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How to listen to your body's cues for the optimal time to eat

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Your body tells you when it wants food, so you just need to listen.

Hunger. The word brings up a raft of negative connotations – from the misery caused by food scarcity, the hunger strikes employed by political prisoners, to the pangs of a dieter.

The underlying message seems clear: hunger is bad. Only, as with most things in life, it’s never that black and white. In fact, hunger is a helpful tool, and when we learn to respond to it appropriately, studies have found it may actually improve our health.

Italian researchers, for example, recruited 143 adults to investigate whether responding promptly to hunger cues would affect their health and insulin sensitivity, in particular.

The study participants completed a range of tests and were then randomly assigned to either a control group, who were advised to increase vegetable intake and physical activity, or an intervention group, who were trained to recognise and validate their feelings of hunger over seven weeks.

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The training involved teaching the intervention group to sense “gastric pangs, sensations of emptiness and hollowness and mental or physical weakness” as the first signs of hunger. Blood-glucose levels were double-checked to ensure that the subjective sensations were consistent with low blood-glucose levels.

The group were also taught how to adjust their eating habits to improve the chances of hunger being present before most main meals – a so-called initial hunger meal pattern (IHMP).

The group then continued using the IHMP without supervision, or further blood-glucose tests, at home. At the five-month mark, those following the IHMP had significant decreases in insulin sensitivity and insulin and blood-glucose peaks, along with lower energy intake, body-mass index and weight compared with the control subjects.

The researchers concluded that the IHMP improved insulin sensitivity and a range of cardiovascular risk factors over five months.

What’s more, a clinical trial involving infants, who were recovering from malnutrition and had troublesome diarrhoea, revealed that responding to the first signs of hunger produced positive outcomes.

The infants’ carers were trained to recognise and respond to hunger cues in their child, such as crying, mood changes, loss of interest in playing, gestural or verbal requests for food and searching for food unprompted. Using this method, total energy intake and days with diarrhoea among treated infants decreased significantly and they gained weight.

As adults, if we feel the urge to use the toilet, we’re unlikely to ignore it. However, many of us have learnt to mistrust our hunger and fullness cues, whether through repeated dieting or family food rules that dictated when and how much we could eat.

Learning to listen and respond to our hunger cues makes biological sense, as feelings of hollowness and hunger pangs indicate the body’s readiness to digest food.

Most healthy adults can improve their ability to sense and respond to hunger by paying attention to internal cues, instead of eating automatically at set times.

Participants in the first clinical trial were asked not to eat for up to five hours and note the physical sensations they experienced. The most frequent and recognisable signs were hunger pains and sensations of emptiness and hollowness. The next most recognisable sign was inanition, which is characterised by fatigue, difficulty concentrating, light-headedness, impatience, irritability, drowsiness and loss of enthusiasm.

It may take weeks and months to become well acquainted with your hunger cues, but it is worth the effort. Don’t go longer than five hours without food during the day, though, as most of us need refuelling every three to six hours.

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.