The Biological Importance of Honoring your Extreme Hunger
Extreme Hunger 101! What is Extreme Hunger? Why does it happen? Why is it important? In this post, you'll learn the answers to all of those questions from a biological perspective!
Extreme Hunger can be one of the scariest parts of recovery, but it's also one of the most important. If there’s ONE topic that I get the most Instagram DM’s and emails about, it is hands-down about extreme hunger & binge eating. I’m honestly so passionate about this topic, that I have created the world’s very first ONLINE COURSE designed specifically for those who want a step-by-step guide to overcoming extreme hunger and finding true satisfaction!
Extremely Hungry to Completely Satisfied is the all-in-one resource I wish I had while navigating my own period of extreme hunger. Consisting of video presentations, lessons, worksheets, scientific resources, and TANGIBLE action steps, my course teaches you EXACTLY how to get rid of extreme hunger and finally feel satisfied.
For now, let’s dive into the basics of Extreme Hunger…because we can’t build if we don’t have the groundwork laid out, ya feel? In this post, I’m going to be sharing WHAT exactly extreme hunger is, why it happens in recovery, why it’s important, and the different types of extreme hunger. Then depending on what you think, I may or may not dive deeper into this topic in later podcast episodes! If you DO get anything out of this post/episode or have gotten anything out of previous podcast episodes, it would mean the ABSOLUTE WORLD if you can share this to your Instagram stories & also leave a rate + review on Apple Podcasts. It helps support the show more than you know and helps spread a super important message to all that need to hear! I love doing this work, but I mean it when I say we’re in this together. I seriously couldn’t do what I do if it weren’t for you, my beautiful friend!
Defining Extreme Hunger
So first thing’s first: what exactly IS extreme hunger? There’s obviously not a dictionary definition of extreme hunger, so I am not expecting everyone to agree with my definition of it. However, from my personal experience as well as the experience of clients & amazing individuals on IG, I believe this definition is the best way to encompass what extreme hunger feels like! Although there may not be a definition of the words “extreme hunger” together, there ARE of course definitions for the word “hunger” and the word “extreme”. Let’s read ‘em, shall we?
DEFINITIONS: According to Merriam-Webster,
Hunger: a craving or urgent need for food or a specific nutrient
Extreme: reaching a high or the highest degree, i.e. very great.
When we put these together, we get the definition of extreme hunger as a very urgent need for food or specific nutrients.
What I love about this definition is that nowhere in it, is just physical hunger specified. I feel like there’s this misconception that extreme hunger is only valid if it’s physical, but there are several ways in which extreme hunger can present itself! But before I do get into the different types of extreme hunger, it’s important to first understand WHY extreme hunger occurs.
Simply put, Extreme Hunger is our body’s way of getting us back to a healthy state as quickly and efficiently as possible. When we are malnourished, our body goes into energy deficit, which means that the amount of energy or the amount of calories we are taking in, is insufficient to balance the amount of energy we are putting out, or “burning”. I do want to stress here, that you don’t just burn calories when you’re working out; just being alive requires energy! Think about the beating of your heart, the digesting of your food, or the signals that your brain is exchanging with all of the different parts of your body! I feel like we often forget how much FUEL the body truly requires, even when we’re just sitting and resting! In reality, your body is NEVER resting. Your cells are constantly multiplying, which means your body is constantly at work! It’s just that when us humans can’t see something, we too often jump to the conclusion that nothing is happening, and then we overcomplicate things by trying to take them into our own hands. We may overexercise to burn calories, go on a diet, or engage in other compensatory behaviors that ultimately result in a negative energy balance. Reading this, you just may see the words energy deficit or negative energy balance and think, okay, well what the HECK does this have to do with extreme hunger? Well, for the body, energy deficit is perceived as a famine. Specifically, our brain stem perceives a famine. And fun fact here: The human brain as we know it evolved from just the brain stem; in fact, some animals, such as reptiles, only have a brain stem! For this reason, our brain stem is often referred to as the reptilian brain.
