When navigating the oh so complicated nutrition world, you may be wondering, should I only eat when hungry? Should I even wait until I’m hungry to eat? And how hungry do I have to be to eat?
These are all valid questions, and you will likely get a wide variety of answers depending who you are talking to. And in all truth, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and is very individual to you and your specific needs.
So, you may be thinking, what about me? How do I know what will work best for me?
Well, that is the purpose of this article! We will go over the pros and cons of eating when hungry and bring in some examples of when waiting until you are hungry to eat is beneficial, and when it may not be beneficial.
It’s important to note that there is no right answer when it comes to anything nutrition related. We are all different when it comes to preferences, genetics, biology, environments, motivations, etc. And this all impacts our nutrition choices and needs.
So, let’s chat about when it’s good to eat only when hungry, and when it’s not good to only eat when hungry!
What kind of eater are you?
I think it’s important to address what kind of eater you are to determine the answer to this question. Your current (and past) habits around food will greatly affect your relationship with food and how you will react to changes in your eating routine.
Eating disorder/Disordered eating history
If you have a history of an eating disorder or disordered eating, then setting stringent rules such as, “only eating when hungry”, can be more harmful than helpful.
For those with a history of disordered eating, it can be very difficult to read hunger and fullness cues to determine the correct amount of food to eat in a setting.
For this population, setting up a regular eating schedule (eating about every 3-4 hours) may be the best starting point while hunger and fullness cues are being restored.
Along with this, feelings of hunger can further exacerbate these conditions and make disordered eating worse. Therefore it is recommended to not reach the point of hunger at all.
While eating regularly can help you achieve this, you also need to ensure you are eating satisfying meals and snacks. I highly recommend including a carb, fat, protein and fiber to most meals and snacks to help achieve this.
After you are fully recovered from an eating disorder or disordered eating and your hunger and fullness cues are restored, then transitioning to intuitive eating can be a great next step.
I’ll explain intuitive eating later in the article and how reading your hunger and fullness cues can tie into this way of eating.
Chronic overeater or mindless eater
If you struggle with frequent overeating or consider yourself a mindless eater (tend to be distracted while eating), then you may have to take a different approach to those who suffer from disordered eating.
Practicing mindful eating can be beneficial for this population. But, what even is mindful eating?
Well, mindful eating encompasses a few things, but to sum it up, mindful eating means being more present while eating and really focusing on the taste and textures of the food, while also feeling your own bodily sensations.
So, if you tend to be a distracted eater, mindful eating can be very helpful.
Honing in to your hunger cues and only eating when you can feel physical hunger can be beneficial. Along with this, honing into your fullness and stopping when satisfied can also be beneficial.
But, there is a little bit of nuance here to consider. If you have constant cravings for certain foods (typically high sugar or fatty foods), then it may actually be more beneficial to satisfy these cravings, even when you are not physically hungry.
For example, if you just had dinner and are full, but still are craving some chocolate, it’s better to satisfy that craving with a piece of chocolate than “tough it out” and even up overeating or binge eating it later that night.
So, while it is best to eat when hungry for the most part, if you still with strong cravings, eating these foods in moderation, even if you aren’t hungry, may be more beneficial in the long run.
If you consider yourself an intuitive eater, then eating when hungry and listening to your hunger and fullness cues is the best way to go!
But, as mentioned above, it’s also important to honor your cravings, which may come when you are not physically hungry.
So, while eating when hungry should be the goal most of the time, it’s also important to remember that it’s ok to eat when not hungry sometimes.
For intuitive eaters, you shouldn’t only eat when hungry, but instead use hunger as a tool to know it’s time to eat.
What is intuitive eating and how do I do it?
So, as promised let’s discuss what intuitive eating is.
If you would like an in depth explanation, I suggest reading my article, The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating, where I go into more detail.
Intuitive eating is broken down into 10 principles which are:
- Reject the diet mentality
- Honor your hunger
- Make peace with food
- Challenge the food police
- Feel your fullness
- Discover the satisfaction factor
- Cope with your emotions without using food
- Respect your body
- Exercise – feel the difference
- Gentle nutrition – honor your health
Principle number two, honor your hunger, ties into what we discuss in this article. Intuitive eaters hone into their hunger and fullness cues to determine when it’s time to eat.
But, as mentioned previously, they also know that it’s ok to eat foods they crave even when not physically hungry. When “only eating when hungry” becomes a diet rule, it defeats the purpose of intuitive eating (principle number one and four).
So… should you only eat when hungry or not?
While for the most part, eating when hungry is beneficial, there are types when eating when you aren’t hungry is ok and even beneficial in the long run.
It’s important to honor your hunger, as well as your cravings to prevent overeating in the future.
So to answer the question: “Should you only eat when hungry?”
If I had to give one answer it would be no. While it’s a good practice for the most part it can easily become a diet rule that needs to be followed, which can lead to disordered eating.