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Verified by Psychology Today

Hunger: It's All in Your Head

Your brain tells you when you're hungry and when you've had enough. Listen up!

Source: S.McQuillan

Real hunger is driven by different biological systems in your body. In your brain, hunger and fullness signals come from two nerve centers within the hypothalamus that help control eating behavior: the lateral hypothalamus and the ventromedial hypothalamus. The lateral hypothalamus responds to any internal or external stimulation that causes you to feel hungry. Once you've eaten, the ventromedial hypothalamus sends signals telling you when you're feeling full and have had enough food.

To develop your intuitive eating skills, it's important to listen to both. Here's how it works:

You feel hungry. ->

You eat. ->

Your blood sugar goes up. ->

The feeding center in your brain (the ventromedial hypothalamus) is stimulated. ->

You feel full. ->

You stop eating. ->

Your blood sugar drops. ->

The feeding center in your brain (the lateral hypothalamus) is stimulated ->

and the cycle continues.

Your brain works with your stomach, which contributes to feelings of fullness by using what's called "muscle memory." The wall of your stomach is used to holding a certain amount of food before it distends enough to send out signals of fullness to your brain. When you eat, your stomach waits to be filled by that same amount of food. If you are trying to break a habit of overeating, you will want to retrain your stomach's muscle memory so it will begin sending "I'm full" signals to your brain much more quickly, when there is less food in your stomach. You do this by learning to stay away from extremes of ravenous hunger and uncomfortable fullness. Eat when you start to feel hungry and stop eating when you feel comfortably satisfied, just before you feel completely full.

When you are truly hungry, you will start to get recognizable hunger cues, such as an achy, empty feeling or grumbling in your stomach. If you wait too long to eat, you may get a headache or feel weak, tired, or dizzy. For most people, the best advice is to eat balanced meals whenever you start to feel truly hungry, but no more than four hours apart

It takes time, and it is only one of many important weight maintenance tools, but when you practice this type of mindful or intuitive eating, you are allowing the built-in regulatory systems in your brain and stomach to return to their natural rhythms and reconnect with your body's innate ability to maintain a healthy weight.