Physical and mental hunger are two of the ways in which hunger manifests that we most commonly talk about when it comes to eating disorder recovery. However, signs that your body is hungry can also be more subtle and found in your behaviour or the emotions you are experiencing and it is very likely these are not things that you have considered to be indicative that you (or your body) is actually VERY hungry.
In this post, I will cover some of the commonly found ways in which people with eating disorders and in recovery experience hunger in all its forms. This is to help you recognise more of the signals that you are undoubtedly experiencing as the clear indication from your body to eat more food that they are... The items listed here are numerous but by no means completely exhaustive so if you have suggestions for other hunger signs then please add them to the comments below.
Hunger in the Non Eating Disorder Population
Before considering hunger in someone with an eating disorder or in recovery from one, let's first just recognise the ways in which hunger is experienced in someone who does not have a history of disordered eating or an eating disorder. Many people don't realise that whether a person has an eating disorder or not, everyone experiences mental hunger as well as physical hunger, as well as some behavioural and emotional signs of hunger.
For most people, mental hunger or a change in how they are feeling emotionally, is actually the only signal they need to guide them to seek out an opportunity to eat. Most members of the general public just won't label it as such...
The majority of healthy people don't reach a point of stomach growling, physical hunger before they decide to eat again... Instead, most people will have eaten, go about their daily business quite happily and when their body is starting to need more energy once again, their brain will create a few more thoughts of food which pop into their consciousness so that they think to themselves, 'I'm feeling a bit peckish' and they might then go and grab a sandwich and Mars bar before returning to what they were doing.
In eating disorders, where a person has been restricting their intake for months, years, maybe decades and ignoring their body's natural hunger signals, their hunger will be significantly blunted. It is going to take time for them to re-learn the very thing that should come naturally and intuitively, i.e. the signs their body is sending that it is hungry, particularly those signs that are less obvious and which are rarely thought of as hunger (even though they most certainly are!).
What Happens to Hunger With an Eating Disorder?
I have spoken and written about what happens to hunger when a person has an eating disorder and why the hunger is blunted when intake has been restricted for a period of time in other posts and podcast episodes in this series on hunger in recovery.
When someone restricts their intake for any period of time, the body initially tries to send more hunger signals to guide them to eat. These will be mental signals, such as increasing thoughts about food or finding food and an inability to think about much else; physical signals: feeling hunger in the sense we often think of with that stomach growling, empty belly sensation; emotional signals such as feeling 'hangry' or behavioural signals such as a strong urge to get access to food above all else. After a period of time of trying to send these signals and it not resulting in any increase in intake (due to ongoing restrictive eating), the body will stop wasting precious resources sending these signals and that's when the person's natural hunger becomes blunted and these typical hunger signals become much less reliable or the person might even stop experiencing them altogether.
In eating disorder recovery, you need to allow your brain to feel confident that the 'famine' situation it has perceived, perhaps for decades while you were restricting, is now over and that it can therefore send hunger signals that you will now actually respond to.
For a long time, even in recovery, your physical hunger signals will be inconsistent and plain unreliable... This is when you need to recognise and rely more on the signs of mental, emotional and behavioural hunger. It is important to be aware too that if you have been restricting for a long time, it is likely even your mental hunger is lower than it should be as you have ignored even those attempts by your brain to make you eat for so long... However, eating more and doing so consistently should spark the mental and physical hunger into life and in the meantime, you can still use the very present emotional and behavioural signs that I don't doubt you are displaying as evidence that you do need to eat!
After all, if you have spent many years eating to a clock, routine and rigid restrictive amounts, despite what your body might have otherwise asked for or needed then your body isn't going to immediately decide to send reliable physical or even mental hunger signals just because you have decided today that you are in recovery.
