I found extreme hunger in my eating disorder recovery very upsetting and disturbing. I felt like I just went from one extreme to another. It felt like failing recovery. I tried SO HARD to suppress this hunger – but on the long therm I could not stand the tension. I was too scared of gaining weight – but this is really not what extreme hunger is about. Extreme hunger is a natural response to famine. And it means your body and mind is healing. This is what I am digging into further in this blog post – and I really hope it takes away some of your fear around it:
- how it feels like
- the science behind it
- difference to binging
- how to heal it
how it feels like
Just like everyones body is different – everyone experiences extreme hunger different. Most warrants describe it as a feeling: being gut full, but still belly empty. This means – even after you might have just eaten a meal or snack, you don´t feel satisfied or full enough yet. Another sign that you are experiencing extreme hunger is constantly thinking about food. Watching full day of eatings, planning your next meal, reading recipes, … It can even happen, that you´re somehow feeling extremely excited by the thought of eating as well as somehow feeling shaky or dizzy.
And when you´re giving this hunger in, it can feel like you are out of control. No matter how much you eat – you just want more until you are actually uncomfortably full.
the science behind it
hormones and their role
– leptin: the fullnes hormone is released by fat cells (lower body fat percentage = less leptin), also activates AMPK together with other hormones
– ghrelin: the hunger hormone. The lower the concentration – the better is your sleep, the less sensitive you are to traumatic experiences, lower risk of depression and anxiety,…
– AMPK: regulates between anabolism (building up tissue) and catabolizm (breaking down tissue) activated by leptin, among other hormones
– peptide hormones: satiety-peptides, released by the gastrointestinal tract (enteric nervous system)
In the late 20s Dr. Ancel Keys wanted to know about the physiology about starvation, to actually help starving people after the World War II. The healthy and mentally stable participants where put on a restrictive diet under supervision – from todays point of view, this is not morally defensible, so the experiment has never been repeated again. (This alone says enough about, how extreme a restrictive diet actually is!!)
The participants first had a diet from about 3200 kcals, and where cut down on a diet with “only” 1570 kcals. After this episode of starvation they increased the calories in a range from 400-1600kcals over three months. After these three months they where allowed to eat any desired amount. Some men then found it difficult to stop eating, even though they were warned about “overeating” – but at least after a year all men had a regulated appetite, hunger and fullness again.
I am going to keep it more simple here, if you´re interested in further explanation – please let me know. Basically what happens when you´re restricting calories; tissue gets be broken down to save energy, so biological functions can be kept upright. Imagine this as cannabalism of your own body. With the time going on, your hormones get out of balance including hunger, fullness and satiety -hormones. This leads to experiencing fullness and a extreme lack of satiety all at once. (gut full, but belly empty)
Same occurs for restricting only certain food types. You won´t be satisfied until you are eating, what your body is really asking for. You still feel hungry for more – no matter what you have eaten before.
Because of the catabolizm (breaking down of muscle, fat-cells, bones and organs-tissue), you need a lot more energy when you are starting to reverse the damage. Healing in this context also means reparing your hormonal imbalances, so that you´ll be able to feel full, satisfied and hungry again. If you keep restricting, the craving will only get stronger – and you will actually end up eating even more – because your body will keep asking for it until you are giving into this hunger.
difference to binging
Definition of binge eating disorder: regular eating attacks with a loss of control. Warrants eat more than the usual amount within a shorter time. They eat faster, only stop when they are uncomftable full, are not related to hunger, they eat alone and try to hide it, feeling ashamed afterwards.
I know… this might exactly sound like what you are going through. But: it only becomes a binge, when´re feeling bad about it. Would you feel bad about sleeping longer the day after a long night? No – right? Because you need the energy. Also: if you don´t compensate after a “binge” – means you are still having your next snack or meal, not even less,… so that your body can use the extra energy to heal your body and mind. And especially heal your hormonal-system. This is why I am talking about a healing hunger. Anf something I personally experienced: When I tried to fight against the hunger – I had a loss of control. But if I gave in as soon as it started – I was able to calmy decide, prepare my food and sit down. Maybe get up and get some more. So, you need to let it happen.
heal your extreme hunger
Let´s come to the part I used to consider as scary. (Actually it is not nearly as scary as experinceing the hunger itself.) I bet you´re alredy guessing it: You need to eat. Unconditionally. This means:
– Honoring all your mental and physical hunger.
– Not skipping meals or snacks – no matter how much you have eatien before or how full you feel.
– allowing yourself to eat anything you desire. (otherwise you won´t get your satiety back, and you´ll always be hungry for more)
– The Minnesota starvation experiment has actually shown, that the participants that ate higher-calorie-foods recovered faster – so don´t be afraid to do that. It will actually help you to not feel extremely stuffed.
– Stop any kind of restriction. Even restricting for a day or thinking about restricting later can bring up extreme hunger. Feeling guilty after eating is also a form of restriction. Remember that you are allowed to heal!
Know, that suppressing your hunger will make it only stronger – which means on the long therm, that you´ll end up eating even more.
And as important as eating itself: Take care of your mental health. Be kind to yourself. Find helpful distraction tools. This also means digging into the reason what you are really hungry for? Life? Because you can´t live a fulfilled life on an empty stomach. And then relax. Give your body time to relax. The more stress you are putting it under – the more energy it will ask for. This will pass – as long as you trust the journey.
I really hope, this post helped you to understand your body´s signals. Healing hunger is absoultely nothing to be afraid of. It will pass. I PROMISE. Please let me know, how you feel about this and especially what you want to know more about (Are you interested in “after extreme hunger”?) and don´t forget to share it with other fighters, that need to hear this. My heart goes out to you – if this is what you are experiencing right now.
The psychology of hunger (apa.org) (03.06.2021)
The Minnesota Starvation Experiment & Eating Disorders (followtheintuition.com) (03.06.2021)
Extreme Hunger Part 2: The Experience and Science — The Eating Disorder Institute (edinstitute.org) (03.06.2021)
Binge-Eating-Störung | BZgA Essstörungen (bzga-essstoerungen.de) (03.06.2021)
042: The Minnesota Starvation Experiment | Seven Health: Intuitive Eating and Anti Diet Nutritionist (seven-health.com) (03.06.2021)