Reframing Hunger As a Good Thing
QUESTION: Do you binge when you’re hungry?
Most days pass by without me even having the physical sensation of hunger.
Since I don’t have a typical work schedule – with all the rules that go along with it – I can head to the kitchen for a bite whenever I want.
If I would just wait until I was physically hungry before eating anything, I suppose that alone would actually help me lose weight – as long as I didn’t use hunger as an excuse to pig out and just ate a normal-sized meal (like maybe 400-700 calories).
That would be the key.
And that is a real problem for me.
Maybe for you too.
Probably for a lot of us.
When we go several hours between meals and start to feel genuinely hungry – really HANGRY- we act like that automatically gives us permission to eat 2-3x more food than normal. Especially if we’re with other people.
You’ve noticed that too, haven’t you?
It’s like, “Oh hell yeah, I haven’t eaten ALL DAY. Let’s chow down on a ton of extra food. Because…WE EARNED IT.”
As if waiting until you feel actual hunger is some kind of hero’s journey that entitles you to a huge victory feast.
Real Physical Hunger Vs Mental Conditioning
But it’s not the actual hunger itself that makes me overeat. Not really. It’s much more of a mental thing than an actual physical response to hunger.
- I’ll eat when I’m bored.
- I’ll eat when I’m stressed.
- I’ll eat when I’m watching a movie or TV show.
- I’ll eat when someone else is eating.
- I’ll eat when I’m supposed to be writing an article for a client.
- Hell, I’ll eat just because I finished eating what I was already eating and now I miss chewing on something salty, greasy, spicy, crunchy or sweet.
And those are just the times I eat when I’m NOT hungry. So when I AM actually, PHYSICALLY hungry – WATCH OUT.
Honestly, I think it’s just part of our foodie culture here in the US. Maybe folks in other countries act this way too idk. But it’s like there’s this unspoken cultural consensus that feeling hungry automatically justifies eating way more extra food than our bodies need.
There’s no real logic to it.
The instant you try to rationalize it, you just feel stupid lol.
Like, in a society where food is pretty cheap and is available in abundance, there’s no reason to pig out. There’s more food where that came from. If you live in the United States and are reading this blog post, the odds of you dying from starvation are practically zero.
What Is Hunger Anyway?
Real hunger is just that achy feeling you get in your stomach when it’s empty – when the food from your last meal has passed through it and into your intestines. So it sends a signal to your brain that the food is gone, and your brain triggers this hunger sensation.
But it’s no reason to panic.
It doesn’t mean I’m starving.
All it means is that one organ – one small part of my digestive system – has done its job. Now the food has moved out of my stomach and into my intestines to continue digesting over the next 2-3 days. It doesn’t even mean that I’m low on nutrients or calories. Hell, my last meal hasn’t even finished digesting yet.
It just means that there’s room in my stomach again.
Reframing Hunger as Fat Burning
For someone who is morbidly obese and is trying to lose weight, hunger is actually a good thing. It’s something that I should welcome. Something that I should relish. Something that should make me happy.
Hunger should make me happy.
Because if I never feel hungry, that means my stomach always has food in it. How can I burn off bodyfat if there is always a surplus of food in my belly?
This concept is super simple and obvious, but I rarely think about hunger in this way. Normally I just react automatically to hunger by immediately seeking out more food – and in large quantities.
That happens on autopilot.
It’s a habit.
It’s a pre-programmed response due to cultural beliefs and 1st-world attitudes about hunger.
But the cool thing is, once you recognize that a little hunger is good for weight loss – now you can break the old rules. You can choose to replace the old beliefs and habits with new ones.
Leaning Into Hunger
I thought of this concept of reframing hunger as a positive thing a couple of times in recent years but I didn’t really stick with it for long. It was like a great idea that popped in my head while I was driving home, but then by the time I got home and sat down at my desk, I completely forgot about it.
What reminded me of this was a recent video by the channel Workin’ Things Out on YouTube. In it, Doug mentions “leaning into hunger” and not being in a hurry to eat.
He initially tracked his meals, workouts and weigh-ins daily to understand how his activities and eating habits were impacting his weight. That approach helped him lose 100 pounds back in idk…2016? (see his old weight loss vlogs).
But now he’s following a more intuitive approach to weight loss. He’s not weighing himself. He’s not tracking his workouts. Instead, he’s trying to focus more on listening to his body and using that to guide his workouts and eating habits as he continues his weight loss journey. So I guess he intends to “listen” to his stomach more often, in a sense, to tell him when it’s time to eat again.
