Eating disorder recovery and “mental hunger” – 3 questions to ask yourself.

Learning to make sense of appetite in eating disorder recovery

In eating disorder recovery, people occasionally report experiencing “mental hunger”. It can be stressful if this happens. Often, these people are working hard to normalise food intake and have been trying to build trust that their natural appetite signals can guide them around how to eat. So what is “mental hunger” and what is actually happening in the body in those moments?

I might just take a moment to acknowledge that “mental hunger” is not actually a technical term you will find in any dietetic textbooks. Instead, it’s a phrase that has come up quite a lot over the years I’ve been working in eating disorders recovery. It looks different for different people, but at its most basic I would probably describe it as a sense of:

  • not feeling hungry, but also
  • thinking a lot about food, and
  • wanting to eat food

But is “mental hunger” really the culprit here, or could other factors be at play? Here are the Bloom Nutrition & Wellness top 3 questions to run through if you feel like “mental hunger” is impacting on you*.

Question #1 to ask yourself if experiencing “mental hunger” in eating disorder recovery: Have I eaten enough today?

Sounds simple… but this can be a tricky one. Before you assume “mental hunger” is at play, take a moment to check in on whether or not it might be genuine hunger. In the early stages of recovery, most people’s hunger and fullness signals just don’t work very well. Dieting confuses your body regarding how to interpret appetite signals, and it’s very common that people don’t “feel” hunger even after long gaps between meals. If in doubt, take a moment to ask yourself the question: Have I eaten enough today?

Even after appetite signals start to return, sometimes life happens and confuses things again. Workplaces can get busy, deadlines can loom… and people’s appetite signals often drop down in response. Have you ever noticed that during a really hectic work day you might be startled to discover it’s 2pm and you still haven’t taken a break for lunch? In that instance, given the busyness and stress, you might not feel hunger in your stomach. However, your body will try to communicate the need for energy in other ways. That might include feeling weak, not being able to concentrate, feeling a bit sick… or making you think more about food.

Question #2 for “mental hunger” in eating disorder recovery: Am I eating the right balance of foods?

Your body needs the right mix of macronutrients every day to get the building blocks it needs for growth and repair. If you do not provide your body with a balanced diet there can start to be problems over time. Some of these problems develop slowly and be hard to pick, while others can pop up pretty quickly. There are many ways that these problems can manifest, but some of the more common ones I see are:

  • fatigue
  • food cravings
  • poor concentration
  • irritability
  • gastro-intestinal upsets
  • “hungry/full” feelings

For example, eating a large salad of leafy vegetables for dinner will not meet all your body’s nutritional needs, no matter how physically full you might feel in the moment.

Question #3 for “mental hunger” in eating disorder recovery: Am I eating the foods I actually feel like eating?

This is a tricky one, because many people I work with feel disconnected from the act of choosing and eating food. For those who can experience thoughts around this, they may find that there is a difference between what they’d like to eat and what they allow themselves to eat. The body does not like to have its needs constantly ignored, so it may try to send signals to fix the situation. This might look like food cravings, fixated thoughts about particular foods, and feelings of being out of control around those foods. These feelings often worsen during times of stress or when people are very tired. Some try to resolve the situation by making increasingly strict “food rules” for themselves around how they “should” eat… yet this often makes the feelings of being out of control even worse.

“Mental hunger” can often be understood as one of many signals that the body sends when its nutritional needs are not being properly met. 

Far from being something you should ignore, this is often a sign to lean in and listen more to your body. Do you need to make a few changes to food intake to better meet your needs? Learning to work with your body to nourish yourself is a crucial part of eating disorder recovery.

An experienced, specially-trained eating disorders dietitian is an invaluable part of a treatment team to help people recover from disordered eating. If you have any questions, or wonder if a dietitian might be able to help you with what you’re going through, why not reach out and send us a query?

* Note that this article is written primarily for people who do not need to restore weight as part of their eating disorder recovery. Confusing appetite signals during the weight restoration process will often stabilise as people near their “usual” weight.

Other Bloom Nutrition & Wellness articles you might be interested in: Should I talk to an eating disorders dietitian?

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