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3 Ways To Better Understand Constant PCOS Hunger

Posted on August 9, 2023

If you’re always feeling hungry with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), you’re not alone.

“Anyone else always hungry?” asked one myPCOSteam member. “I’m so tired of always being hungry. It’s driving me nuts and making me kinda depressed.”

Another member shared, “I was ready to cry because I was so hungry after just eating dinner.”

Apart from making it difficult to manage a healthy weight and insulin levels, food cravings can be just plain frustrating. Here are three approaches to managing hunger based on intuitive eating.

What’s Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is more than just an eating style. It’s a way of living that makes you the expert of your body and what it needs.

Imagine if a stranger who knew nothing about you approached you and said, “I know you better than you know yourself.” Would you believe them? For most of us, the answer would be no.

When we allow diets and cultural expectations to dictate when, where, and what we eat, it’s like letting a stranger tell us when we’re hungry or full. Or what food is going to be best for us.

Food is neither good nor bad. It just is. Instead of following a restrictive diet, intuitive eating suggests relying on your body’s cues. You don’t have to upend your life to try intuitive eating. Having PCOS doesn’t mean that you automatically have to cut out gluten, dairy, or meat. And it definitely doesn’t mean going on restrictive diets.

Intuitive eating is about understanding what motivates you to eat. At the most basic level, humans eat to fulfill two needs:

  • To be full — Fullness is related to the amount of food you eat.
  • To be satisfied — Satisfaction is about giving yourself what you need.

Diet culture sets rules for us about when we should be hungry or full and when and what we should eat. It teaches us to ignore our internal cues and to follow external ones. Sticking to these rules is the opposite of listening to our body.

Instead of listening to these external messages, try to understand what the sensation of hunger feels like for you and how it changes at different stages.

Think about fullness and satisfaction like packing for a trip. Your stomach is your bag, and what you eat is what you put into the bag. Say you have a travel bag packed full, but only with socks. Are your vacation needs met when you arrive at your destination and have to walk around naked from the shins up? Or do you need a more diverse selection of clothing?

To stay satisfied when eating, you’ll need a variety of foods that meet your physical and mental needs. Listen to your body’s cues and what it’s telling you it needs.

Learning not to over- or underpack your “bag,” while making sure you have everything you need, is a skill. And like all skills, it takes time to build. Here are three concepts from intuitive eating that can help.

1. Identify Your Hunger and Fullness Cues

Let’s think about hunger like the fuel gauge in a car with a scale from zero to 10. When your tank is empty, you’re at a zero. And when your tank is completely full, it’s at a 10.

Many of us wait till our hunger levels reach zero, 1, or 2 before we eat. When you’re that hungry, you might feel physical effects of hunger like headaches, dizziness, mood changes, or a growling stomach. The emptier your tank is, the more likely you are to eat too much or make food choices that don’t help your body feel good — just because they’re quickly available.

Before reaching the most intense levels of hunger from zero to 2, most of us experience “gentle hunger.” Signs of gentle hunger are when you start to think about food and what might be good for lunch, or you notice a rumble in your stomach. At that point, perhaps a 4 or 5 on the hunger gauge, you probably still have enough energy to make an unhurried decision about what you’d like to eat.

When you do eat, around 7 on the gauge is where you feel comfortably full. You’re full, but not to the point where you feel you can’t move or might need to unbuckle your pants. It can be tempting to eat until you’re at a 9 or 10, but you might feel uncomfortably full at this level. You might also become incredibly sleepy or find it hard to function.

Try checking in with yourself at various points in the day and rating your hunger and fullness level from zero to 10. Notice which physical cues of hunger or fullness show up at different places on your fuel gauge. For example, you might notice that at a 2, you had a headache and were feeling dizzy.

It’s best to create your own list of hunger and fullness cues. To get you started, here are a couple of examples.

Mood and energy cues:

  • Anger
  • High energy
  • Calm focus
  • Happiness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Sleepiness

Hunger cues:

  • Discomfort or pain
  • Pleasant fullness
  • Dizziness
  • Growling stomach
  • Nausea

Over time, you can learn to recognize when your body is telling you it would like to eat, and when it might be time to stop and choose a meal. By aiming to stay in the middle of the gauge, you can make food choices that balance your energy without feeling distractingly hungry or uncomfortably full.

2. Practice Listening to Your Body’s Signals

Hunger and fullness feel different in everyone. Hunger cues are your body’s way of telling you that you need food. This is much like feeling thirsty means you need to hydrate, and the urge to pee means your bladder is full and you need to go to the bathroom. We don’t tend to ignore these other sensations, but when it comes to hunger, we often train ourselves to ignore it — especially after dieting for long periods of time.

It’s hard to tune into your hunger and fullness cues if you’re used to following rules around food, but it gets easier with practice. You may feel fine after you’re done eating a large meal, but a few moments later, you suddenly feel like you’re full to bursting! This is because it takes up to 20 minutes for the brain to register that your stomach is full.

