Eating disorder really messes up our normal hunger and fullness cues.
You may feel overly hungry and have urges to binge eat. And even if you eat and feel totally stuffed you may feel like you could still eat more.
You may also feel not hungry and wonder why you have such a low appetite? You may find it very hard to decide what to eat and overthink every decision around food.
Hunger cues are such a confusing topic when it comes to eating disorder recovery. So in this post, I will talk about everything you need to know about why your hunger cues are messed up in the first place and also how to get back your normal hunger and fullness cues.
We will cover:
- Why you lost your hunger and fullness cues
- Why you feel overly hungry or not hungry
- Why you can’t always rely on your hunger cues in recovery
- Recognizing your hunger cues
- Key steps to get back normal hunger cues
Why we lose our hunger and fullness cues in eating disorders?
When we restrict and diet it really messes up our hunger cues.
- We follow so many external rules that say when to eat, how much to eat and what to eat.
- We force our body into starvation mode so it would lose weight, ignoring the fact that it also messes up our hunger cues, metabolism, digestion, and increases food preoccupation.
- We compensate for the food we ate by overexercising, using laxatives, purging, or skipping entire meals.
- In short, we go against our body in so many ways and we don’t listen and trust our body so no wonder our hunger cues get all messed up.
Food restriction puts your body in constant stress and it senses it’s in famine. And to overcome the famine it alters your hunger and fullness cues so you will survive.
Sometimes it increases your hunger so you will feel the urge to binge and overeat.
And sometimes it may actually decrease your hunger because when you are in famine it’s not helpful to be constantly hungry.
Why you feel always hungry and never satisfied
As we talked about previously that when we diet and restrict our body can make us overeat or binge to make sure we survive the famine. From your body’s perspective dieting means you are in famine.
Increased urge to binge and overeat is very normal when we diet and restrict. In recovery, we know this as extreme hunger.
Plus, food restriction causes neurological changes in your brain that make you notice food more. You start to experience more food cravings, food thoughts, and food obsession.
The more you restrict the more compelled you are to overeat, and the longer you do it the more sensitive your body gets to it. To the point that you can just THINK about starting the next diet and you might find yourself bingeing the next moment.
Even binge eating can be classified as a restrictive eating disorder if it’s accompanied by compensating the calories with exercise, starting the next diet tomorrow, skipping meals, or trying to eat “healthy”. Those are all very restrictive behaviors that keep the binges happening.
The key to overcoming binge eating is to stop all restrictions.
You can see my video about “how to stop the binge-purge cycle”
Why you don’t feel hungry and get full so easily
In some cases, the person who restricts may actually experience decreased hunger or a lack of appetite.
This is what we see typically in anorexia. When people with anorexia restrict and lose weight their body senses its in serious danger and famine so it reduces the hunger hormones to help them survive the famine.
When we would be in real famine it would make sense that if your appetite would stay high, also metabolism and digestion would keep running fast, we would die rather quickly. But if we are able to not feel hungry we could go on for longer in search of food and survive the famine.
Here again, the body doesn’t know that it’s a self-induced famine, it just makes this conclusion based on the fact that you are not eating enough.
The body’s metabolism also reduces dramatically as this helps the body conserve energy. Also, the digestion slows down. And because the digestion is so slow you may get fuller quicker and experience a lack of physical hunger because of it. Here, lack of hunger is not a sign of “I’m just eating intuitively and trusting my body” but it’s a sign of starvation.
I have also made a video about this “Why I’m never hungry and always feel full?”
Also if you struggle with your digestion and maybe have constipation then working to get your digestion back to normal is very important to get back normal hunger signals. If you struggle with lack of appetite and have messed up digestion then please also watch my videos about digestion. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
But at the same time, people with anorexia are very preoccupied with food. Their whole day may be revolved around food – what to eat or not to eat, how much, when? They may obsess over what other people eat, look at recipes and read cookbooks, watch endless cooking shows or suddenly have this “passion” for cooking. Their extreme hunger manifests as this constant mental food obsession. And that should be the real marker of how hungry they really are.
In ED recovery you can’t always rely on hunger cues
As I talked about before starvation can downregulate and suppress your hunger cues.
If you struggle with a lack of appetite you can’t even wait for hunger cues before you start to eat more. But you need to simply eat more! You need to even force-feed yourself.
If you lack physical hunger signals you rather need to follow your mental hunger – all the food thoughts, food planning, daydreaming about food, and so on. Many people say that if they would eat according to their food thoughts or mental hunger then they would eat all day. And yes, then it is exactly what you need to do.
Some people need to just commit to eating A LOT of food, here I don’t even mean the calorie minimums of 2500-3500 cal per day but even more than that to “trigger” hunger cues and extreme hunger. Your body needs the evidence of an abundance of food first so it can feel safe enough to increase your hunger and trust that starvation is truly over. Plus, it requires a lot of energy for your body to even produce hunger signals, speed up your metabolism, digestion, and fix other things. It can’t even start this process when you first don’t start to eat more.
In recovery, you really need to master the skill of feeding yourself even when you don’t want to, when you feel so uncomfortable and have fear. Otherwise, you just end up doing the same old thing, which is restricting, and you won’t recover.
So if you feel your hunger cues or have extreme hunger – great! Eat a lot of food! But if not, then simply commit to eating a lot of food and follow rather your mental hunger and make sure you eat over the minimums.
Recognizing your hunger cues
As we have talked about that in recovery it’s very hard to connect to our hunger cues and often we cant always rely on them to tell us how much to eat. And instead of waiting for the physical hunger you rather need to follow your mental hunger and even force-feed yourself to recover.
