Honor Your Hunger for Performance

honoring hunger for performance

You’ve learned why I keep intuitive eating in mind when spreading info on nutrition for activity, and can now understand why to ditch the diet mentality for fitness, too. Now it’s time for the next principle, where you’ll get a better idea of how to honor your hunger for performance.

What is Hunger?

I know this question may sound ridiculous for some of you, but hunger isn’t just that extreme feeling in your stomach when you’ve gone way too long without eating. Signs of hunger come in many forms that we can lose site of, as external cues largely influence when and how much we eat, starting even in infancy!

Hunger is a physiological need for food and nutrients.

It’s also helpful to recognize that hunger and appetite are not the same. Hunger is a physiological need for food and nutrients, while appetite is your psychological desire to consume food. You need an appetite to satisfy your hunger, but many things can keep you from recognizing your hunger based on external cues that actually impact your appetite.

As a biological drive, hunger signals appetite to let your body know you need more fuel. Early on, hunger may send you a gentle reminder to eat with thoughts of food or a dip in physical or mental energy. Most people unknowingly ignore that the body is saying “hey, eat something!” due to a busy lifestyle or attempting to suppress appetite because something you heard or read made you feel as if it is bad.

If you’re in the latter club, you may feel as if frequent hunger is bad, or a sign of loss of control. In reality, it’s usually a sign that you aren’t eating enough, or aren’t eating an appropriate balance of nutrients to satisfy your body at meals and snacks. On the flip side, it could also just be a “hungry day”! It’s impossible for your body to require the same exact amount of energy every single day, and questioning our hunger only leads to more distrust between our body and mind. If you’re hungry, eat! Past that, there are other environmental and microbiome-related factors that can impact hunger hormone release, too.

Do You Really Know When You’re Hungry?

Athlete eating

As I mentioned, there are a variety of internal hunger cues that we lose sight of (many more of which are covered in Fit Fueling, where we guide you through understanding your hunger). But past that, there are different types of hunger to honor, regardless of signs our body is giving us or our appetite.

When it comes to athletes and active individuals who exercise often and for many hours, hunger may feel more “normal” because you’re hungry so often due to high energy expenditure. This may be especially true for student athletes with two-a-day workouts that eat a small breakfast before their school day and are hungry until eating an unusually massive dinner. Just because you can live and exercise through hunger doesn’t mean it is benefiting you. Practical hunger, as defined below, is key for you to embrace.

For those who are struggling with body image issues for their sport, or who believe their answer to success in athletics and life is weight loss, you may be consciously trying to ignore your hunger, creating energy and nutrient gaps. This may or may not lead to feelings of primal hunger as described below, which can result in binge eating. Since there is a suppression of hunger hormones with intense physical activity, for some, it may be easier to suppress biological hunger. Pairing that with consciously refusing to honor taste hunger and unknowingly ignoring practical hunger, and your energy gaps can lead to some serious health and performance consequences.

Forms of Hunger:

honoring hunger for performance
  • Biological
    • This is feeling physically hungry, which can be “that feeling” in your stomach, light-headedness, fatigue, irritability and more. If we don’t listen to the early signs, biological hunger can lead to primal hunger, or an urgent desire to eat. I describe it as hunger slapping you in the face, or the inability to make reasonable decisions about what to eat.
  • Taste
    • Your body may not need you to ingest food at this moment, but you may simply want to celebrate an occasion or enjoy something you really like.
  • Practical
    • You may not be physically hungry at the time, but you know you may not have access to food when you need it later, so you feed yourself to avoid primal hunger, irritability, or a dip in performance.
  • Emotional
    • This common practice uses food to cope with, or in an attempt to ignore, an uncomfortable emotion, such as stress, anxiety, loneliness, etc. Not all emotional eating is “bad”. It’s totally normal to get a mindful endorphin boost from a treat or comforting dish you grew up with. The difference I’ll discuss in a future post is whether that food is enjoyed mindfully to actually elicit some joy, or if it is a binge type of coping mechanism that gets you nowhere.

