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Intuitive Eating Principles for Runners: Honor Your Hunger

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

To honor your hunger is to listen to your body and to keep it fed with adequate amounts of energy in order to support its optimal function.


For most, it's not as simple as, "eat when you're hungry," in part because society has taught us to ignore our hunger or to "trick" it, but also because physical hunger is only 1 of the 4 types of hunger we can experience.


Let's dive in on these different types of hunger and discuss how we can honor all of them in order to support running performance, our health, and our relationship with food.




What is Hunger?

From a physiological standpoint, hunger is when the body needs fuel. We might experience a stomach growl or a sense of emptiness and in more extreme hunger it could cause a headache or lightheadedness.


According to Evelyn Tribole, one of the founders of Intuitive Eating, when we reach the point of excessive hunger, it's virtually impossible to eat moderately. Surely, most of us can relate and have been in a situation of feeling overly hungry only to overeat.


Because so many people have experience with dieting and ignoring physical hunger in attempts to lose weight or other reasons, it's not uncommon for them to not pick up on the hunger cue until they've already reached this point of extreme hunger.


In runners, specifically, physical hunger can be impacted by various factors throughout a training cycle and they may not always feel as hungry as they should in order to take in adequate fuel.


Listening to their bodies and eating only when they think they feel hungry can eventually result in under-eating, which has plenty of consequences in the long term.


Honoring your hunger means not only keeping the body biologically fed, but also tuning into your internal cues in general. This can be really hard when we're taught for years to eat specific amounts or avoid certain foods (these are external cues).


In order to reach satisfaction, it's important to understand the different ways you might feel hungry.


Hunger Signals

First, let's briefly cover the main hormones that affect (physical) hunger and satiety in the body:

  1. Ghrelin. Think of ghrelin as the "hunger hormone" that makes your stomach growl, stimulating appetite. Get it? Grrrrrowl, Ghrrrelin?

  2. Leptin. Alternatively, leptin is the "satiety hormone" that reduces appetite.

  3. Insulin. Insulin is the hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar levels and can affect appetite.

  4. Cortisol. Cortisol is commonly known as the "stress hormone". It's sensitive to changes in stress levels in the body and can alter the balance of ghrelin and leptin.

This is a very basic overview of these hormones and they can be impacted by many different factors, including training volume and conditions in runners.


For our purposes today, these are the hormones that affect what we typically think of as hunger, but there are 3 other types of hunger we can experience too.


The 4 Types of Hunger in Intuitive Eating

As runners, it's important to know and understand all of the ways your body may feel hunger so that you can not only support your body's physical needs, but also support a healthy relationship with food.


There are 4 main types of hunger in Intuitive Eating:

  1. Physical hunger. This is what you're probably thinking of when you think of hunger. It might be felt in the stomach, or even the mouth's salivary glands and it's typically satisfied with eating (obviously, right?).

  2. Taste hunger. This type of hunger occurs when something looks or smells delicious. Taste and physical hunger can happen simultaneously, but taste hunger can happen in the absence of physical hunger as well. There is nothing wrong with satisfying a craving, even without feeling a true physical hunger.

  3. Emotional hunger. Emotional eating is often discussed in a negative way, but food has been a source of comfort throughout human evolution. Think of how a parent might soothe a crying baby. It is okay to feel emotional hunger, and it's okay to eat emotionally. It can become a problem when it's the sole coping mechanism or if emotional eating is not actually fulfilling that emotional need. Emotional hunger and eating deserves a blog post of its own, so stay tuned for more there.

  4. Practical hunger. This one is important in runners. Remember above when I mentioned it's not uncommon to lack appetite at certain times of training? Practical hunger is eating when we know we need to, even if we don't feel a sense of physical hunger. It can also be eating at 12pm even when you aren't hungry, because you have a meeting a 1pm and won't get another chance to eat until 3pm when you'd be absolutely starving and unlikely to eat mindfully.

Intuitive Eating Principle #2: Honor Your Hunger as a Runner

As a runner, you might experience a lack of appetite at certain times of training and you may also experience extreme hunger at other times.


This is normal.


But it's still important to take in enough fuel day to day as well as before and after, and sometimes during, your runs.


You WILL have to override your lack of physical hunger with practical hunger at times and this is one of the best things you can do to support your health and performance goals.


Here are some tips for honoring your hunger as a runner:

  • Pay close attention to physical hunger when it first appears. With practice you will pick up on gentle reminders that it's time to eat and you'll avoid reaching that point of extreme physical hunger. If you've been conditioned by diet culture to ignore your hunger cues, this is especially important.

  • If you're craving a specific food, allow yourself to have it! In most people, avoiding the craving typically results in failed attempts to curb that craving with "healthier" alternatives only to give in to the craving in the end anyway. Save yourself the emotional torment and satisfy your taste hunger, then move on. If it's coming at a time that would upset your stomach in your training session, give yourself permission to enjoy that food later at a time when it won't be problematic.

  • Emotionally eating can be difficult to navigate, but first understand that it's normal and okay to feel comforted by certain foods. Keep in mind, though, that by fueling your body properly day to day will prevent moments of extreme or emotional hunger. Again, it's OKAY to eat emotionally at times, but food should not be the sole coping mechanisms for difficult times.

  • Rely on your practical hunger to stay on top of fueling your body throughout the day and for your runs so that you can feel good, perform like a boss, and recover for the next one.

Recap

Embracing the Intuitive Eating Principles doesn't come naturally for a lot of us, especially if we've spent any time in the dieting world.


Honoring your hunger is simple, but it's NOT easy. If you're struggling with this principle, or with your relationship with food, reach out, and let's see if we'd be a good fit for each other.


Let's work together!


If any of this has resonated with you, I'd love to hear! My 1:1 clients work on various areas of nutrition including this and other intuitive eating principles, fueling for performance, and more. Check out some of the ways we can work together here.


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