What is Mental Hunger? And How Do You Know If You Should Eat?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered if I was actually hungry. If I actually needed all the food I was eating. Or if I was just ‘crazy’, or ‘broken,’ or some anomaly. Wondering if I would ever get through this. Feeling more alone than I ever had, because it seemed like no one else had been where I was. I didn’t know about mental hunger.

A blessing in disguise…

Mental hunger can be defined as, “the act of thinking about food.” Simple as that.

When you’ve spent a prolonged period of time in energy deficit, thinking about food becomes normal.

It manifests itself in every way that it can, making it impossible to escape. I know for me, this was my worst nightmare. But I’ve now come to realize that it was actually a blessing. My body was telling me it needed food, because it needed to heal. Now, let me explain further what I mean by this.

What IS mental hunger?

Thinking about whether or not you are hungry is mental hunger.

An individual who is fully nutritionally rehabilitated does not question whether or not they are hungry. As hard as it may be to believe, it is not normal to do so. I experience this quite frequently, but have learned to catch myself and accept that this needs to happen until I am completely out of energy deficit. When you are nutritionally rehabilitated, you will know when you are hungry and when you are not because your body will tell you.

Your body has one goal in recovery; to get you recovered!

Watching cooking shows and ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos is mental hunger.

This is a common occurrence in those in energy deficit, thought to be connected to the desire to seek permission to eat. This often goes one of two ways. Either you use it as a ‘replacement’ for actually eating, or it prompts you to eat. However you respond, it is mental hunger. It means you are hungry. And in terms of recovery, the second option is the body’s desired outcome.

Think about it this way; your body is hungry. It wants you to eat. It will manifest that desire in any way that it can to try and get you to eat.

Constantly thinking about exercise routines and daily routines involving movement is mental hunger.

This is a tricky one. You may be thinking; how do I know if this pertains to me? What if I just really like my exercise routine? What if I just like being busy? Let me answer this for you. Because deep down, I know you know the answer. I know I did. Exercise compulsion is your eating disorder’s way of validating eating. Your eating disorder and your body have connected movement to food consumption. However, they both have different reasons for doing so. Your eating disorder tells you that by exercising, you can ‘burn off’ what you put into your body. All your body knows is that exercising is a way of getting you to eat. And your body will take anything it can get.

Being busy is a means of distracting yourself from your mental hunger.

Examples of this include, but are not limited to: going for excessive amounts of walks, staying out of the house during the day, overbooking yourself with work or school, etc,. The act of staying busy can also be attributed to the Migration Response as your body adapts to the belief that it must constantly be moving when resources are scarce (i.e. ‘migrating’). What it actually needs is rest and energy.

How do you know if you have mental hunger?

So… you’re wondering if you have mental hunger or not? Chances are, if you’ve read this far into this article, you have mental hunger.

You are hungry. Your body needs energy. If it is even a question or consideration, you are hungry.

Simple but scary

And while the answer is simple, acting upon it is often not. It’s scary. Believe me, I know. I find myself there sometimes. It’s the opposite of what your eating disorder wants, but it’s the only way to recover. It might not be what your eating disorder wants to hear, but it’s the truth. It’s the only way to freedom.

Now, I’ve found myself saying, “but I don’t know what I want to eat!” or, “but I’m not sure if I’m actually hungry.” These are both lies told by my eating disorder. I did know what I wanted to eat, and I was hungry.

And much to my eating disorder’s dismay, here’s what I’ve learned to do about mental hunger:

1. Eat What You’re Thinking About

Don’t opt for the thing your eating disorder tells you is ‘healthier.’ In recovery, there is no such thing.

The ‘healthier’ option is actually what you’re craving, because that’s your body’s way of telling you what it needs.

That’s what’s going to get you nutritionally rehabilitated faster. And remember; there’s no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. Food is food.

2. Talk it through with someone.

Don’t keep all of your thoughts and worries bottled up! Find someone you can talk to that will reassure you that everything will be okay. Acknowledge everything you’re feeling, and allow yourself to move on.

3. Remember that this is not forever.

It will pass, but only when your body is ready. Only once your body is healed. And that is your body’s only goal; it has no other agenda!

4. Continue to eat all of your meals and snacks!

It’s hard, but do not restrict!

Your body only asks for what it needs, and still needs consistent energy intake, even if you think you’ve eaten a lot!

There is no such thing as ‘too much food’ in recovery! Recovery is such a multifaceted process, with many different components and phenomenons that leave us feeling like our head is spinning. It’s more than overwhelming. Confusing on a whole new level. We feel as if we’ve been thrown to the wolves, completely ripped from everything we’ve ever known or believed.

If this is you, know that I see you. Know that I understand. Know that while it may seem crazy, your body really does need those 6000 or 8000 or 10000+ calories. And as hard as it may be to see right now, IT WILL BE OKAY.

I never want you to have to feel like you’re alone in this; because you’re not. And you aren’t ‘broken’ or ‘crazy’ or an anomaly in the slightest. You are HUMAN. You are HEALING. And you are STRONG.

Stronger than your eating disorder will ever be.

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7 Comments

  1. says: Hayley Smiley

    Mackenzie,

    This article came at just the right time for me. Thank you so much for sharing your hard-earned wisdom and insight. Some of the signals for mental hunger were new to me, yet resonated so deeply.
    Your words of encouragement are much needed! Thank you. 🙂

  2. says: Annonomous

    This is soo me! I watch soo much YouTube on how to cook, and other people eating whilst starving myself. If I crave dessert will watch how to make one but never eat one.

    And yes the reason is because I’m scared. I’ve classed myself as in recovery but still heavily restrict myself to what my ED classes as “good food”. I’ve walked for 3 hours for a certain type of food only to not buy it.

    I’ve had enough. I’m gonna recover and not restrict

    Thank you for your insightful article

  3. says: V

    Thank you. I’ve set myself a “healthy” calorie range of 2200-2300 and feel like a failure when I’m hungrier and eat closer to 2500-2800. I’m more satisfied at that point but then once in a while I’ll binge up to 4000 cals. Does this mean 2500-2800 is too low? I feel good eating that much, not really hungry, but I still think about food sometimes. And secretly wish I can stick to 2200.

    1. says: Lisette

      It sounds like you’re doing a great job at challenging the eating disorder and fighting for recovery. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend you check out Tabitha Farrar on youtube- she gives great information about weight restoring and recovering from anorexia. Another great resource is the book The Homeodynamic Recovery Method by Gweneth Olwyn. Her approach suggests in recovery you MUST meet your minimum cals but you will very likely require much more than that. The goal is to always feed yourself until you are satisfied. The only way to get through the extreme hunger phase is to allow yourself to eat until you are satisfied. Also, I wouldn’t consider the times you eat a lot more calories as a “binge”… it is more about your body trying to get back the nourishment it has needed for so long. Also, I think it is totally normal that part of you secretly wishes you could stick to the lower cal plan. That’s the eating disorder speaking. The more you feed yourself and challenge that voice, the stronger your recovery will get. Sending you lots of warrior love and support. 💪💖

  4. says: Halley

    This really resonated with me. I definitely experience a lot of these, but sometimes I’m still thinking about food when I’m really full. And I’m heavier than I’ve ever been and actually overweight so I have already restored my weight and more. I feel like this mental hunger is a different problem for me. I feel like I went too far the other direction from anorexia and am now eating too much as a coping mechanism. What should I do? I’m afraid this isn’t an overshoot weight that will fix itself and I’ll be stuck here, so I don’t want to eat based on this mental hunger.

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