaps they are still being used to help distract from emotions or now they find themselves in a habit that has become hard to break, a physical addiction based upon a habit.
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Interestingly cortisol, a hormone that our body can produce more of in response to stress, can trigger off the desire for certain foods, in particular sweet foods. Perhaps the high levels of stress people are under these days are also contributing to food choices that are not supportive of their health and physique goals.
What is psychological hunger?
You can see how physical and psychological hunger overlap. Physical cues for hunger can occur as a result of psychological stress. Whilst psychological hunger is not caused by a desire to eat because of hunger pangs or the need to survive, rather it is a product of emotional connection to that food, habit, upset, celebration etc.
Psychological hunger is more the desire to eat with no obvious physical feelings. One way to understand if the hunger is physical or emotional is often the rate of which it affects you.
Psychological hunger is often fast acting and impulsive. It is usually connected to certain events, emotions, times of day and detached from hunger pangs, often it follows meals when you cannot still be hungry.
Saying all this is one thing but thinking that you can just ignore it and it will go away is another. Our psychological relationships to food are complex and if you think you can control your mind through actions and will-power you are probably underestimating the power of your mind.
The first step in changing habits is observation. What am I eating, why am I eating it, when am I eating it? What patterns do you notice? What connections do you see between your choices or desires and your environment and thoughts?
Once you have observed you can then start to look at strategies to help you deal with the underlying factors in your nutrition choices and cravings. This might mean speaking with someone about your emotions, addressing areas of your life you are not happy with right now, coming up with other methods to help cope with certain emotions or circumstances. This might include mindfulness, meditation, taking a walk, listening to some music, chatting to a friend or just creating a new routine or action when you normally act upon cravings.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who can help on a psychological front with your food. Remember your nutrition is much more than to know what to eat, it is understanding the why, how and when as well.
Bonus: Some tips for those looking to lose weight and manage appetite
Due to the physical implications of weight loss and the effect that lowering calories can have on appetite hormones, here are a few tips to consider when embarking on that journey:
- Adopt a nonlinear approach to your caloric intake. There is no question you need to be in some sort of energy deficit to lose weight but maintaining a calorie restriction at the same level ongoing will result in adjustment by the body to that energy intake, often resulting in a plateau of results.
- Try to avoid sustained drastic calorie restrictions. Again, significant restrictions can be used if point number one is followed and the average calorie restriction is not drastic. I like my clients to view their average calories consumed over that week and have a goal in mind with their calories and macro’s as a weekly average rather than a ridged daily target. This allows then for more flexibility with diet but still provides the structure required for weight loss.
- Don’t aim for more than 1% drop in bodyweight per week. Anything beyond that is either not realistic, or if it does occur it is probably more related to changes in water levels in the body or stored glycogen (a type of stored carbohydrate). Those following lower carb diets or carbohydrate cycling diets (periods of low carb followed with higher carb levels) may experience bigger swings in weight because of the water and glycogen changes.
- Keep a close eye on thyroid function. If you are someone who has struggled in the past with weight loss while in what should be a caloric deficit or you have a personal or family history of thyroid dysfunction, getting it assessed at the start and throughout your weight loss journey is recommended. I like to include TSH, Free T4 and Free T3 as a minimum assessment. T3 is what will often reduce when one is following a restricted diet, and this is the most active thyroid hormone. Low levels will cause weight loss to grind to a halt because of its impact on reducing your expenditure.
- Keep fiber content high, keep protein intake sufficient for your demands and cycle the levels of carbs and fats in your diet, in particular carbohydrates. I have found this to be the most successful approach to manipulating macronutrients for weight loss, whilst managing appetite and following a caloric restricted diet.
- Consider practicing an “understanding your hunger mindfulness practice” at the times when you typically experience cravings or desires for foods. This may only be possible in certain environments, I probably would expect you to start doing this at your next business meeting, but it is possible in your home, commuting or even just taking a few minutes to yourself before a meeting or dinner where you are looking to change your habitual behaviour pattern.