Updated: Mar 21
By Brenna Topham, RDN, LD
Hunger and fullness are the body’s way of telling us to eat or not to eat. However, these cues can become skewed over time! Dieting, restriction, binge eating, anxiety, depression, others’ influence impacts our interpretation of our body's cues that it's time to eat and time to stop eating. If we rely on wonky hunger/fullness cues, we could perpetuate binge restrict cycles, develop disordered eating, and even become malnourished. Here are 10 signs that you may be experiencing skewed hunger & fullness cues.
1. You don’t feel like eating in times of stress.
Back in the olden days when lions and tigers and bears were a daily threat, we developed automatic responses that helped us stay alive during stress. If a bear is chasing you, your body isn’t going to say “Oh wait you’re hungry, stop and eat”. If it did, you would be the bear's snack!
The body interacts the same way with stress today. Big test? Argument with a loved one? Embarrassing moment at work? Buh-bye hunger signal! It can be difficult to eat without the signal, but your body still needs fuel.
2. You eat to the point of discomfort in times of stress.
It’s hard to feel sad/mad/bad if you can only focus on feeling full. Using food and fullness to escape our feelings is really common, but can lead to lessened perception of fullness and lack of hunger over time. Food is very tied in with our emotions: we eat chocolate after a breakup, BBQ at big family events, cake on our birthday. It’s normal and healthy to engage in this. What’s a cause for concern is if food is the primary coping skill: you want to stop eating but can’t, and have guilt after eating.
3. You eat much faster or slower than others.
Eating rate varies from person to person. While it’s great to focus on your own plate and ignore others, many notice that they are finished with a meal when others are getting started, or are spending way longer at the dinner table than they would like. If we eat too fast, our fullness signal doesn’t have a chance to set in before we’ve eaten beyond fullness. If we eat too slow, our body adjusts to the food and it thinks we’ve eaten more than we actually have.
4. People have commented on your eating patterns.
Maybe you don’t know your eating patterns have changed over the years or months. Loved ones might gently (or roughly) point out that we don’t eat as we used to. This tells us that our perception of our plate is different than reality, and we likely aren’t feeling cues as usual.
5. You have any anxiety around food.
“Should I have 2 cookies or one?” “Would either peaches or yogurt be THE best for snack?” “There’s so much sugar, it’s gonna give me diabetes!” Sound familiar? You have anxiety around food! We can’t focus on our cues if anxiety overrides everything our body tells us. Anxiety must be lowered to a certain threshold for our hunger and fullness to peek through the anxiety. This threshold is different for everyone. Imagine your brain is a cup. It can only hold so much stimulus, and anything that doesn’t fit in the cup will spill over. Often, this spillage includes hunger and fullness cues.
6. You have “food rules”.
Body: I want a warm chocolate chip cookie.
You: heck no! It’s 2 pm and dessert may only be eaten after dinner.
Food rules squash our body cues. They automatically override our innate desires for food. This leads to deprivation, and can eventually evolve into bingeing or undernourishment.
7. You’re stuck in a binge-restrict cycle.
Extreme hunger leads to extreme fullness. We feel guilty about eating so much, we restrict, then we have extreme hunger. Rinse and repeat. This results in very skewed body cues. We become accustomed to extreme hunger and think it’s right to wait until that point to eat. We lose touch with how to portion foods to adequately meet our needs. Plagued with guilt, we don’t know when to stop eating. We think we shouldn’t eat so much, but our body is begging us to keep eating because we’re so deprived. It’s a tangled mess that our body cues just can’t escape.
8. You’re focusing on weight loss and/or muscle gain.
“Okay that’s X calories so I only can only have half to reach my weight loss this week.” Focusing on weight loss disregards what our body is telling us. We can only focus on molding our body into what we want, not what our body naturally is. By demanding our body follow our lead, we miss out on the joy of working with our body to meet its needs.
9. You’re done eating before the majority of your meal is completed.
This is called “early satiety”. It can happen for a number of reasons: slow eating rate, anxiety, plating food that’s not delicious to us, upset tummy, too much volume (way too much fiber or veggies for example) and much more. Overtime, you get used to a low threshold for fullness and think it’s okay to feel full after just a bit of your meal.
10. You think you maybe might kinda have an eating disorder.
I mean, of course I don't! I'm far too old/young/logical/healthy/whatever to have an eating disorder. Except, eating disorders don't discriminate! Anyone and everyone can develop an ED.
Eating disorders are like a little gremlin that rides your shoulder all day long. It whispers false promises in your ear that are so tempting. “Don’t eat the cake at the office party today, you’ll seem so healthy and cool and everyone will admire you”. “Eat until you can’t feel the sadness anymore.” The gremlin’s constant whispers distract from what our body is begging us for. My clients often say something along the lines of ‘no really, I just don’t like fried food. I mean I did as a kid but not anymore. Corn dogs are okay but there’s healthier food so why don’t I just eat that if I can’t enjoy it anymore.’ So your body &inner child want a corn dog, but your ED is telling you corndogs aren’t healthy enough and therefore you should have something else. It takes a lot to fight off that gremlin, but we’re here to help!
And this isn’t a comprehensive list! So many factors can throw off our hunger fullness cues. If you’re experiencing one of these, it’s a good idea to see a non-diet dietitian for guidance on restoring your cues. Sometimes, we need to be re-calibrated to have our best relationship with food. Dietitians are like surrogates when your body and brain need some time to heal. It takes time for body cues to return, but having a healthy relationship with food is so worth it.