But many people don’t even consider that we actually have different types of hunger cues. Many people think that only the feeling of an empty stomach or stomach rumbling is the sign of hunger but actually we have much more signs of hunger.
Here are some different ways you may recognize your hunger cues:
- In your mood – feeling hangry, irritable, cranky, moody, low
- In your energy levels – feeling fatigued, sleepy, lethargic, just blah or listless
- In your head – the constant food obsession, feeling light-headed, having a headache, feeling dizzy, experiencing poor concentration, or feeling easily distracted.
- In your stomach – with sensations like gurgling, rumbling, emptiness, having a stomach ache, or feeling hunger pangs
- In your body – feeling weak, shaky, quivering, feeling low blood sugar, or salivating.
Different people may notice different sensations so it’s important to get to know your body.
And also, for example, I don’t typically wait until I have a headache, feel dizzy, or if my stomach is rumbling loudly before I eat. Those can already be signs of being overly hungry and I don’t have to stress out my body like that.
I typically eat when the hunger signals are mild and pleasant – like when food starts to sound delicious, my mouth is salivating when thinking of food, I may experience a bit drop in energy or concentration but not in any extreme ways.
But of course in recovery, we may have more intense hunger signals, like constant food obsession, or feeling extreme hunger. Or we may also have less tolerance to hunger signals and we may feel even panicky when we notice even a slight hunger. So it all can be normal in recovery but it’s important that you do start to pay attention to and respond to your hunger if you want to restore your normal hunger and fullness cues.
And you can make it very simple for yourself – whenever you start to overthink your hunger, asking “should I eat, should I not eat? What does this signal mean, am I hungry or not?” I would say – don’t overthink it and JUST EAT! Very often trying to micromanage our hunger cues in recovery and try to eat “perfectly” is just another way to restrict.
Very often we overthink our hunger because we feel we don’t have permission to eat, but you must give yourself permission and just eat. If you would truly be not hungry you would not even care to think about food. So the fact that you are so worried and overthinking about food is a sign of hunger and you can make it very simple for yourself and JUST EAT! See my video about this HERE.
8 Key Steps To Get Back Your Normal Hunger Cues
So now let’s talk about the key steps you need to take to get back your normal hunger and fullness cues.
1. Stop all dieting and restriction
This means no more calorie restriction, food restriction, no more intermittent fasting, Keto dieting, or whatever other forms of restriction. Also, see my videos about overcoming mental restriction Part 1 and Part 2 as this is the type of restriction many people often overlook.
2. Stop compensating
This should go without saying but you should never ever compensate your calories. No purging, no laxatives or diuretics, no skipping meals. And most often you should take a complete break from exercise in recovery. Sometimes some light walking or stretching is ok. But most often we need a serious break from exercise in recovery. Our body needs rest to restore itself and its functions such as hunger cues. Also, we need to rewire our brain from compulsive exercise. And resting, in general, is a very important aspect of physical recovery.
3. Eat enough
It’s very important to eat enough. You may start with making sure you eat at least the minimum of 2500-3500 calories per day. BUT remember those are only minimums and not maximums. You are likely more hungry than that. And of course you must listen to your extreme hunger when it hits. And follow your mental hunger. See my video about “Caloric maximums”, “Extreme hunger”, “Mental hunger” Video 1, and Video 2.
4. Eat regularly
Eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner and 2-3 snacks in between so you will be eating something every 2-3 hours. Regular eating really helps with regulating normal hunger cues and provides the body with reassurance that food truly is coming in now regularly and we don’t need to downregulate our hunger cues, metabolism or digestion because it thinks it’s in famine.
5. Follow mental hunger
Like we talked about in the last video, sometimes physical hunger signals are not present or they are suppressed due to starvation so this is why you should always follow mental hunger, which comes in a form of constant food thoughts and food obsession. This is your sign of extreme hunger. So honor the mental hunger, over time it normalizes.
6. Eat calorie-dense foods and get satisfied
After starvation, it makes sense that our body would prefer to eat calorie-dense foods, not some low-calorie diet foods. Eat plenty of high-carb and high-fat foods. These foods help the body to trust that all famine is truly over. And don’t just focus on getting physically full but also getting satisfied, truly mentally satisfied. And that very likely takes eating more high-calorie foods and plenty of calories. Satisfaction is a great way to connect to your hunger cues. And it’s ok that it takes time to start to feel that satisfaction, depending on where you are in your recovery journey, but it’s just something to aim for.
7. Challenge food rules and fear foods
Write down your food rules and fear foods and challenge them consistently. You have created a lot of food rules in eating disorder – what to eat or not to eat, when, how much is allowed, etc. This all has contributed to messing up your hunger cues as you are not listening to your body but you are listening to someone else’s rules. Also, there are likely lots of foods you have deprived yourself of. Things you consider “bad” or “unhealthy”, you have developed “fear foods”. So write down your fear foods and start to eat foods from that list every day. Challenge them consistently. You need to start doing the opposite action – break all the food rules and introduce back all the foods you have been restricting.
8. Allow time and be consistent
Be realistic about getting back your normal hunger cues and know that it will not be an overnight process. Eating disorder damages your body and it requires rest and lots of food and especially enough time and consistency with your recovery efforts to restore itself. You won’t restore the normal hunger and fullness cues if you decide to recover this week but next week go back to restriction. You need to show your body that it’s safe to relax around food, that it’s safe to restore normal body functions and it doesn’t need to fear any famine anymore. And you can only do it when you stay consistent with your recovery action and give it plenty of time to work.
If you want to learn more about recovery and how to do it step by step then please read my book “BrainwashED”
You can check out my recovery online courses HERE.
Or you can book a one-off coaching call with me HERE.