Nutrition Deep Dive: Hunger and Fullness

Today we're diving into hunger + fullness, which may sound like a simple topic - but the more diets we try, the more quiet our hunger and fullness signals get. At its core, hunger is simply a physiological mechanism that keeps us alive. It's not something to be feared - instead, I believe it's something we should embrace. Like breathing, sleeping, and needing to use the bathroom, hunger is simply something we feel and respond to. When we understand hunger and how it feels, we can respond to it better and meet our body's needs in a way that we enjoy, then we can move on with our lives because food isn't something we should think about 24/7 (let's be real, nothing is).

So, let's dig in!



image source

The hypothalamus, aka the regulatory control center of the set point is a region in the center of your brain that uses several pathways to control weight. There are two parts of the hypothalamus that are especially influential in regulating appetite: the lateral hypothalamus (LH) and ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH). The LH is the "hunger center" of your brain, while the VMH is the "fullness center". When activated, the LH increases appetite, and when damaged, appetite is decreased. The same goes for the VMH and fullness.

But what controls the LH + VMH? Among other things, hormones like leptin (the fullness hormone) and ghrelin (the hunger hormone - think of a hungry gremlin). Think of the LH + VMH as a on/off light switch with the rest of your body sending cues that flip either one on or off at any given time. The cues can be things like stress, amount of sleep, being around food that is appetizing, and about a thousand more things.

The bottom line: the hypothalamus is the "action center" of hunger, where feelings like hunger and fullness are put into action. The pathways controlling hunger are complex and there are a lot of things that can affect and activate them. If you're struggling through recovering from diets or thoughts surrounding hunger, it can be helpful to think of hunger objectively as a mechanism that keeps us fueled and alive, and simply recognizing the things that may be influencing it. (adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});



I like this scale (interpreted from the Intuitive Eating book) because it shows that there are multiple levels of hunger/fullness and it's not just a black-and-white, hungry or full picture. Ideally, we'd always eat around a 3-4 and stop around a 5-6, but a normal and healthy part of being human is sometimes overshooting in either direction. Scroll down tot he bottom of this post for your own printable hunger and fullness scale that you can use to describe how you feel at various levels of hunger!


As nice as it would be to say "here's a scale, tune in with your body!" sometimes it's hard to fully experience, understand, and act on hunger. Here's a (by no means comprehensive) list of things that could be muting your hunger and fullness signals and making it hard to act on them.

  • Dieting: imagine your appetite as a toddler, asking for attention. If you ignore him or her, the toddler will eventually realize that this method of getting attention isn't working, and will go away. The same goes for hunger - the more we ignore/silence our hunger, the less we actually feel it - meaning that for chronic dieters it may be all but impossible to respond to hunger when breaking the diet mindset, because symptoms don't exist or aren't as prominent.

  • Eating disorders/disordered eating/recovery: this is a highly similar train of thought to how dieters lose their hunger cues (I consider dieting to be a form of self-harm and disordered eating). If hunger isn't responded to, it goes away and your internal awareness is muted.

  • Strong emotions/cravings: sometimes, if we are used to eating emotionally or tuning out when we're eating, it's hard to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger. This chart from Kylie of Imma Eat That is a helpful one to work through to help you decide if you want to eat or not!


  • Feeling of emptiness

  • Stomach growling/gurgling/rumbling

  • Headache

  • Irritability (hanger)

  • Lightheadedness/dizziness

  • Nausea

learning how to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger

learning how to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger


So what do we do when hunger strikes? Diet culture would have us believe we should just squash it down and ignore it - but the most beneficial and simplest answer is simply to eat. When we ignore hunger, we essentially tell our bodies that it's starvation time - and a whole slew of mechanisms designed to conserve energy and slow things down kick in. We can stop feeling hunger and fullness signals, binge eat, and so much more if we don't fuel our bodies with energy. Here's how to tune in:

  • Pay attention to your hunger signals and assess them throughout the day. This doesn't mean you have to eat only when you feel "hungry enough", but it can help you get a grip on what your body feels like at various stages of hunger and fullness.

  • Eat without distractions. This is a pain if you're a mealtime-Instagram-scroller like me, but distracted eating can dull our fullness signals and actually worsen our digestion. And once again, this isn't to say that every single meal you eat will be perfectly tuned-into and you'll never eat in front of the TV again (because let's be real, it's fun) but it can be a helpful tool if you’re just getting to know how hunger and fullness feel to you.

And just a quick note: fueling both body and soul is just as important as learning how to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger. So, while food isn't a substitute for a long talk with a friend, a therapy session, or another healthy outlet, we can't ignore that food is comforting and the comfort it provides should be respected.