Your survival brain
The reptilian brain is responsible for anything that has to do with survival—so any thoughts about food, safety, sex—that’s all your brain stem! Its sole purpose is to make sure you stay alive and keep the human race intact. And what’s one of the biggest threats to human survival? LACK OF FOOD! So, when you do go on a diet, or overexercise, or do anything that ultimately causes you to consume less food than your body needs, your brain stem perceives this as being in an environment that is lacking adequate resources.
In reality, sometimes resources are scarce! Not really anymore, with a Starbucks and a McDonalds being on literally every corner nowadays, but 1000s of years ago there were times when food was scarce, and people had to temporarily adjust. When we go through a period of stress, we may undereat or perhaps overdo it on the exercise, but our bodies are pretty malleable…when they trust that this scarcity is just a temporary thing, there’s no real long-term issue. The ISSUE is when this energy deficit continues for a prolonged period of time such as through continuous dieting, disordered eating, or just simply consuming an insufficient amount of food for longer than a couple days. When this energy deficit Does continue for a prolonged period of time, I like to speak of energy debt. Energy debt is a lot like financial debt, in the sense that you need to eventually pay it back.
What happens when you are in Energy Deficit?
Before we get to the paying it back, we need to look at what happens what exactly happens to the body when you are in energy deficit and building up energy debt. As you just learned, if you are undereating, your body perceives a famine and believes there is not enough food around. In other words, your body does not trust that resources are abundant. So, if the body cannot rely on there being food, it will adjust in an effort to lessen the requirement of that food. With that I mean, if you are expending less energy, you obviously don’t need as much…that’s what people generally mean when they use the terms “fast metabolism” or “slow metabolism” as some people naturally burn more or less energy than others. BUT, no matter WHAT your natural Basal Metabolic Rate (the rate at which you burn energy at rest) is, your body will slow down if you are undereating. It will start to conserve energy in order to keep you alive. Because if your body would continue to give out as much energy as before, you’d run out pretty quick! When us humans DO run out of energy, we die…and that is literally what our survival brain is PRIMED to prevent from happening!
So, what happens? Your body starts to economize, and bodily processes will start slowing down. Your heartrate slows, you feel tired (literally = lack of energy), you feel cold as your body cannot produce as much heat, your metabolism slows, your digestion slows, your hair and nails get brittle, you get the idea. But this is just the beginning…because as you continue to undereat, your body also must continue to economize. It has absolutely no clue when food will be readily available again, so it slows down even more, and even STOPS certain processes that are non-essential to life. An example of this, is when your period goes missing if you’re a female, because why the heck would your body waste energy on a period if it could use that precious energy to keep your heart beating? Not to mention its lack of trust of you feeding a baby if you can barely feed yourself!
For a while, your body may be able to sustain this economization. However, as you continue your day-to-day life and use precious energy on other activities, your body starts to build up debt. If you’re not going to provide it with energy, it’s going to seek other places to get that energy from, such as your organs. Here’s when your body will literally start to eat itself up. Your bone density decreases (which can lead to osteoporosis) and your brain will shrink, which can result in irrational thinking and other mental health issues. Yes, this is all very scary, but it’s simply how the body works. We NEED fuel to function, and your body will do ANYTHING it can to access that fuel.
Perhaps now, you realize what danger your body is in, and you finally start fueling it properly again. You start eating more, you stop exercising, and you start the process by which your brain stem can trust that it’s no longer in a famine environment! And then…
After eating more and giving yourself plenty of rest for a couple of weeks or months, you suddenly get this insatiable hunger and feel like you’re a bottomless pit. Or perhaps you CANNOT stop thinking about food, even when you feel so stuffed to the brim. This my friends, is the moment everyone in ED recovery dreads: welcome to Extreme Hunger.
