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4 Diet Culture Myths About Hunger

We need full stomachs to live full lives.

  • Diet culture has generated the false beliefs that we can control our body size and that we should not trust our bodily cues around food.
  • Many myths about hunger come from diet culture, such as the idea that "calories in" should equal "calories out," and that people can trick themselves into not feeling hungry.
  • Responding to our hunger cues allows us to get the energy we need and move on with our day.

Diet culture is the social construct promoted by the dominant Western culture. It places a strong emphasis on body weight, shape, and size. Diet culture elevates and privileges smaller bodies while judging and disparaging larger bodies. It also tells us that our body size is entirely within our control, and instills us with mistrust of our bodily cues around food.

In my work with individuals healing from disordered eating, I often find that people are terrified to trust their hunger. They think they need external rules to tell them when, what, and how much to eat. Unfortunately, those rules are usually what set them on the path to disorder in the first place.

Diet culture feeds us the idea that we can control our hunger with discipline and willpower. But hunger is a messenger, and killing the messenger doesn’t erase the message it’s bringing. Listening to the messenger allows us to respond to the message intelligently and move on with our day. Hunger gives us the message that it’s time to eat, which we need to do to stay alive.

You can’t get much done in life if you’re constantly trying to eat as little food as possible. You need energy to function, and that energy comes from food. So, if you want a full life, you also need a full stomach.

Let's set the record straight on four of diet culture’s sneakiest lies about hunger:

1. Calories in = calories out.

Our energy needs don't always boil down to the "calories in, calories out" formula. We’re not machines, so our energy needs vary each day. We don’t just burn calories through physical activity, either. Our brains need calories to focus and problem-solve. Our hearts need calories to beat. Our bodies need more energy at different points in our hormonal cycles. Sometimes, we’re hungrier than we expect to be, but if we overanalyze it and try to fit it into a formula, we miss the point. The overanalyzing is an effect of living in a culture that praises us for denying our needs for food (and specific types of food like carbs or sugar). Food is a basic human need, just like the need to use the restroom or sleep. You would never deny your need to use the bathroom because you already met your "urination count" for the day. This brings us to the next lie…

2. You can "outsmart" your hunger.

Diet culture teaches us to “control” our hunger rather than respond to it with compassion. It promotes strategies for tricking our bodies into thinking hunger cues have been addressed through drinking water or chewing gum. All this does is further disconnect us from hunger cues and make us focus even more on what we’re eating or not eating. Consider how absurd it would seem to try to outsmart our other basic needs:⠀

  • You just think you’re tired and need a good night’s sleep, but really you just need more caffeine.
  • You just think you have to use the restroom, but really you need to stop drinking water.⠀
  • You just think you need a shower, but really you just need another layer of deodorant.⠀

Denying or distorting hunger is about as fruitless as denying any other basic need. Eventually, our needs catch up to us. That’s why if you’ve ever gone on a diet or cut calories, you’ve likely ended up binge-eating at some point. If you really want to get rid of hunger, the best remedy is to eat. ⠀

Foxys Forest Manufacture/ Shutterstock
If you want a full life, you need a full stomach.
Source: Foxys Forest Manufacture/ Shutterstock

3. Replacing "unhealthy" cravings with "healthy" ones will satisfy your hunger.

All food is not equal when it comes to satisfying hunger. Satisfaction is a major component of the eating experience, and people who prioritize satisfaction tend to have more peaceful relationships with food and their bodies. Sadly, diet culture disregards the need for satisfaction in the eating experience, and tells us we should be satisfied by an apple when we truly crave a cookie. People who use this strategy often find they only crave “forbidden” foods, while those who eat intuitively tend to crave a wide variety of foods, some with high nutritional value (like fruits and vegetables) and some that are lower in nutritional value but fun to eat (like cookies). When we refuse to honor cravings, we may be satisfying physical hunger, but we're not satisfying our psychological hunger. Eating is supposed to be pleasurable and satisfying. By denying ourselves pleasure, we’re often left searching for replacements until we’re painfully full and still unsatisfied. If you've ever wondered why you wind up grazing through the whole pantry when you make yourself eat the apple instead of the cookie… well, that's why!

4. Food should only be used as fuel.

If we were simpler creatures, food would be fuel and nothing else. But we’re not machines, and for better or worse, we have complex brains and emotions. Humans eat for reasons beyond biological hunger, and this is totally normal. You might eat when you’re not hungry but it’s your only chance for a meal for another several hours, or maybe you eat a blueberry muffin fresh from the oven for no other reason than because it smells incredible.

Part of being human is that sometimes we eat something simply because it tastes delicious, regardless of its nutritional value. When we demonize “emotional eating” and berate ourselves for sometimes using food for soothing (which by the way, is something we all learn to do from infancy!), we turn eating into a stressful, shame-laced experience. It might seem counter-intuitive, but allowing all foods into one’s diet unconditionally is necessary for decreasing loss-of-control eating. When something has no limitations on it, it’s not as special. When you know you can have a particular food anytime you want, there’s no frenzy to cram it all in while you can.

Bodies are smart. They send signals for hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. When we learn to drown out the diet culture noise, we can respond to those signals with clarity, and move on.