The Mystery Of Hunger When You Have An Eating Disorder

Whenever I play Cluedo, (or Clue to any American readers out there), I am confused as to why anyone would ever choose to commit a murder in a library with a candlestick. You are supposed to be quiet in a library, not create a racket bashing someone’s head in, and how are people expected to read if they are being plunged into darkness because someone was foolish enough to break all the candles?
Whenever I play Monopoly, I am also confused. I do not understand why I am repeatedly being thrown into jail when I have done NOTHING wrong, especially when, ten minutes prior to my unfortunate detainment, I was allowed to roam freely around the planet with no consequences, even after the discovery that I had beaten Professor Plum over the head with a piece of lead piping in the Billiard room (where I was courteous enough not to disturb anyone. Nobody was playing Billiards. They were all trying to read in the library and I allowed them to continue in peace because I am a good person).
When it comes to games however, there are none I find more confusing than that classic joy of “Hungry hippos.” Are these hippos actually hungry, and if they are hungry, what exactly does that mean?

Multiple times during my life with an Eating Disorder, I have had people offer me bits of advice that they think will be the key to my recovery. One of the more common pieces of advice is that I should just “stop listening to the anorexia and eat when I am hungry”.
On paper, I suppose this is fairly sound advice. Eating disorders want to kill you whereas your natural body impulses are there to keep you alive, so it makes sense to listen to them. The problem is, when you have had an eating disorder you spend your life trying not to listen to them, and eventually the mutual understanding and connection you had with your body is diminished. Indeed, your disorder actually spends every day purposely trying to suppress all natural instincts that were built up during the cave man days so that it can be in charge of what food is consumed, how much and when. You don’t “eat when you’re hungry” as you are supposed to, rather you eat when, or if, you are allowed.

Obviously I know what it is like for the body to go without food. I am familiar with the light headed tingliness, head aches, dizziness, chills, fainting spells and the pains in ones’ abdomen that occur when your stomach hasn’t seen any tasty morsels for a while, but I am unsure as to at what point all of these feelings constitute “hunger”. Does hunger start from the moment your tummy utters its first inquisitive growl or is that just being “peckish?” Is hunger what you feel when you see a chocolate doughnut with rainbow sprinkles or is that just curiosity…or being peckish? What even is peckish? When does hunger become starving? Is ravenous worse than starving? WHAT DO ALL OF THESE WORDS MEAN?

I know some people will probably say that you can’t think of hunger in such rigid terms and it is more of a sliding scale, but I am just so confused as to how people know when to eat if it is a sliding scale and not a case of two opposites. If we all had little signs on our heads that flipped from “not hungry” to “hungry” when it was time to eat it wouldn’t be a problem, yet people seem to just understand their bodies in a way that is completely baffling to me. All of my meal times are rigidly planned out, I know it is time to eat by my eating disorder giving me a time and then I simply watch the clock. Is it time to eat? I don’t know, lets see if the little hand is on the right number and if it isn’t we will give it a few more hours.

My parents, aka people without eating disorders, do not have strict rules on dinner time and they are two of those mysterious people who I often observe knowing when to eat by knowing when they are hungry. It makes no sense. Sometimes my mum’s stomach will growl and she will say something like “I don’t know why it’s making that noise, I am not even hungry.” What? I thought a growling abdomen was the universal sign for hungry? Does it only mean that sometimes? At other times does it growl to test its abilities in lion impersonations? How do you know which is which? Some evenings my mum will ask my Dad if she should put on the dinner and he will say something like “in a bit, I’m not hungry yet”. I will then spend the next however many minutes watching him, and at some point, with no signal from any outside force and no noise from his stomach he will announce, “Ok, might as well put the tea on, I’m hungry now”. HOW DID HE KNOW THAT? When did the switch flip? When did “not quite hungry” become full on hungry in a way that needs to be satisfied? I was watching him closely the whole time and I saw nothing! Not a single rhino burst into the room wearing a sign declaring “Now is the time for food”, there were no fog horns, smoke signals and no morse code (I was watching him and listening very very closely).