You may be wondering, WHY now? Why didn’t I have extreme hunger when I was eating less? Wasn’t I supposed to be hungrier before I was eating more? From the biological perspective of energy conservation and understanding of our survival brain, it is completely logical that you get extreme hunger later on in recovery. As we learned earlier, when your brain thinks it’s in a famine environment, it will be VERY selective when it comes to choosing how to use the limited amount of energy available. If it cannot trust that there is food around, it won’t waste its energy on sending out physical hunger cues!
However, when you start eating more and perhaps gain some weight, your body learns that it’s not actually in famine environment, yay! It now trusts that hunger cues will be honored, so it finally starts sending them out. And back to our beautiful definition of “extreme”, it will start sending them hunger cues out in a very great degree.
What are the different types of Extreme Hunger?
Now I want to just elaborate on the different types of extreme hunger, as I know there can be this worry about wanting to eat more food in recovery, even if you feel physically very full. You may already be familiar with physical hunger and mental hunger, which I will be explaining, but I also want to elaborate on 2 more nuanced types of hunger that you may not be as familiar with!
First of all, we have physical extreme hunger, which is what most people in recovery describe as the "bottomless pit hunger" or this inability to feel physically full after eating a significant amount of food. The scientific term for this insatiable physical hunger is post-starvation hyperphagia, for which the definition is: an increase in the sensation of hunger and overeating after a period of chronic energy deprivation that can be part of an autoregulatory phenomenon attempting to restore body weight. I know that definition is quite a mouthful (no pun intended), but all it means is that feeling incredibly hungry after a period of restriction is a completely normal and an even healthy biological response to get your body out of energy deficit.
Mental hunger falls right into this same category, with it being a way in which your body is trying to get you healthy again. I get SO many DMs on Instagram with questions around whether mental hunger actually counts, or people who are worried that thinking about food has somehow become a “bad habit”…and probably the NUMBER 1 question around mental hunger I get, is whether or not we should honor it if we feel physically full after satisfying our physical hunger.
I’m going to start off right by saying that YES, mental hunger ABSOLUTELY counts and if anything, it can be even more important sometimes than physical hunger, in those moments that you do feel physically full or simply don’t feel physical hunger at all. The reason I say more important, is because mental hunger can be the very trigger for us to eat and nourish ourselves if we ARE lacking physical hunger cues. To understand this, I just want to briefly go back and touch on something I mentioned earlier, which is this idea of energy conservation. When your body thinks it is in a famine environment, it will slow down or even completely shut down processes in an effort to conserve energy. EVERY SINGLE THING that your body does costs energy, from cellular division to simply breathing. When we consider this, the very act of a rumbling stomach or any other type of signal that our brains receive when we’re physically hungry, costs energy. When we DO have sufficient energy, meaning we’re eating enough and are NOT in energy deficit, the body is willing and able to sacrifice the energy of sending out a hunger cue in good trust that it will get its return on investment (that return on investment being eating). However, when we ARE in energy deficit (and this can still be the case if you’ve gained some weight), our body is not yet willing to sacrifice energy on a physical hunger cue, because it still doesn’t have complete trust that this hunger cue will be met with food.
THIS is where mental hunger is our savior. The body is smart and knows that you need more energy, so it will think of alternative ways to signal you to go out and seek that energy (when I say energy, I of course mean calories). And what is the most cost-effective way to signal you that you’re hungry? Thinking about food! Because simply having a thought costs way less energy than having a physical cue. This is actually the VERY reason why most people who are malnourished, constantly think about food and experience mental hunger; it’s your body’s way of telling you that you’re hungry, while it’s being smart and conserving energy! Like how incredible are our bodies?
How do I recognize mental hunger?
