Practical Hunger: A Tool to Keep you Fueled

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Regardless of what brings you into our office, it’s almost guaranteed that one of our dietitians will ask you about when you feel hungry and what it feels like. Hunger is a valuable tool when it comes to eating more intuitively. It can help remind you to eat and help you decide what you’re in the mood for. In a lot of ways, hunger is like the gas gauge on your car. It helps ensure that you fuel your body frequently enough to get where you need to go. But what if you have trouble sensing when you’re hungry? Or what if you’re not physically hungry but you know it will be several hours until your next opportunity for a meal or snack? Enter practical hunger.

Practical hunger is one of the four types of hunger in intuitive eating. Simply put, practical hunger is eating when you’re not feeling physically hungry, but you know logically that you should eat something. You might utilize practical hunger in any of the following scenarios:

  • You’re not physically hungry for lunch yet but you’re about to go into a 3-hour meeting where you can’t have anything to eat. You use your practical hunger to eat a small meal or snack before the meeting to make sure you stay fueled and focused until you’re able to eat afterwards.
  • You’re working on reconnecting with your hunger cues and you don’t yet feel hungry at consistent times throughout the day. The best way to regain consistent hunger cues is to eat at regular times to help the body regain trust that it will be fed. In this case, practical hunger would look like eating scheduled meals and snacks in the absence of physical hunger.
  • You’ve noticed you have a more enjoyable workout when you eat something about an hour before you go to the gym. You’re not necessarily physically hungry at that time, but it helps you feel and perform your best.
  • You’ve been working with your dietitian on blood sugar regulation and know that a snack before bed helps your blood sugar stay stable throughout the night and into the next morning.
  • You have a medication that needs to be taken with food.
  • You’re going out to breakfast but you know the wait is likely to be at least an hour. You’re not hungry yet but you know you’ll be ravenous by then. You have a snack in order to be comfortably physically hungry by the time your meal arrives.

When discussing practical hunger, a question that comes up a lot is, “Wait! I thought intuitive eating was all about eating ONLY when I’m hungry!” If we lived in a vacuum and could always respond to our hunger cues the second they arise, maybe that would be feasible. However, we live in a world where all our daily tasks can get in the way of consistent meals and snacks if we’re not proactive about fitting them in. Additionally, things like stress, anxiety, and a history of dieting can interfere with the recognition of our physical hunger cues, leading us to believe that we’re not physically hungry even if our body needs fuel. If you were on a road trip with a quarter tank of gas but you saw a sign that the next gas station wasn’t for another 200 miles, you’d probably stop to fill up to make sure you don’t get stranded somewhere. Practical hunger is similar – it’s about planning ahead in order to fuel your body throughout the day.

The other question that often arises is, “If I’m eating when I’m not hungry, won’t I eat too much overall?” This is a completely normal fear – diet culture teaches us that eating even one bite past what we’re “supposed” to eat (whatever that means) is a physical and moral failure. This is absolutely not true! If you are eating intuitively, you’ll probably eat a bit less at your next meal or snack as it is – the body is smart and will adjust its hunger cues accordingly. If you’re working on regaining your hunger cues, you can trust that your dietitian is providing you with a meal plan and pattern unique to your needs, so you can rest assured that your body is getting what it needs.

When choosing what to eat to honor your practical hunger, it depends on the context. If you’ll be going 3 or more hours without eating or it’s close to a mealtime, it’s best to eat a meal that contains at least 3 food groups (choose from protein, carbohydrates, fats, dairy, and fruits/vegetables). This doesn’t have to be extravagant – a PB&J with a glass of milk would work great! If you’ll have access to food sooner and you know a meal is coming up, a snack with 2 food groups will often do the trick. Try pairing a protein with either a fruit, a vegetable, or a starch for filling and sustainable energy. This might look like cheese and crackers, yogurt with granola, fruit with nuts, a granola bar that contains protein, or some trail mix.

If practical hunger is new to you, talk to your dietitian about how it might fit into your life (or how it already does!). There is not always going to be a “perfect” time to eat, but utilizing practical will help keep your gas tank full.

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