Even in hospital settings, it is an alien concept to listen to your body and adhere to hunger cues. In every hospital I have ever been in, you know it is breakfast or lunch time because the clock tells you it is so. The nurses don’t rally up the patients, ask who is and who isn’t hungry and stagger the meal accordingly, it is just time to eat so you do. More than that, the clock tells you when to stop eating rather than you deciding that you are “no longer hungry”, and portions are equally dictated by how many ladles of pasta bake is on the nutrition guidelines rather than “how much you fancy”. You can’t even forget the “eat when you are hungry” bit and skip to the “stop when you are full”, because again in hospital, what your body feels has nothing to do with what you eat. When at home you may stop mid meal because you are no longer hungry, but in hospital your allocated portion has to be eaten, so you often have to keep eating rather than stop when you are full because the dietician and meal plan has stated that is so. Full of cottage pie and not “hungry” for apple crumble? Tough, nutritionists have stated that your body needs apple crumble for medical medicinal reasons so you are going to eat it anyway, and you simply listen to their hunger cues and portion sizes instead of your Eating Disorder’s or your body’s. Natural impulses and intuition have nothing to do with it.
I honestly cannot remember a time when I just ate a meal because I knew I was hungry or stopped because I was full, for years I have simply followed the instructions prescribed much as someone else might follow the instructions on the back of a packet of custard (sidenote: Isn’t custard awesome?!)

It is even the same for me when it comes to using the bathroom. Not to overwhelm you with “too much information”, but as much as I do not understand people knowing when to eat, I do not comprehend how they know when they need the bathroom. They say “when you need to go you go”, but when is need? Is it at the first sign that your bladder is a little on the full side or do you wait until you are so desperate that you are hopping from foot to foot like Michael Flatly performing the River Dance? Somewhere in between these two points? Cool…BUT WHERE? WHEN? Again my natural impulses haven’t been in control of that kind of thing for over a decade as it is my OCD/eating disorder that tells me when I am allowed to pee even if I may not feel the need. When it comes to following my body’s impulses then, I find it impossible not just because I have an eating disorder or OCD screaming in my head, but because I have lost sight of what those impulses are by forcing myself to ignore them for so long.

Perhaps I have just waffled on in an incomprehensible meandering mess in this blog and once again none of you have any idea what I am on about. In writing it I have definitely learnt how hard it is to explain something you cannot get your head round, much like it is trying to ask someone to explain something invisible like air or untouchable like a rainbow.
Still I hope I have at least explained in some sense yet another reason as to why recovery or living with an eating disorder is so hard, and not something you can get over by “just eating” like everyone else. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions you can want to “just eat” as other people do, deciding it is lunch time based on an intuitive flicker of the gut or portioning your roast potatoes out based on how many you think you can manage rather than how many are on your meal plan. Nevertheless, intentions or not, to me it still remains an unfathomable mystery of just how in the hell all these people do it.

Take care everyone x

Hippo

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7 thoughts on “The Mystery Of Hunger When You Have An Eating Disorder

  1. OMG !! This is my life. Like I have no idea when to eat, I just eat according to the time. I am supposed to start eating dinner at 6 p.m. So I watch the clock closely and when it’s 6 p.m. I start eating. It’s so bad that I can’t start eating anything later/sooner. However my therapist is trying to make me be more flexible with eating times. It’s so hard for me that I’m shaking the whole day when I should start eating 10 min later than usual :(. I sometimes think I may be hungry but I don’t listen to it the clock tells me when I’m hungry :D.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so glad to finally find someone who understands and can relate to this issue! People always look baffled when I try to explain it but like…HUNGER CUES ARE HARD! I hope you and your therapist are able to work together to make things more flexible and that soon you will be able to eat when YOU are hungry rather than the clock telling you it is time! Hang in there! Much love xx

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  2. I hope the following may help. These are just my two cents as a recovered survivor of anorexia, who, having previously lost all connection with my sense of hunger, has asked the same questions as above, and is now able to eat according to my sense of hunger. (Yes recovery IS possible!! 😀 ) If other people find something else works for them, power to them. I am not a medical professional, please feel free to consider my thoughts at your own responsibility.

    Peckish is hungry.

    An inquisitive growl = a form of hunger

    If you see a chocolate doughnut with rainbow sprinkles and would like to eat some, that is a form of hunger.

    You really will not want to eat it if the conditions are such that you genuinely don’t fancy/like it, are well-fed when you see it AND you truly allow yourself to eat everything whenever you like.

    You don’t need to wait to be hungry, let alone ravenous, let alone starving, to eat (I think ravenous is less hungry than starving). You can eat when you are peckish!

    Of course, I appreciate that with an eating disorder, knowing when you are peckish is a challenge. My experience tells me that basically, if you have anorexia and want to recover, it is ALWAYS healthy to eat.

