PSA: Eating When Hungry & Stopping When Full is NOT a Thing Until Your Body is Used to Being Adequately and Consistently Nourished
Tiffany Haug, MS, RDN, EDOC
It needs to be said,
so I will say it.
You can’t meet your nutrition needs by “Eating when you're hungry and stopping when you’re full” when your body has not been accustomed to a consistent pattern of adequate nourishment.
There are a myriad of biochemical processes involved in helping your body to send signals to your brain to know when it is hungry (and so it needs to seek out nourishment) as well as when it is satisfied and has had enough food for the time being.
Ghrelin is one of the major hormones your body uses to signal to your brain that you are hungry. Leptin acts inversely to Ghrelin and signals to your brain when you have had enough nutrition so can take a break from seeking out further food for the time being. For these two hormones and a collection of other hunger and fullness hormones to act in synchrony to match your body’s nutritional needs, your body needs to first know that when it uses its valuable time and energy to produce these hormones, it is going to get nourishment back in return.
I have heard countless times from clients “I don’t eat at this meal or snack because I’m not hungry” or “I only have a banana for breakfast because if I eat any more I feel too full.”
Guess what peeps?
It means that your body has adapted to not using it’s valuable time and energy to create hunger cues, because it knows those resources will go to waste and will it won’t receive the return on its investment--in the form of nutrition--that it so desperately needs. The best way to help your body become hungry when your body needs nourishment and full when you are adequately satisfied---is to start eating consistent meals and snacks.
Otherwise, the principals of eating when you are hungry and stopping when full is not intuitively guided by your body's needs at all, but rather by your body having become accustomed to it's needs never being met adequately or reliably (which, ahem, results in a lower metabolic rate as the body works its brilliant magic to become as fuel-efficient as possible because it’s used to not being fed consistently, or enough).
Don't let eating when you are hungry and stopping when full become a diet for you. Start by recognizing that your body needs to go through a period of eating that may not at all be guided by hunger or fullness cues, but rather, a radical act of faith of simply trusting that you need to eat consistently and adequately throughout the day EVEN WHEN YOU ARE NOT HUNGRY. If you can, working with a dietitian specialized in eating disorders is incredibly helpful in navigating your way through this tricky process and getting the support you need.
Once your body has become accustomed to being fed adequately and consistently, your hunger and fullness cues that are guided by your body's needs will start to develop and/or return.
My advice to you? Take a look at your eating patterns throughout the day. Are you honoring your body by giving it fuel consistently and sufficiently throughout the day? If not, I super duper encourage you to do that first and foremost before you even start to think about “Just eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full.”
Your friendly-neighborhood-no-BS eating disorder dietitian
Tiffany Haug, MS, RDN, EDOC is Master's level Dietitian in San Diego who specializes in helping individuals with Eating Disorders make peace with food and their bodies. Tiffany knows that working through recovery can be incredibly hard. Being herself recovered for almost a decade, she is incredibly honored to now be able to give back by supporting her clients along this challenging, but so-very-worth-it journey. In addition to being an Outpatient Eating Disorder Dietitian at a group practice dedicated to exclusively treating eating disorders, Tiffany serves as the Education Chair for the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP) San Diego Chapter and also works as a Dietitian at Center for Discovery in Del Mar, CA. Learn more about Tiffany here.