Forms of Hunger and Fitness:

  • Biological
    • Due to high energy expenditure frequent hunger can be so common that it feels “normal” and easy to ignore, especially during long workouts and between meals. Another problem is post-exercise appetite suppression, where your body is actually hungry for food and nutrients to recover, but your appetite is not stimulated to honor that. This is where practical hunger comes in.
  • Taste
    • Athletes may be more in tune with how foods make them feel later, or more conscious of decisions to eat at “off” times for them. Sometimes this is out of nervousness of ruining a workout rather than an actual negative experience with a food. Still, if you’re craving a particular food, but don’t want to eat it right now based on your training schedule later, consider saving the food your presented with for after your workout, or finding the best alternative to satisfy your craving now, and having exactly what you want another time that week. I discuss this more in my holiday eating for athletes post, but it applies any time of year!
  • Practical
    • The most important form of hunger to pay attention to for performance, due to not only heavy training demands and appetite suppression, but also busy schedules for those in school and working.
  • Emotional
    • Athletes deal with a lot of extra stress on the body, in a variety of forms. If you aren’t honoring other forms of hunger and having a stressful day, you may be more likely to binge on comforting foods rather than pause to enjoy them as a way to get a small endorphin boost. Stress hormones are also present with low blood sugar, too, so do your best to have a balanced meal after a tough workout on a stressful day before letting primal hunger and emotional hunger lead to a binge.

Honoring Hunger for Performance

hunger in athletes

So how do all of these forms of hunger actually relate to intuitive eating? Especially when intense exercise gets in the way of listening to your hunger? Using the intuitive eating philosophy means working to get back to attunement with your body so that you can start to recognize how food (or lack of it) makes you feel.

When we work with clients 1-1, we utilize food, fitness & hunger journals to help people build connections and reclaim intuitive eating. In the Fit Fueling course, these same journals and other supportive resources are provided to help you work through this both independently and with our help in the community group.

I’ll offer one example. It can seem impossible in the beginning, but using practical hunger to intensify your workout or training session, leads to ease with habit change. Eating when you aren’t particularly hungry or even just starting to eat when you truly feel hungry is a game changer. It feels forced at first – and not intuitive. However, making the connections between your dietary actions and your performance outcomes quickly leads to your intuition telling you that you need food and nutrients at the times you’ve learned help you. This goes for recovery, and ultimately competitive performance as well.

Decreases (an eventual elimination) of uncontrollable binges are clearly a bonus of honoring all forms of hunger, too. And, as our clients and course participants have reported, you may even notice you’re less irritable and that your relationships improve, too.

Want More Resources?

You can subscribe to Kelly Jones Nutrition blog posts so that you’re notified each time a new post goes up, including all of the posts in this intuitive eating for fitness series. You can also download the free intuitive eating for fitness e-guide.

Looking to work on this in more detail independently? The hunger and performance log that we use 1-1 with clients is now available for purchase.

If you’re ready for a deep dive, head over to FitFueling.com, where you can enroll in my self-paced course, curated along with my business partner, Heather Caplan, who is a dietitian, running coach, and marathoner.

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  1. Your advice for finding alternative ways to satisfy a craving when the immediate opportunity doesn’t coincide with one’s workout schedule is game-changing! I can be very rigid about how I eat before workouts, especially long runs, and this advice is really helpful. I can recognize what foods are best for my body prior to a workout, but ALSO I can actively work to make sure I’m enjoying the foods I’m craving at other times. Thanks!

  2. Love this!!! I’m an ultra runner in recovery and my hunger can be BIG and hard to trust. So this was helpful.

    One question. Can you clarify this? “ Excess biological can feel “normal” with heavy training, but won’t benefit performance. Intense training also suppresses hunger hormone release.
    Tune into practical hunger.”

    1. So happy this was a helpful post for you and congrats on taking a journey to recover <3
      What we mean here, is that we often see endurance athletes ignoring their hunger because they get used to the feeling being there so often. When you grow up in running culture and then transition to endurance as an adult without any extensive education on how to fuel adequately for your high energy output and busy schedule, that "stomach" and other biological hunger cures can be present more than they should be. Since it then feels "normal", people might go longer and longer without food, digging their deficit even deeper. Hope that clarifies!