    The body needs to weigh a sufficient amount to have the energy to even begin dealing with the non-food issues that have brought on anorexia in the first place. I have found that you have to willingly let your body be that sufficient weight, in order for that sufficient weight to be helpful in actually recovering from the illness in the longer term. Anorexia and recovering from it is all about taking responsibility for oneself; I am sure being forced to gain weight by others saves lives, all the same being forced by others to be a certain weight is not mentally and emotionally tackling the illness and the sooner one can begin to do that the better. If you can willingly gain weight, you are doing so much on the mental, emotional and physical fronts to deal with the illness!

    There is much more to talk about regarding recovery and how.

    I cannot emphasise enough my belief that if you are anorexic and want to recover, it is always fine to eat. ALWAYS FINE TO EAT. You don’t have to be hungry, hell you can you can be overfull and it’s still fine. The first few months into my recovery I ate a LOT constantly, especially at night, for people without my condition I’d imagine it could have been scary amounts. I was lucky to have no external judgment around me, or if there was I paid no attention to it. I feel that my appetite remained heightened for a really surprisingly long time, years, I’d guess to heal internally and cement my knowledge of food security. I believe in letting myself eat whenever I want. Even now I am so well recovered, I eat fairly consistently often; my stomach only has the chance to start aching with hunger if I am for some reason caused by living my general life unable to eat before that point. As I never restrict, people who are not so generous with themselves are often surprised at how much I eat to maintain myself; I observe that enjoying an easy relationship with food and as a consequence, an easy healthy weight, is not about restricting what and when one eats so much as it is about having an attitude of abundance.

    It has taken a lot of time to get to know my hunger signals. I was full-on anorexic for only two years, and yet two years since I’ve felt recovered I am only just beginning to understand my hunger and be able to respond to it authentically 🙂 This is a great thing for me, accomplished through never restricting for two years. For someone who has been ill for longer, I imagine it may (but not necessarily) take longer than that to get to know hunger signals…the important thing is that however long it takes, it happens. You just have to keep going!

    Love

    Liked by 3 people

    • WOW! Thank you so much for taking the time to give me such a full answer to my questions and thank you for being so honest in sharing your own experience! Seriously this comment has been so interesting to read and really helpful! It is so reassuring to hear that someone can relate to my experience but even more reassuring to hear that it is possible to get out of this mystery and finally understand the whole hunger cue thing! Ahh this has given me a little spark of hope, I will just go on from here and trust in your words that I will also understand all this stuff eventually if I keep fighting. Thank you for helping boost my belief in recovery and for generally being helpful, I hope you are having a FABULOUS DAY and that things get better and better for you. Much love 😘 xx

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      • I like this and it doesn’t seem allowed to press ‘like’ without being a member of WordPress! Thank you for your kind words ❤ I would love to help however I can, please feel free to ask me a n y questions however seemingly small or unusual, I may understand, certainly don't judge, and can at least share the route I found out of the maze… Xxx

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  3. As usual, a wonderfully informative blog post. I have to say, I agree with everything Hari has written and I can reiterate that it takes time for hunger signals to reappear. I have now been weight restored for ten months and only now am I occasionally starting to feel what I think are twinges of hunger. I got through weight restoration by using a meal plan and eating mechanically. I think this is really the only option for the phase of weight restoration because our hunger cues become so distorted that we cannot rely on them. I still follow a vague plan because I know that if I relied on hunger I would be likely to not eat enough.

    As well as it being a physical issue, I wonder if some of it is psychological too? Certainly, when I was ill I perceived hunger as a weakness and I was actually very afraid of it because I worried that if I got hungry I might lose control and eat outside my anorexic plan. However, having felt what I think are twinges of hunger more recently, I found that I actually really enjoyed having the power and ability to satisfy them by eating something.

    It is worth noting that in the ‘real world’, people don’t always eat out of hunger, and that is ok. They may eat cake because it’s someone’s birthday, they may eat a biscuit because a child has made it for them, they may eat a chocolate simply because they enjoy the taste, they may eat their lunch at 12 even though they’re not particularly hungry because that is the lunch break that has been allocated to them at work and that is all fine too. xx

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    • Gah, the comments I have received for this post have been so reassuring and helpful! Definitely agree with you on the idea that it could be psychological too as I must admit that years ago during an inpatient admission I still felt “hungry” after a meal and it freaked me out so I suppressed it. I guess the psychological and the physiological connection will just take a bit of time to get back together! It is also so nice to hear that every time someone eats it isn’t just because they are hungry but because of communal factors and one off celebrations too. It seems this whole food lark isn’t as rigid in people’s heads as I thought it was! Thank you lovely one xxxx

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