Now we know that mental hunger is important and all, but I completely understand that it can also be harder to recognize, especially if you’ve conditioned your body to ignore it for so long. I now want to share some ways in which mental hunger can present itself, so that you can become better at becoming aware of it…because awareness is always the first step to change! Simply put, mental hunger can be recognized by thinking, planning, or dreaming about food or anything that has to do with food. Perhaps, this is planning your next meal, worrying about what food is going to be available at the dinner party, or thinking about how you’re going to restrict in order to deserve food later in the day…that’s ALL mental hunger!
You may be wondering now, well that can’t be possible because I’m ALWAYS thinking about or planning food. Livia, if that’s your definition of mental hunger, that would mean I’m ALWAYS hungry? And yes, exactly!!! You’re right; you probably ARE always hungry. But because you’ve conditioned your brain to ignore the thoughts around food or to distract yourself, you’ve tried to micromanage and control the very simple message that your body is telling you. This mental hunger is often very closely tied to constantly feeling like you need to be productive, because constantly doing something is a mechanism in which you’ve tried to distract yourself from thoughts about food.
Other forms of Mental Hunger
Along with physical hunger and mental hunger, I do believe there are 2 more very important types of hunger that need to be addressed here in the context of extreme hunger in recovery. The first one, I like to call Exercise Hunger. And before you think: “oh well, if THINKING about FOOD means I need to eat food, then surely THINKING about EXERCISE means that I need to exercise?” Nice try, my friend, but no. Exercise hunger is actually a form of mental hunger that isn’t as obvious, because you’re not directly thinking about food…so it’s almost a disguised form of mental hunger. If you are thinking about exercise as a means to "deserve" or "make up for" eating food, or if you’re obsessively planning your workout routine, it's mental hunger, because you are trying to work out a way (no pun intended, again!) in which you will allow yourself to eat more food. Once again, I do want to reiterate here that exercise goes WAY beyond working out at the gym, running, or any kind of traditional forms of movement. ANY type of compensation—whether this be pacing, needing to take the stairs, not allowing yourself to sit down, purging, etc—are ALL ways in which you are trying to deserve food, meaning they’re all ways in which you’re trying to disguise your mental hunger.
The last type of hunger that I feel isn’t really talked about enough in the recovery space, is what I call Eating-induced Hunger. Have you ever started eating something, maybe you weren’t particularly hungry, but then found yourself absolutely STARVING halfway through, or even after the meal? This is eating-induced hunger, meaning hunger that has been triggered by eating. Simple as that. Just like extreme hunger in general, the phenomenon of eating-induced hunger makes COMPLETE sense from a biological perspective. As we established, your body will not likely send out physical hunger cues if it believes to be in a famine environment. However, when you start to eat food, your body receives the notion that it is in fact NOT in a famine environment and it then believes physical hunger cues to be appropriate. I know eating-induced hunger can feel SO irrational and can lead to feeling this fear that you'll never stop eating, but just like mental hunger, it's your body's way of telling you it NEEDS FOOD!
Honestly, extreme hunger itself, in whichever form, is your body’s way of telling you that it needs food. Trust me, I know it can be SO scary and SO difficult to honor a bodily signal that you’ve gotten used to ignoring for however long you have been doing, but honoring that Extreme Hunger really is one of the KEYS to healing not only your body, but also your mind. I promise you that it DOES go over, the thoughts about food WILL lessen, and your body WILL trust you again. But first, you need to PROVE to your body that it can be trusted. Prove to your body that food is abundant. I really hope this episode has given you insight and inspired you to honor and embrace the extreme hunger you may be going through. If you did learn anything, it would mean the ABSOLUTE world to me if you could screenshot this post and share it on Instagram and tag me @livlabelfree so that you can help inspire other people to honor their extreme hunger too!
Do you want to overcome your extreme hunger and stop binge eating for GOOD? Are you ready to learn how to truly feel SATISFIED around food? Then you’re in the right place, because my Extreme Hunger Course is your step-by-step guide to ending extreme hunger & finding true satisfaction. Click HERE to learn more!
Read the study on Poststarvation Hyperphagia HERE