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Practical Hunger in Intuitive Eating: Why You Should Sometimes Eat When You're Not Hungry

Did you know that there are multiple types of hunger? Practical hunger, what we are discussing in today’s blog post is just one of four hunger types. Here’s a quick overview of the types of hunger:

  • Biological/Physical hunger: When your body is signaling that it needs energy and needs nutrition. This is probably the type of hunger you think of when you hear the word “hunger” you may associate it with a lack of focus, lightheadedness, or a gnawing feeling in your stomach.

  • Emotional hunger: This type of hunger is associated with when you want to fulfill emotional needs through food! Think craving a pint of Ben & Jerry’s after a difficult day at work.

  • Taste hunger: This type of hunger is associated with eating food simply because it tastes good and not out of biological hunger.

  • Practical hunger: When you’re not necessarily biologically hungry, but you know it is a good idea to give your body some energy.

Now that we’ve discussed and broken down the types of hunger, let’s delve into practical hunger! Here’s a quick story time for you all that I feel reflects a scenario where practical hunger was important! I just recently got back from a trip to DC to visit a friend. Getting there required a SUPER early wake up call of 4 AM. By the time I got on my flight, it was around 6 AM and I conked out for my two hour flight to Denver.

When I arrived in Denver for my layover, I didn’t feel hungry. With the time change and with the different schedule, my body was totally confused. The idea of food at that time didn’t necessarily sound super appealing to me. However, this is when practical hunger came into play. I knew I would eventually need nutrition, given that I was about to board another 3 hour flight to DC. I also knew that once I got to DC it would be a few more hours before I ate something and by then I would be ravenous. Knowing that a squashed granola bar in the bottom of my carry-on wasn’t necessarily the most substantial breakfast of all time, I decided to listen to my practical hunger and buy myself a bagel and cream cheese from Starbucks. YUM!

So What Is Practical Hunger Exactly?

This story is just an example of what it would look to honor your practical hunger. Practical hunger is when you are not hungry in the moment, but eat in response to anticipated physical hunger that you may not be able to satisfy later on. Another way to think of it is using the restroom before getting in the car for a long road trip.

Here are a few more examples of practical hunger:

  • You have a meeting at 11:30 am and won’t be done with that meeting until 2 pm. By that point you would be super hungry and possibly be feeling extreme biological hunger. To prevent this, you eat lunch earlier or eat a substantial snack to hold you off before lunch later on.

  • You have spent years in the cycle of restriction and dieting and no longer feel that you have hunger or fullness cues. To make sure that your body is getting adequate nutrition, you start to eat consistently throughout the day to begin building internal hunger cues again.

  • You have to take medication in the morning with food.

  • You are about to do or have just done a strenuous workout and know that your body needs fuel before.

Why It’s OK to Eat When You’re Not Hungry

One of the first principles of intuitive eating is about honoring your hunger. With this, a lot of people then take that as “only eat when you are hungry.” However, remember that these principles are guidelines and not rules. Hunger and fullness is incredibly nuanced!

Eating when you are not hungry is OK. Our lives don’t revolve around food, meaning that sometimes we are unable to stop what we are doing to eat food. Many times, we may not be in a position to have food around us 24/7. This is when practical hunger comes into play! Remember that hunger and fullness cues are there to guide you towards eating fully throughout the day, but you do not have to follow these cues perfectly in order to fuel your body the way it needs.

How to Honor Practical Hunger

If you know that you will have access to food again in 2-3 hours, it might be smart to eat a snack. Here are some examples of snacks that have a couple fuel groups!

  • Energy bars (usually these contain multiple macronutrients in one food!)

  • Nut butter and crackers or cheese and crackers

  • Apple and nut butter

  • Nuts with dried fruit and chocolate chips

If you think that you will not have access to food for more than 2-3 hours, it might be better to eat a meal or a larger snack!

I want to finish this blog post by saying that everyday is going to be different! Intuitive eating principles are again not rules but guidelines! These topics we discussed are not meant to be followed to a T but are meant to simply guide you to fueling your body fully day to day.

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