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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Lott

Defining Mental Hunger

What is mental hunger?

Mental hunger is thinking about food. You might not even be thinking about eating food, but you may be thinking about food nonetheless. It can also be thinking about things that lead to or are associated with eating food. For example, when I was planning my exercise routine I was really thinking about food, because exercise made it more allowable for me to eat. Or these little OCD behaviors that are also wound up in your eating disorder — thinking about them and the activity of doing them counts as mental hunger.

Egregiously, mental hunger often can be actually thinking about food. So planning meals in your head; fretting about shopping; juggling things around the day so that you don’t eat more than usual; and also thinking about foods that you don’t allow yourself to eat. It’s like you are window shopping in your brain for food all the time but never actually going into the store.

Why do we have mental hunger when we are in energy deficit?

Your body is low on fuel. Your intake is not enough to match your expenditure. So your body reacts by lowering metabolism. To do this, it systematically starts to get rid of all procedures that use energy but are not vital. If your brain believes that you are living in a famine environment, then physical hunger signals are not justified as a use of energy. It doesn’t want to waste any energy at all, so it ceases to give you physical hunger signals. These will come back as you come out of energy deficit. In the meantime, the brain will use mental hunger to signal to you that you need to eat more food.

You are thinking about food because you need to eat food. Period.

How long will mental hunger last?

As long as it needs to!

When you come out of energy deficit your body will begin to produce normal physical hunger signals, and your mental hunger will gradually decrease. It is there because it is needed, when it ceases to be needed, it will dissipate.

How should you respond to mental hunger?

Eat food.

You go with it. Scary as that is, if you are thinking about food you should be eating food.

Does this mean I will eat all the time forever?

Your body is smart. When you are in energy balance your brain stops getting feedback from the body that you need to eat all the time. Your mental hunger goes when you are in energy balance.

No, you will not eat like this all the time forever. You will have no desire to eat like this when you are nutritionally rehabilitated. This sort of eating is needed right now, and when it is no longer needed your thinking about food all the time diminishes.

So …. where does extreme hunger come into this?

Extreme hunger is what some of us get when we start eating more food and the brain realises that it is no longer in a famine environment. In a nutshell, extreme hunger is when your physical hunger cues come in at the level of your mental hunger … i.e. all the time! Just like mental hunger, extreme hunger will diminish as you come out of energy deficit.

Extreme hunger doesn’t happen to everyone. If it does happen to you then you go with it. Eat. When your body is in energy balance your extreme hunger will reduce and you will be left with normal levels of hunger.

What if I am “weight restored” and I still have mental hunger?

First off: weight restored according to whom?

A graph and a chart in the doctors office? Nah. You’re likely not weight restored. I’m beginning to move away from that term as people get so confused and think that if they hit a BMI 19 they are weight restored. Your body will tell you when you are weight restored. A better term is “nutritionally rehabilitated.” Regardless of what your weight is, when you are nutritionally rehabilitated your mental hunger will decrease. Nutritional rehabilitation is more than just putting on weight. You also have to amend that Energy Debt.

True nutritional rehabilitation is evident only in your mental state. Sure, you likely have to gain weight to get there, but you cannot tell if a person is nutritionally rehabilitated or not from their weight.

If you still have mental hunger I would guess that you are still restricting somewhere, or that your body simply needs more food and more time yet in order to reach full nutritional rehabilitation. You cannot be suppressing your weight and also be “weight restored.” That doesn’t even make sense, however many dietitians and therapists, and medical doctors support weight suppression by telling clients and patients that they are “weight restored” just because they are no longer emaciated.

What if my mental hunger is only asking me for “junk food?”

Then you eat junk food. Without judgement.

Your body will ask you for what it needs. When you are in a state of malnutrition often you will crave and think about highly processed and sweet foods because these are a fast source of nutrition. Many of us only want to eat processed foods for a while in recovery. Don’t fret. Your body needs these foods in order to achieve balance. Once it has done that, you will find that you naturally begin to eat a more balanced diet.

Do not fight the urge to eat processed foods. Do not negotiate and substitute what you really want for a “healthier” version. The quicker you allow yourself to FEAST on the foods that you want, the faster your brain will think that the FAMINE is over.

Bottom line: if you are thinking about food you need to eat food. Do not judge the what, the when, or the quantity of the food you want to eat in recovery.

Mental hunger is your guide as to how much you need to eat in recovery. If you follow your mental hunger you will eat accordingly to what your body wants and needs. As you come out of energy deficit your mental hunger will decrease.

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