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

by Jennifer Bowden / 18 May, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Intuitive eating

Photo/Getty Images

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.

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.


Sir Roger Hall on why we need to treasure NZ's portrait art
107286 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z Arts

Sir Roger Hall on why we need to treasure NZ's por…

by Roger Hall

On an Australian art tour, playwright Sir Roger Hall found that a portrait gallery can be so much more than a snapshot of a country’s social history.

Read more
ANZ boss's departure: 'What was the NZ board doing to monitor expenses?'
Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on their plates
107161 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on…

by Jennifer Bowden

Forcing children to finish everything on their plates sets them up for a bad relationship with food.

Read more
Can defending free speech boost David Seymour's fortunes?
107279 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Politics

Can defending free speech boost David Seymour's fo…

by Graham Adams

The policies announced at Act’s relaunch are mostly standard party fare, but freedom of expression is an issue that could pull in new voters.

Read more
Oranga Tamariki inquiry won't be released to the public in full
107264 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

Oranga Tamariki inquiry won't be released to the p…

by RNZ

Oranga Tamariki's inquiry into its attempt to take a newborn baby from its mother at Hawke's Bay Hospital will not be released to the public in full.

Read more
Writer Stephanie Johnson on five pioneering Kiwis who crossed the ditch
106770 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Writer Stephanie Johnson on five pioneering Kiwis…

by Diana Wichtel

Stephanie Johnson likes a good story and she’s found one in a collection of colourful Kiwis who made their mark in Australia.

Read more
The science behind finding the perfect sports bra
107091 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Health

The science behind finding the perfect sports bra

by Ruth Nichol

Insufficient breast support is a barrier to exercise for many women, but with the right sports bra, there can be less bounce in your step.

Read more
Jessica McCormack: The Kiwi jeweller sparkling in Mayfair
106986 2019-06-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Jessica McCormack: The Kiwi jeweller sparkling in…

by Clare de Lore

Diamonds and books are New Zealand designer Jessica McCormack’s best friends.

Read more