Today, people have unprecedented access to food and drink, and many of the foods that are available have been scientifically engineered to be “hyperpalatable foods.” 1 This means that they are designed to have just the right combination of salts, sugars, and fats to make individuals want to eat beyond satiety.
Because of this, modern hunger cues are not as accurate as they should be. Just a few generations ago, people could eat intuitively. They would cook a meal, serve up a portion, and eat until they were genuinely full.
Additionally, the foods they ate provided enough sustenance to support them while they did generally intense physical activities. Even if the person in question had a job in an office rather than a job in agriculture, it is still likely that they walked to work, did household chores by hand, and were generally far more active. Today, individuals move far less because of modern inventions like cars, washing machines, dishwashers, and vacuum cleaners, all of which tackle even the most labor-intensive tasks.
Understanding Hunger Cues
Given the knowledge that the environment around individuals is encouraging them to eat more and move less, how is it possible for people to maintain a healthy and reasonable appetite? Well, one thing you can do is try to discern the difference between boredom and hunger. Even children who are still breastfeeding may experience different levels of hunger depending on whether they are stressed or not, and it is important for mothers to be aware of the hunger cues that their infants exhibit.2
Hunger cues can vary significantly from person to person, with common cues including light-headedness, headaches, stomach cramps, difficulty concentrating, and stomach growling.3
While these signs can be clear hunger cues for some people, they are not valid for everyone. For example, feeling light-headed can be a sign of low blood sugar, but if your blood sugar is low because you just ate a chocolate bar and now you’re on a sugar crash, that isn’t necessarily the same as the feeling of hunger. This scenario highlights the importance of eating foods that won’t spike and crash blood sugar levels.4
Struggling to concentrate can be due to a lack of sleep or stimulant use and withdrawal. Again, before getting into the habit of reaching for a snack, try looking at your sleep habits, going for a walk to get some fresh air, or even drinking a glass of water.
As for a growling stomach, this could be caused by any number of things. While the old wive’s tale is that if your stomach is growling, it is because it’s time to eat, that isn’t always the case.
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Yes, it’s true that you can stop your stomach from growling by eating a lot of the time, but the signal is a bit more complex than that. It simply means that your intestines are full of air rather than food. This means that your stomach and intestines are not full of food bulk, but there is more to nutrition than bulk.5
Taming Your Hunger Cues
One challenge that a lot of people face is external hunger cues. These are independent of food that make people feel like they’re hungry. External cues can include social settings, attractive packaging, the flavor of snacks (designed to make you want to eat more), and many other factors.6 Even factors like socially acceptable meal times can impact your perception of hunger.
The good news is there are ways that you can beat those hunger cues and eat on a more natural and reasonable schedule. Scientists have discovered that there are many hormones that regulate hunger and satiety, not just leptin and grehlin, but even oxytocin matters.7 Studies even show that some foods are expected to deliver more satiety than others and that having an understanding of this could actually change the way that we think about portion control.8
Given all of these findings, there are lots of little things that you can do to trick the brain into thinking that you no longer want to eat or to stall while the satiety signals from the food that you have eaten reach the brain. For instance, eating slowly gives the stomach time to process the food you are eating so that the brain has a chance to catch up and accept that you are no longer hungry. Drinking a glass of water is also a popular trick for helping a person decide whether they are really hungry. If you feel hungry, drink some water. If you are still hungry 30 minutes later, eat. If not, wait until mealtime.
Another useful trick is to sniff some sweet essential oils such as vanilla.9 This can be particularly effective if you are experiencing cravings for sweets or chocolates since it triggers the part of the brain that feels cravings, thereby distracting it until the cravings pass. Try using this essential oil topically after diluting it with a carrier oil or aromatically in a room diffuser or portable diffuser like Happy MONQ.
Learning to listen to your body and differentiating between hunger cues, boredom, and thirst is a vital skil—one that will help you to stay fit and healthy for a long time to come. The modern environment makes it hard to listen to hunger cues accurately, so it is easy to over-indulge even if you don’t mean to or don’t even realize it. Once you learn the right strategies, though, you’ll find yourself feeling much better and eating more intuitively.
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