A First Experience of True Satiation in Recovery
From my own experiences in recovery, I experienced times of true extreme hunger, where I felt an insatiable drive to eat like nothing else and at times that was physical and mental and at other times it was having a belly that was stuffed but a brain literally screaming at me to eat more. I clearly remember the first time that I managed to actually satisfy not just my physical hunger but also all the other forms of hunger my poor body had been throwing at me for years. It was late one evening and I had spent the day eating more than most humans could in extreme eating challenges and as I finished consuming another large snack after a big dinner and desserts, I realised that my belly was feeling ready to pop (not unusual at that point in my recovery) but that my brain was quiet and I felt relaxed and emotionally quite calm and peaceful. I knew I had absolutely no drive to eat more at that moment in time and it was an incredible turning point because it gave me that reassurance that I could trust my brain and my body to really let me know when it was satiated. It was only at that point of not experiencing any form of hunger for the first time in over a decade that I could really recognise just how strong and ever present my hunger really had been throughout my years of illness, without my necessarily understanding that was the case because living with that hunger had been my status quo for so long. Finally though, I knew that my hunger in all its incredible forms would switch off if I ate enough when it struck. I didn't have to be hungry for the rest of my days or be driven by my body to eat myself into an early grave either (another common eating disordered fear!).
No one with a restrictive eating disorder has a body that is out to force them to overeat into an unhealthy state for the rest of their days. The prime objective of our brain and body is to keep us well, safe and as healthy as possible so it's not in its interest to drive the person to eat until they explode. In recovery it takes really trusting that that is true for you, just as it is for everyone else and eating!!!
To enable you to trust and keep eating, it helps to recognise all the hunger signs your body and brain are throwing at you. Therefore, here are some of the mental, physical, emotional and behavioural signs that you and your body are hungry, even if your eating disordered brain does not want you to believe that to be true!!
Physical Hunger Signals
Let us first cover some physical hunger signals the body will send, beyond the commonly accepted ones such as stomach grumbling or feeling your stomach is empty...
Feeling physically shaky or trembly
Becoming sweaty or clammy
Dizziness or vertigo
Not sleeping well (when the brain is trying to send signals to stay awake and eat)
Sleeping a lot (when the brain has stopped trying to send signals to go eat and instead the body is trying to preserve precious energy)
Feeling lethargic (body preserving energy)
Conversely to the above, feeling jittery and a constant urge to move (this is caused by cortisol release in response to hunger and the body thinking it needs to move to find food)
Strong sugar cravings (a sign the body is in need of instant energy and sugar cravings are usually a strong feature in recovery for a time)
Thirst (can in fact be a sign of hunger)
Mental Hunger Signals
Moving on to mental hunger... something we talk a lot about in eating disorder recovery because it is such an important thing to be aware of and respond to!!
Perhaps the way in which most people define mental hunger is that if you are mentally obsessing about food or even obsessing over avoiding food then that is mental hunger and your body and brain trying to guide you to eat... even if your belly feels jam packed full! However, there are other ways in which mental hunger will manifest which are a little less obvious:
Generally noticing what other people are eating and being hyperaware of food, whether it's on the TV, when you are out and about, overhearing conversations where people are talking about food....
Dreaming about food or eating situations
Lusting after 'fear foods', whether you let yourself eat them or not
Mental gymnastics over what to eat, when to eat, how to eat, who to eat with, what about later (blah, blah, blah... it's exhausting!!)
Food taking a much higher priority in your life than it should, to the point you have it placed on a pedestal!
Noticing and being overly sensitive to diet culture topics and messages
Poor ability to concentrate, for example on reading, TV and conversations
Conversely to the above point, feeling mentally very sharp (probably too sharp!), which is a sign your brain is hyper vigilant due to hunger
Wondering to yourself if you are hungry or not!
Ruminating on how much you have eaten that day (or yesterday or over another time period)
Asking yourself or others if the food you have eaten or will eat is 'enough' or 'too much'. Someone who is satiated does not need to ask those questions
Food rituals, obsessions, or cravings
Wondering if you can eat now, eat later, what you will eat or find your brain is leading you to thoughts of how to avoid eating
Before moving on, just a quick side note. Below are some of the ways in which hunger can also manifest on an emotional and behavioural level. Some people would argue that these are actually symptoms of hunger that could fall into the mental or physical categories and I would not dispute that. However, a lot of people with eating disorders will be displaying these signs of hunger and not considering them as such because they don't entirely fall into a more obvious definition of mental or physical hunger that they might have heard... and I think it's important for people in recovery to really consider all aspects of what they think, feel (physically and emotionally) and how they behave day to day so that they can recognise all the ways their body is trying to tell them it is hungry!
