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Primal Hunger and 4 Steps to Prevent It

What is primal hunger and how can you avoid it?


You know what it means to be hungry, but do you know what it means to experience primal hunger? You may have heard the term "primal hunger" on social media or elsewhere and not really understood what it meant, but I guarantee you have experienced it at some point.


Ever gotten caught up with work and skipped lunch and been so hungry at dinner that you ate the entire bread basket before your food got there? That is primal hunger.


Ever been on a diet and eaten your allotted few hundred calories for dinner then two hours later you're so hungry that you eat everything in your pantry and fridge? That is primal hunger (mixed in with some diet backlash which I'll cover in another post!).


Ever had a big meeting or presentation that you're nervous for so you don't feel hungry so you skip breakfast? When it's over and your stress level comes back down, you find yourself ravenous and scarf down 3x what you normally eat? That is primal hunger.


Before we jump into what it means to be hungry on a primal level, let's first talk about hunger itself.


The biological state of hunger is both greatly variable and highly individualized. This means there may be a HUGE difference in bodily sensations between feeling slightly hungry vs. ravenously hungry AND that range will feel different in everyone's bodies.

For example, the first indication of hunger in my body is not being able to focus on whatever I'm working on, then as the hunger increases I'll feel an emptiness in my stomach and a dull ache in my throat, and once it's reached the primal state, I feel irritated and anxious (hello hanger, my old friend) sometimes accompanied by a headache. For the purposes of this blog post, we will be focusing on the ravenous side of hunger.


What do you think of when you hear the word primal? Something that is primal is a basic, foundational element, a primitive function or need of human existence, or an instinctive behavior or feeling.


So how does this relate to hunger?


The number one goal of the human body is, of course, survival. According to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to continue to survive, our baseline needs are food, water, warmth, and rest (1).


Our body tries to tell us when it needs food by what we experience as "polite" hunger - a slight rumble in the stomach, maybe feeling a dip in energy or mental clarity. Your body is saying, "Excuse me, I'm running low, please eat something that I can then convert to energy to help you function". When ignored or suppressed, this polite, quiet voice eventually turns into the primal yell of "YOU AREN'T LISTENING, I NEED FOOOOOOD" (said in the cookie monster voice).


What happens when we reach this level of hunger?


In terms of a hunger scale from 0-10 with 0 being completely empty and 10 being so full you feel sick, primal hunger is experienced at 0-1 . Primal hunger feels unpleasant, urgent, desperate, and sometimes painful.


Primal hunger is an intense, biological drive to eat and it often, if not always, results in overeating.

(Love a good Lizzie McGuire reference 😉)


When you're in the state of primal hunger, it's not a matter of willpower to stop eating when you're comfortably full. Your body is on EMPTY and there are biological processes (both physical and psychological) that have taken over in order to get the reserves filled back up.


One of these biological drivers is an increase in a neuropeptide (a protein produced by a neuron) called Neuropeptide Y. NPY is produced in the brain and it triggers a desire to eat, specifically carbohydrates (2). Why? Because carbs are our body's preferred source of fuel (don't worry, a whole blog post is coming on that soon!) AND our brain's only source. Since we reallyyyy need our brain to survive, when our carb reserves are low, it makes sense that the body will put our desire for them on overdrive. Our levels of NPY are naturally highest in the morning after an overnight fast - this is one of the hormones involved in feeling hungry when you wake up. When you go from extreme hunger, it's much more likely that you will swing to the opposite extreme and end up extremely full. The goal is to start eating with comfortable hunger and stop eating at comfortable fullness.


There are several reasons you may find yourself consistently overeating and reaching primal hunger is just one of them. However, it's the most simple one to figure out and correct since it's biological hunger that's being ignored as opposed to emotional hunger - the latter takes more time and effort to figure out the root cause.

This is just one example to show that you and your body are on the same team. If you continuously suppress your hunger cues whether you don't have food available or you are consciously restricting as with a diet, those polite hunger cues will eventually fade away. This means when you do experience hunger, it will be in this urgent, desperate state which typically results in overeating. By overeating I mean ignoring fullness cues, eating past the point of comfortable fullness, and maybe eating to the point of being physically uncomfortable or even feeling sick.


Having repeated experiences of reaching primal hunger and subsequently overeating can degrade the trust between your mind and body. Weakening this vital connection may cause you to feel like you can't trust yourself around certain foods (like the bread basket at restaurants). It's important that you practice self-compassion and understand that it is a biological drive to overeat that you are experiencing in this heightened stage of hunger.


So how can you avoid primal hunger?


Here are four steps to avoid this intense drive to overeat...


  1. Eat enough food (especially carbs) - this means learning how often and what types/combinations of food keep you comfortably full and energized.

  2. Get to know your hunger cues - What does comfortable hunger feel like in your body? Start paying attention and get to know how it feels both psychologically and physically when you are just starting to get hungry, especially if you tend to wait until you reach primal hunger before eating.

  3. Respond to early signals of hunger with food - don't try to "trick" your body into thinking it's full with a high volume of low calorie foods, appetite suppressing drinks like coffee, or just drinking water (of course hydrating is important, but if your body needs food, it needs food!).

  4. Plan ahead if you will not have food available for an extended period of time - life happens and sometimes we can't help but go a long time between meals. When you know this is going to happen, pack some snacks, do whatever you need to do to make sure you will be consistently nourished.

Of course we can't always be perfectly on time with responding to our hunger cues. Life happens and sometimes you just end up eating the whole bread basket. All you can do is reflect on the experience and see how you can be better prepared next time.


Viewing instances of overeating as a result of reaching primal hunger without self-judgment is vital. If you held your breath for a minute, what happens when you finally breathe? You gasp for air. It feels desperate and is much deeper than a normal breath. Would you judge yourself for needing more air? The biological need for food is the same. The more you practice responding to the early signs of hunger with food, the stronger your mind-body connection will become. When this connection is strong, we are much more adept at managing overall stress and engaging in behaviors that promote mental and physical health.


Do you find yourself consistently experiencing primal hunger? Does eating feel chaotic and out of control? If you need guidance, please don't hesitate to reach out to discuss how I can support you. You can e-mail me at kara@nutrimsa.com to discuss private and group counseling options. You deserve to have an effortless relationship with food and I would love to help you get there!


Xx,

Kara



Sources


(1) Mcleod, S. (2020, December 29). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html#gsc.tab=0


(2) Kokot F, Ficek R. Effects of neuropeptide Y on appetite. Miner Electrolyte Metab. 1999 Jul-Dec;25(4-6):303-5. doi: 10.1159/000057464. PMID: 10681656.




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