Techniques to keep this from happening is include waiting until you’re at a very low number on your hunger gauge to eat — and stopping eating before you’ve reached the highest numbers. It may help to eat more mindfully, which could mean putting your fork down every few bites to check in with yourself or eating without distractions like TV.

When starting out, following a guide can help you get in tune with your body. Once you get more comfortable, however, it’s best to assign your own labels to a hunger and fullness scale. Check out the sample scales below.

Example of a basic hunger and fullness scale:

  1. Ravenous
  2. Very hungry
  3. Hungry
  4. A little hungry
  5. Neutral
  6. Satisfied
  7. A little full
  8. Full
  9. Very full
  10. Painfully full

    Example of an individualized hunger and fullness scale:

    1. Ravenous, feeling faint
    2. Very hungry, nauseated
    3. Hungry, angry
    4. A little hungry, unable to concentrate
    5. Neutral, thinking about food
    6. Satisfied
    7. A little full, energized

    Finding your own cues and assigning where they fall on your scale can help you get in touch with how hungry you really are, and when and how much you need to eat to feel your best.

    3. Recognize What Type of Hunger You’re Feeling

    The hunger you feel in your stomach isn’t the only kind of hunger you need to take care of. Once you become more comfortable with the basics of intuitive eating, you can try identifying the types of hunger or fullness you’re feeling.

    You find yourself in the kitchen opening the fridge and cupboards, looking through the options available. What led you there?

    • Is it because it’s been a few hours since you last ate, and your body needs refueling?
    • Is it because you suddenly have a taste for something crunchy or sweet?
    • Is it because you’ve just had a stressful meeting with your boss and need some comfort?

    These are all different types of hunger: physical hunger, mouth hunger, and emotional hunger. It’s possible to feel more than one type of hunger at the same time. Here’s how to tell them apart.

    Physical Hunger

    Physical hunger is usually the most obvious type of hunger. Physical hunger:

    • Builds slowly and gradually
    • Is satisfied by any type of food
    • Goes away once you’ve eaten something
    • Can be accompanied by fatigue, headaches, or dizziness

    If you only need to satisfy your physical hunger, try to eat before your fuel gauge hits zero. You can also choose PCOS-­friendly foods.

    Mouth Hunger

    Mouth hunger is a craving for a specific food, texture, or flavor. It is:

    • Often felt in your mouth
    • Related to the mouthfeel, flavor, texture, smell, or taste of a specific food
    • A quick development

    If you need to satisfy your mouth hunger, you most likely have something specific in mind. Accept it and go for it! Small bites tend to satisfy this type of hunger, so take it slow and try not to get more than what you need.

    Emotional Hunger

    Emotional hunger is the hardest to identify. It’s especially hard if you aren’t used to listening to your body’s cues. Emotional hunger tends to:

    • Involve craving for comfort food
    • Happen during periods of strong emotions
    • Develop quickly

    Why do we feel emotional hunger? It can be complicated. Understanding where it comes from might help us better understand how to deal with it. When we feel emotionally hungry, it's usually paired with loneliness, boredom, stress, sadness, anger, anxiety, or negative emotions.

    Emotional eating is normal. It’s also a clever way to cope with emotions. Eating is supposed to be pleasurable, and it’s something we need to do to survive. Biologically, when we eat, it stimulates certain areas of our brain which bring us comfort, joy, and pleasure. Comfort eating is a natural way to make ourselves feel good. Emotional eating becomes a problem when it’s the only way we have to cope with difficult emotions or it doesn’t work to help us with the underlying issue.

    Tips To Reduce Stress and Emotional Hunger

    When you feel emotional hunger, sometimes food isn’t really what you need. If you feel that you use food as a coping mechanism to deal with times of stress or anxiety, you might want to try some of these strategies instead:

    • Journaling about your thoughts and feelings to help process them
    • Talking to a friend
    • Walking or doing gentle exercise
    • Meditating or practicing yoga
    • Trying some deep-breathing exercises

    Here is a six-minute guided meditation on self-kindness you can try.

    Members of myPCOSteam often share tips about how they calm down and avoid emotional eating. “I eat in a relaxed environment at my own pace,” wrote one member.

    “Try getting yourself an aroma diffuser and buy some essential oils,” suggested another. “Turn off your phone and listen to some calming music. Just try and clear your mind by concentrating on the sounds in the music. That’s what I do.”

    However, it’s important not to let eating become just another source of stress and anxiety. “Don’t stress yourself out over exercising and eating,” another member wrote, “because that will never work long.”

    Be gentle with yourself as you learn to manage life with PCOS and to listen more deeply to your body’s cues. Your mental health is very important to your physical health and overall quality of life. Consider talking to your doctor and getting a referral to a therapist if lingering depression or anxiety are affecting your daily activities.

    Talk With Others Who Understand

    On myPCOSteam, the social network for people with polycystic ovarian syndrome and their loved ones, more than 70,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with PCOS.

    Have you found ways to tune into your body’s signals about hunger and fullness? What advice do you have for others about managing stress and times of emotional eating? Share your experience in the comments below, or join the conversation on myPCOSteam.

    Posted on August 9, 2023
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