Have you ever gone to the bathroom before heading out on a road trip, even though you didn’t really have to go? You preemptively use the bathroom just in case there isn’t one available when you need it, which would leave you feeling very dire and uncomfortable.
Most people will answer yes to this question – because this is a practical thing to do.
Guess what? The same thing applies to hunger! It is OK to eat when you aren’t feeling physical hunger signals (i.e. stomach growling, low energy, etc) if you anticipate you won’t be able to eat for a longer than normal period of time.
This is called practicing practical hunger and it prevents us from getting to a point when we are overly hungry, thus creating a dire and uncomfortable situation – just like having to use the bathroom and not having one available.
Intrigued? Keep reading.
It is incredibly valuable and important to learn our hunger and fullness cues, but we often see diet culture creep in when it comes to eating outside of these cues.Sometimes, listening to our body means eating when we are not physically hungry.
Let’s take a look at the 4 types of hunger in intuitive eating:
- Physical hunger: This is what we typically think of when we think hunger. It comes from our biological need to eat and presents itself as a growling stomach, low energy, headache, fatigue and difficulty concentrating.
- Taste hunger: This is simply eating something because it sounds good. It can look like finishing off a nice meal with a dark chocolate or sharing a basket of fries while watching sports with your friends because it adds to your experience. This type of hunger is often demonized but we are here to say that taste hunger is an important part of food freedom!
- Emotional hunger: Emotional hunger occurs when there is an unmet emotional need that presents itself with a desire to eat food. People are often fearful of emotional eating especially if they lack other coping mechanisms. Food CAN be a comfort but it is important that we learn how to process our emotions and develop other coping tools as well.
- Practical hunger: This is not necessarily a hunger we can feel or explain, but rather preparing for an anticipated need to eat. It’s very similar to using the restroom before you leave for a road trip because you don’t know when there will be another bathroom available. It’s planning ahead for a need you know will arise.
We take a deeper dive into practical hunger below.
Examples Of When You Might Use Practical Hunger
I am sure you can think back to a time when you had gone too long without eating and found yourself overly hungry, uncomfortable and irritated (aka “hangry”). While some might be in this situation because they intentionally decided not to eat, we find that many clients find themselves here unintentionally because the day just got busy!
Here are some examples of how practical hunger might come into play:
- You are going into a situation where you might not have access to food for the next 1-3 hours (a meeting, appointment, class, busy work day, etc)
- You find yourself stressed or emotional which has suppressed your hunger
- You have a job that only allows for specific meal lunch breaks and at times when you may not be physically hungry (i.e. being a teacher and only being able to eat during planning periods)
- After a strenuous workout or sport and you know your body needs fuel
- When you are following a meal plan or schedule (eating disorder treatment, diabetes management, GI protocol, etc)
- If you are pregnant, breastfeeding or pumping and your body requires more energy
Why It Is Okay To Eat When You Are Not Physically Hungry
Diet culture likes to twist intuitive eating to mean eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full- this is FALSE and just another rule! The goal is not to live our lives revolving around food. Wecan’t always stop what we are doing when we begin to feel physical hunger. Practicing practical hunger will prevent us from getting to a point when we are overly hungry and do not have access to food. This not only affects our mood, energy and concentration, it can lead to feeling out of control or binge eating once we are able to eat.
For those that need to follow a specific meal plan for medical conditions or those that require extra energy, only listening to physical hunger might do more harm than good. For example, those with an eating disorder likely have altered hunger and fullness cues and being on a schedule can help begin to regulate those cues. Or in diabetes management, going all day without eating because you are not physically hungry will cause your blood sugar to drop and peak when you do eat.
Putting It Into Practice
In these situations, we are typically looking for something functional that will keep you full, balance your blood sugar, and keep you concentrated.
If you anticipate it will be 1-3 hours before you will have access to food, it is a good idea to have a snack containing a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Such as:
- Cheese and crackers
- Apple and peanut butter
- Trail mix with nuts and raisins and/or chocolate chips
- A nutrition bar (examples: kind bar, Rx bar, lara bar)
- Yogurt with cereal/granola
- Beef jerky and fruit/ crackers
If you anticipate it being 3+ hours before eating, depending on when you had your last meal, it is probably a good idea to have a meal. Again, we are looking for something that has carbohydrates, protein and fat but in a larger quantity.
Lastly, meal planning is incredibly helpful in determining times that practical hunger might be used. When we talk through meal planning with clients, the first step is “What events or things do we have going on this week that might affect our meals or snacks?”. An “event” can look like a long lab, a specific lunch break pre-determined, or simply knowing that Mondays are insane! Our goal is for you to learn your hunger and fullness cues and use them as a guideline, but realize they are not a rule and sometimes we need to eat when we are not hungry!