Mom and toddler practice intuitive eating

Intuitive Eating: The Four Types of Hunger and How to Honor Them During This Back-to-School Season

The good news: we are born as intuitive eaters. Have you ever had a meal with a toddler where they take two bites and then decide they don’t want to eat anymore, only to ask for the food again in an hour or so? This is an example of a person honoring their natural ability to intuitively eat and recognizing their hunger and fullness cues. It’s something we’re born with.

The not-so-good news: we live in a world full of schedules, deadlines, commutes, and diet culture. The combination of all these factors sometimes can inhibit our ability to intuitively eat, and we deny or ignore our natural hunger cues.

For some preliminary background knowledge – intuitive eating is an evidence-based, anti-diet framework that was developed by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in the late 1990s. Intuitive eating is comprised of 10 “principles”:

  1. Reject diet mentality
  2. Honor your hunger
  3. Make peace with food
  4. Challenge the food police
  5. Discover the satisfaction factor
  6. Feel your fullness
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
  8. Respect your body
  9. Movement – feel the difference
  10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition

More information about intuitive eating and these 10 principles can be found here. It is also important to note at this juncture that intuitive eating might not be easily accessible for everyone due to a variety of factors, such as finances, geographic location, transportation, or other limitations to accessibility. I want to make sure I recognize and acknowledge this before moving forward, because despite its many benefits, intuitive eating is not without its shortcomings.

And now for the fun part: did you know that you have four different types of hunger? Did you know that each type of hunger deserves to be honored without judgment?

As we learned above, “Honor your hunger” is one of the ten principles of intuitive eating. Sometimes, due to our busy lives and hectic schedules, it can become difficult to honor our hunger on a regular basis and eat intuitively. However, with a little awareness, education, and understanding, we can try to incorporate intuitive eating and honoring our hunger into our lives during this back-to-school season.

In addition to the 10 principles, the intuitive eating framework also identifies four different types of hunger. Let’s dive into our different types of hunger and how we can try to honor them and encourage those around us (our family members, children, students) to do the same.

Physical Hunger

What it is: Simply put, physical hunger is what most people think of when they think of the word “hunger”. It can show itself by a growling stomach, a headache, feeling faint, or a variety of other physical symptoms. It is your body’s way of saying “please feed me!”

How to honor it: In a perfect world, we would honor physical hunger by eating as soon as we notice these hunger cues from our body – and if you are able to eat as soon as you notice the cues, that’s great! However, we live in a busy and chaotic world, and sometimes it is not possible to eat at the exact moment that we feel the hunger cues. One way to combat this is to engage in eating based on practical hunger (which we will discuss more below), but here are some ways to accommodate for physical hunger whenever possible in a school setting.

It could be helpful to ask your teachers (or your child’s teachers) what their policy is around eating in the classroom. Some teachers may not mind, and if this is the case, it would be most beneficial to honor your hunger during this class and have a snack or a meal if you get hungry.

It could also be helpful to have some quick, easy snacks on hand throughout the day, so if hunger does strike during class, you have a quick snack that is easily accessible, and you can satiate your hunger cues without too much disruption to the classroom or your productivity.

Taste Hunger

What it is: Taste hunger is exactly what it sounds like – it’s the feeling of desiring a specific food because of its taste (or texture, temperature, etc.). In the words of RDN Rachel Helfferich, it’s eating what “sounds good”. It’s the moment when you are in a dining hall or a food court with tons of different options for what to eat, and you really consider what you are craving at that moment, and then you choose that food option! Unfortunately, diet culture sometimes gets in the way of honoring this type of hunger; when we engage in disordered behaviors such as assigning moral value to food (foods are “good” or “bad”) or we become wrapped up in making the “healthiest” choice, we are ignoring and not honoring our taste hunger.

How to honor it: When you are faced with a decision of what to eat, take a moment or two to pause, breathe, and check in with yourself. Consider all of the food options that you have available and imagine what it would be like to eat each one of them. You might get a “gut feeling” when you imagine eating a certain food (or two, or three!), and have a moment of “ah, that’s what I wanted”. When you have this moment, honor it! Try not to let diet culture or any overthinking creep in. Let your ability to eat intuitively guide the way.