I don’t really plan on taking that purely intuitive approach to weight loss myself since I actually love tracking and documenting my daily weight, meals and workouts. It helps me. I also tend to overeat less when I eat at scheduled times.
So since I still find having more structure as useful at this point, I’ll continue with that.
BUT – what stuck out in my mind was his use of the phrase “leaning into hunger”, and that is something that I intend to start working on.
What Does Leaning Into Hunger Mean?
Instead of looking at hunger as something negative or something to be avoided, it can be useful to reframe that physical sensation of hunger as fat loss. Look at it as a signal from your body that those calories from your last meal have been used up and your body is now burning fat reserves until more food is consumed.
Is that technically accurate in terms of what’s happening biologically inside your body?
It’s not entirely accurate, but it’s not too far off base either.
For practical purposes, for fat loss purposes, it’s accurate enough. It’s a useful way of using hunger to assist you in your weight loss journey.
So instead of rushing to shove food into your face whenever you feel hungry, try to push back your next meal for a little bit.
Can you wait another 20-30 minutes before eating again?
How about 60 minutes?
(I’m literally doing this right now as I write this blog post – oh gawd it’s hard).
What if I decided that for the next 30 days (or whatever), every meal I eat, I’m going to wait until I feel hungry before I eat that meal?
If I would use hunger as a green light to go ahead and eat and non-hunger as a red light temporarily delaying my next meal – and do that for 30 days – can you imagine how much less food I might eat compared to what I’m doing right now?
I have a bad habit of grazing on food all day, so that’s a ton of food over the course of a month.
That would totally transform the way most morbidly obese people go through their day. It would totally transform how we eat and it would transform our relationship with food in our daily lives. Needless to say, it would transform our bodies very quickly.
And I’m not even talking about depriving myself or banning certain foods from my diet. I’m just talking about not overeating. That’s it.
Just eat when you’re hungry and don’t eat when you’re not hungry.
The Challenging Part for Me
I think the tough part about this, for me at least, is that I don’t even consciously think about this stuff very often. I don’t think about food or hunger that much when I’m at home in my office. Usually, I don’t even realize I’m eating again until I’m already halfway through my meal.
Hell, half the time I don’t even make it out of the kitchen. I just grab and eat while standing there in front of the fridge or the stove.
It’s like my mind is off in wonderland doing its thing, and then all of a sudden I notice what I’m doing, and I’m already in the kitchen shoving food into my mouth. Or I’m walking out of the kitchen, and I’m like, “What just happened?”
I wasn’t even aware that I was eating. It’s kinda weird.
It’s that damn autopilot.
Tuning into my stomach’s hunger sensations will be challenging for me at first because my mind is too busy thinking about other random stuff to even pay attention to my stomach – until it’s too late.
3 Super Simple Ways to Lean Into Hunger
So I think I’ll need some kind of system in place that will automatically grab my attention and make me focus on the moment, some simple weight loss hacks that get me to ask myself if I’m literally hungry or not right now.
1. Scheduled Meal Times & Meal Prep
It will probably just be something really simple, like I could decide on meal times spaced out so many hours apart and then set alarms for when it’s time to eat.
That kinda worked for me in the past when I was doing my 3 meals and 0 snacks diet during the last six weeks of 2020. Meal times were:
Having portion controlled meals already prepped ahead of time and microwave-ready also helps a lot. I’ve been doing that recently and noticed that it makes a big difference in my weight loss efforts.
2. Sticky Notes Everywhere
I also had some success using notes on the fridge and on the wall at my desk – visual cues to hopefully cut me off when I’m mindless reaching into the fridge to eat between meals.
I use sticky notes, dry erase markers on a whiteboard and full-size letterhead on a clipboard hanging on the wall or the fridge.
I even wrote “Am I Really Hungry?” on my hand with a Sharpie once. It was messy. But it worked for a day.
3. Tracking and Accountability
The last strategy that always works for me – when I stick with it – is tracking my meals, beverages and snacks (binges included) – and then sharing my results on my blog or on Youtube.
Those little diet hacks didn’t always stop me. But sometimes they did. It’s all about interrupting those subconscious eating patterns (i.e. shutting off the autopilot) and making me consciously aware of what I’m doing and what my body is feeling.
I just need more practice so that I get better at it – because dieting is a skill.