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National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: What is hunger/fullness?

February 27, 2013

This post is a part of a series I am doing this week for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. While I am currently in graduate school for mental health counseling, these blog posts are my own opinions, and should not be used in lieu of counseling or therapy. While I have struggled with eating disorders myself and have done a lot of research, I am neither an expert nor a healthcare professional.

When I was struggling with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, I can honestly say that I had no idea what “hunger” or “fullness” actually felt like in my body. The eating disorder scaffold I had created around my life and my eating did not allow for any deviations from what I cognitively thought my body needed. In diet books, diet testimonies, and in using food to alleviate my pain, there was no concentration or emphasis on actual hunger or actual fullness. The books I read told me to eat a certain amount at certain times, and that once I did that, I would be totally fine and I shouldn’t feel anything else toward food, emotionally or physically. Diets told me exactly how to live, which was safe during the times I did not believe that I could trust myself.

However, the problem with diets is that they do not actually know your body. They MAY know something about some statistic of bodies, or they may know something about the author’s body. But in reality, diets do not know when YOU get hungry or when YOU get full. They have no idea how much food YOU need to eat in order to maintain your sense of satiation and contentment. Diets, like the scale in my previous post, are mechanical beings that we use to tell us who we are and how we can act.

In a way, diets and scales are easy tools to use to live our lives. If we look externally to machines and inanimate objects to tell us who we are and how we should continue living, then there is no need to go inward and feel emotions that are scary or to deal with any pain we might have. We also don’t have to make decisions that are wide open, grey, and scary; we simply make decisions that “should” work. When those pre-packaged decisions don’t work for us, it is easy to self-blame and shame, which as I know from eating disorders, is a familiar and safer path than making decisions we think could work, but fail in the end.

It is radical to listen to your body’s cues of hunger and fullness. You become radical when you decide to stop listening to what you “should” do and who you “should” be, but instead decide for yourself what your body needs and when your body needs it. Physical hunger looks a lot of different ways and has a lot of different feelings for people. Some people describe feeling pangs in their stomach, growling, cravings, tiredness, headaches, or physical emptiness. Likewise, physical fullness looks and feels different for different people: when the hunger goes away, a pit in the middle of the stomach, or a feeling that food just won’t taste good anymore. I believe that everyone experiences hunger and fullness differently, and that at some points in our lives we live in a way in which we are more hungry at times or more full at times, either because our body needs it or because we are trying to cope with something. Either way, it takes a lot of experimenting, struggling, and trial and error to see what your body (and mind) needs at any particular time period.

For me, hunger and fullness can change with different seasons of my life. For example, right now I am overloading credits in graduate school due to a pre-requisite necessity, and I work a part time job. I don’t have much time to do my usual regular exercise routine, and I also don’t have time to buy or prepare a lot of homemade nutritious meals (which, if you know me, I don’t really enjoy cooking in general, even if I’m not busy). My hunger and fullness preferences and feelings have changed this quarter because I am eating different types of foods, and I am often eating while checking my email so that I can be productive. I know that this phase will not last forever, nor is it healthy for me to last much longer than this quarter. Sometimes I zone out and eat too much and sometimes I zone out and eat too little because I forget. For me, I am still living within my hunger/fullness boundaries because I am taking care of myself as best I can, and I continue to check in on what my body needs, either physically or emotionally.

I know that this post does not give much clarity. I am not saying hunger feels exactly a certain way and you should DEFINITELY eat then. I’m also not saying fullness feels exactly a certain way and that you should DEFINITELY stop eating then. Hunger and fullness are physical sensations that are unique to every body and person, and they are not separated from emotional needs. Sometimes your body will need more, and sometimes your body will need less, and that can take a long time to figure out. I do want to give you some hope though, that finding this balance and this place of being in relationship with your body rather than demanding what it should do is much more rewarding, beautiful, and satisfying than any diet will ever be. I acknowledge that it is scary to discover, and for me it took years to figure out, and my hunger/fullness levels that I need and the amount of food I eat is constantly changing due to my life circumstances. Be patient! It’s worth it.


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