Why Mental Hunger Matters
From my personal experience with mental hunger to what I’ve read about the subject, this post dives into into what mental hunger is, the causes of mental hunger as well as how you can gain back your healthy relationship with food and exercise!
Do you ever crave (more of) a certain food, but don’t allow yourself because you’re not ‘physically hungry’? Or, do you experience lack of appetite, yet you think about food 24/7? Or, do you ever feel SUPER FULL yet STILL want more food? These are all examples of mental hunger.
What is Mental Hunger?
Simply put, mental hunger is thinking about food (and thinking about exercise can play into this too!). More specifically, mental hunger can be defined by the constant, nagging thoughts of food, especially the food that you won’t allow yourself to eat. I remember during my worst periods of restriction, when my insomnia was basically a constant, where I would just lay in bed all night dreaming about eating an entire cake, spreading butter on the toast that I would never eat, and licking my fingers over the chocolate bar that I would never buy.
When you Google ‘mental hunger’ or ‘brain hunger’ or even ‘why can’t I stop thinking about food?’ you’ll get bombarded with search results along the lines of ‘how to tell if you’re really hungry’ and ‘tips on how to stop thinking about food’. Most of these ‘certified health sites’ seem to give suggestions such as ‘distract yourself’ or ‘drink a big glass of water’, but these ‘remedies’ are the LAST thing you should be doing if you can’t stop thinking about food! Mental hunger is REAL hunger. It’s not a fraud and it’s not your body ‘trying to deal with negative emotions’ when you are coming from a period of dietary restriction. And note my word choice here—I’m not talking about caloric restriction or even not eating frequently enough, it’s restriction of any type.
Restriction & Mental Hunger
Unfortunately, several types of dietary restriction are socially accepted and even praised in the society of today. This includes, but is certainly not limited to: vegan, gluten-free, low-carb, low-fat, sugar-free, paleo, and orthorexia, or an obsession with eating only foods one deems as ‘healthy’. Because these labels and forms of restriction are thriving in our era (especially in the health & wellness community), they’re often not considered as restriction. But only you can know if you are actively restricting or not. If you’re not sure, you can ask yourself the questions:
Am I avoiding a certain food? If so, why?
If your answer is yes and the ‘why’ doesn’t have to do with legit allergies/intolerances or a serious medical condition, you may want to reconsider your relationship to said restricted food. In some cases, you might not even be aware of the fact that you are restricting. Let’s say you have a meal plan as prescribed by your dietician, to help you start to eat ‘normally’ again. If you are (mentally) hungry ABOVE this plan and not allowing yourself to eat more, you are restricting.
The reason it’s so important to be aware of any food rules you have made for yourself is because they are directly linked to mental hunger. Even rules that ‘you can only have sweets on the weekend’ or ‘you can only eat 2 slices of toast within 24 hours’ are forms of restriction. If you want sweets on Wednesday or maybe you want a third slice of bread with breakfast but don’t allow yourself, you’re restricting. Denying yourself of what you really want when you want it results in preoccupation with those foods. The brain will obsess over what it wants but can’t have!
What does thinking about exercise have to do with this?
So maybe you do allow yourself to have the food, but only if you make up for it by exercising or doing something else to ‘compensate’ for it. Skipping a workout may cause you a lot of anxiety, and focusing on daily tasks may seem impossible unless you’ve completed your ‘workout for the day’. In this case, you are probably mentally hungry.
Exercise gives you a reason to eat, and that’s why you feel the need to do it. The reality is, you don’t need a reason to eat. You are deserving of food no matter what. You are a human being just like me, and we all need fuel! Whether we’re trekking the sahara dessert or laying on the couch all week, your body can only maintain the vital functions of life (beating heart, digestion, excretion, reproduction, etc) if you GIVE it what’s necessary to do so!
If you notice you are exercising in order to ‘deserve’ food, you need to stop exercising. Now. You need to heal that relationship first, and prove to your body that there is abundant food no matter what.
How is this related to extreme hunger?
When I talk about extreme hunger, I’m referring to that almost insatiable, bottomless-pit hunger many of us in recovery from an eating disorder experience when we increase our intake to normal levels. Extreme hunger happens when your body realizes there’s enough food around and the starvation period is finally over. It’s your body’s way of communicating ‘we’ve made it to the abundant lands, time to feast!’.
Extreme hunger is basically mental hunger that’s manifested itself as physical, too. It can feel very scary to not only have one, but now TWO forms of extreme hunger (mental and physical), but honoring all of your hunger is the only way up. Your body is smart and your body knows what it needs. Show it that you’re gonna give it just that.
But what if I’m already ‘weight restored’?
How are you defining ‘weight restored’? Are you basing it off of the number that comes rolling out of a stupid BMI calculator? A point on a chart at the doctor’s office? What you weighed before your eating disorder?
If you’re mentally hungry, you’re most likely not weight restored. If you’re mentally hungry, you’re suppressing your intake and not eating enough of what YOUR body needs. If you’re mentally hungry, you need more food. Having mental hunger at a point that you are deemed ‘healthy’ by others can be really tough. I know I still struggle with that sometimes! Hearing everyone around you—family, friends, (even doctors!)—say that you ‘look so good’ and then still feeling like you can only be satisfied by eating 5x the amount they’re eating…that’s tough. There’s really no easier way to put it. Especially for those in naturally larger bodies, admitting to the fact that you may need more food and giving into mental (and/or extreme) hunger is one of the hardest parts of recovery.
But just because you are not (or no longer) emaciated, doesn’t necessarily mean you are ‘healthy’, and is DEFINITELY not a sign that you are ‘weight restored’. Weight restored means feeling free around food. It means you can eat whatever you want when you want it, it means you can eat without feeling like you need to compensate/exercise/restrict in other areas, it means you don’t obsess about food being ‘healthy’ or ‘clean’ enough.
How long does mental hunger last?
As long as it needs to! The intensity and duration of both mental and extreme hunger depends on so many factors; the person, how long restriction has been going on, if you overexercise(d)…there’s no ‘one size fits all’ blanket statement when it comes to defining how long mental hunger lasts.
The only blanket statement I can make here is that if you have mental hunger, you need to eat. The more you eat and the sooner you do, the quicker your body will realize it’s safe and there is no limit when it comes to eating.
Have you been through (or are you currently going through) mental hunger? How was (or is) your experience?