For kids in school – try to pack a lunch with plenty of variety. Include different food groups, different textures, different ways of eating (utensils versus hands). It is even okay to “overpack” food in a lunchbox and maybe bring some of it home if it does not get eaten. By including this variety of different foods, it makes it possible to tap into taste hunger in any given moment throughout the school day. What “sounds good” in the morning (or the night before) might not sound good anymore once lunchtime rolls around. However, if you have a bunch of different foods available when it’s time to eat, you can really listen to taste hunger and choose the food that appeals to you in that moment rather than feel limited in your choices and end up eating something that will not fully satisfy you.

Emotional Hunger

What it is: Emotional hunger is also what it sounds like – eating to satisfy an emotional need. A classic example is that cliché movie scene where the main character reaches for the pint of Ben & Jerry’s after a bad breakup. Emotional hunger gets a bad rap sometimes. People tend to assign moral value (“I’m so bad for having this”) to emotional hunger/emotional eating. However, eating to satisfy emotional needs is not an inherently bad thing. It can be a beneficial way to cope with emotions in the short-term. Additionally, we can also turn to food to satisfy positive emotions. Consider holidays like Thanksgiving, where food is a significant part of the day and is presented as a symbol of celebration and togetherness. Honoring emotional hunger is just as important to overall well-being as honoring any of the other types of hunger.

How to honor it: Allow yourself (and your children or loved ones) to use food as a way to self-soothe on a temporary/short-term basis. Do not assign moral value to any types of food or any quantities of food, as this invites feelings of shame or embarrassment into the equation. Additionally, eliminate statements such as “ugh, I’m so bad for having this” or “I need to hit the gym on Monday to make up for this” from your vocabulary. We can feel free to eat for emotional reasons (positive or negative emotions!) without having to feel guilty or “make up” for it.

That being said, if you feel like your relationship with emotional eating is problematic and you are looking for a larger repertoire of coping skills, please reach out to a mental health professional who can conduct a more thorough assessment and provide additional assistance!

Practical Hunger

What it is: Practical hunger is the act of eating even in the absence of hunger cues because you know you might not have a chance to eat again for a while. This is arguably the most important type of hunger for people with busy or rigid schedules (students, teachers, people in jobs with long meetings) to learn how to honor, as it protects us from getting too hungry (and hangry!) on those days where time just gets away from us and we might not have the opportunity to eat at the exact moment that our physical hunger cues strike.

How to honor it: Let’s say you are a student in school, and your scheduled lunchtime is 11am. Maybe you aren’t necessarily hungry for lunch at 11am, but you know you won’t have a chance to eat again until you get home from school at 3:30pm, and you will definitely be ravenous by then if you don’t eat something sooner. In this situation, you might honor your practical hunger by eating lunch at 11am even in the absence of physical hunger cues to protect yourself from getting too hungry and not being able to focus in class.

Honoring practical hunger in the adult world is important too! Let’s say you are a therapist with back-to-back sessions from 5pm-8pm. Maybe you aren’t hungry for dinner yet at 4:30pm, but it’s the only chance you’ll have to eat for the next few hours, so you have something to eat before your sessions even though you are not experiencing physical hunger cues and it might be earlier than a traditional dinnertime.

With practical hunger, you can always check in with your hunger cues later on and decide if you need more food when you do have a chance to eat again, and then make a decision based on your intuitive self-assessment. However, by tapping into our practical hunger, we are protecting ourselves from getting too hungry and feeling the negative effects of restriction or lack of nourishment.

By honoring our four different types of hunger on a regular basis, we are communicating to my body the words “I trust you”, and in return, our bodies are learning to trust us as well. This mutual trust within ourselves and our body is critical to maintaining a healthy relationship with food, our bodies, and our mental health. As I mentioned above, it is important to note that intuitive eating is not always perfectly accessible for everyone, all the time. However, if we try to honor our hunger and respond appropriately as much as we can, in the best way that we can at that moment, the difference in our overall wellness will be invaluable.