Emotional Hunger Signals
Hunger can also very commonly manifest in our emotions. As mentioned earlier in this post, a commonly recognised symptom of hunger by the general population is being 'hangry' (feeling angry or irritable when someone needs to eat). It is absolutely to be expected that our brain and body are going to throw up some whacky emotions when the body is in a state of being under-resourced because a body that is not fuelled adequately becomes stressed. The brain recognises this as a potentially dangerous and life threatening situation and its job is to stay alive, so it will use all the tools it can (including stress and emotions) to drive the person to find food and eat as a priority above anything else.
Below then are some of the common emotional hunger signals a person with an eating disorder or in recovery might experience:
Feeling generally irritable or angry
Becoming more anxious
Feeling overwhelmed by small things and more stressed than a situation necessitates
For people with eating disorders, general anxiety around food is a sign of hunger
Feeling anxious at the thought of not being fed enough (either when you prepare your own food or if others are preparing a meal or snacks for you)
Feeling anxious about being given 'too much' food
If you have a meal plan for your recovery, being scared to eat more than is on the plan or even to eat as much as is on the plan (because you know you are actually wanting to eat 10 times more than that measly plan is offering!)
An intolerance of empty time in the day or night, as your body and brain want you to eat but when you are not allowing yourself to eat, having empty time with hunger is very painful to tolerate
Feeling frustrated and despairing about your recovery process or future (frustration about your recovery is usually a sign that you are not eating without restriction in the way that deep down you really want to!)
Feeling numb / unemotional (an underresourced body doesn't have energy to waste on nice things like emotions, be they positive or negative!)
Anxiety around spending money on food or spending money generally (a sign the brain is perceiving a scarce environment due to ongoing hunger)
Being overly sensitive to comments about how much you are eating or about any weight you have gained because in truth you really want more and more food!
Being irritated by or angry towards others who are eating (usually because you want to be able to eat as they are and feel resentful that they can eat with ease)
Judging others for what or how they are eating (similar reasons to above)
Feeling tormented by food (you want to eat it so badly!!!)
Food or eating being an overly emotional experience -whether those emotions are positive or negative
A lack of interest in friends, relationships or things you usually enjoy as you want to be around food or home and focused solely on that. This typically becomes a lot more prominent when people start to eat more at the start of recovery and their brain does all it can to push them to stay at the source of the food and keep eating without distractions, while the food is still available!
Behavioural Hunger Signals
Finally, let's consider some of the behavioural signs that you might be displaying that are really a sign of hunger. This is just a starting list... each and everyone of you with an eating disorder will be able to recognise what is true from this list for you and will definitely be able to come up with more behaviours that you experience which you might now begin to recognise as a signal from your body that it is hungry!
As I said previously, some of these listed could equally be considered under one or more of the other categories. Most of the items listed here arise from a brain and body desperate to eat more food but also scared to do so and so it is seeking ways to feel reassured that they either can eat more or that they have not gone 'too far'. Here we go then:
Tracking anything (macros, micros, fat grams, carbs etc)
Writing down what you have eaten and keeping food diaries
Taking photos of your body
Taking photos of your food
Seeking reassurance from others about how much you should eat or around food and your intake in general
Comparing what you are eating to others
Seeking out eating disorder recovery blogs, podcasts, videos, accounts etc for 'inspiration' or 'motivation' i.e. permission to eat all that you really want to!
Finishing a meal or snack and having an instant urge to eat more
Binges... these are purely a response of the animal brain to restriction and a sign that your body is very hungry and doing anything to get the food on board
Shopping for food more than you really need to (that mental hunger seeking food anyway it can!)