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Navigating The 4 Types of Hunger

Do any of these sound like you...

You just got home from a 4 hour long, intense gymnastics practice, and you know you should eat but you aren’t feeling hungry …

You just ate lunch but you seem to find yourself still looking through your pantry for something else (maybe something sweet) …

It’s time for your mid-practice snack and you know you won’t get another but you aren’t feeling hungry …

You roll out of bed and head to practice without eating anything, as you aren’t feeling hungry yet but an hour into practice you need to sit down because you're winded, dizzy, and nauseous …

Ever wonder why this happens?

Hunger is the main way that your body signals you when you are low on energy or nutrients need food! Hunger can be an indicator on how well you're fueling both in the short-term and the long-term.


Hunger is a cue that your body needs more fuel at the time you're hungry.

But, if you feel like you're constantly hungry--or feel as though you're never completely full--this is likely a sign that your overall food intake over days and weeks is not enough to meet your body's energy needs. You're not giving your body all the energy it needs to fuel basic processes, your heavy training demands, and your daily activities. And gymnasts, you need A LOT of food to fuel all of these things, so listen to your body if it tells you it needs more fuel!

Did you know that there are more types of hunger than just the physical feeling of hunger?

There are actually 4 types of "hunger" your body can experience! These include physical hunger, taste hunger, emotional hunger, and practical hunger. Often, thinking about which category or categories of hunger you currently fit into can help make it easier for you to decide what, when, how, and why you are going to eat.

1. Physical Hunger

Physical hunger is the signal your body gives you to tell you that you need more food because you are running low on energy. You can feel this signal in many different ways. Your stomach might growl or you might get a stomach ache or maybe start to think about food a lot. The signal might be a bit less obvious like feeling tired, or having a drop in energy or your mood suddenly changing (like getting angry or upset for no reason). When your body gives you this physical signal that it’s time to eat, it is important to listen to your body! Waiting too long to give your body the fuel that it is asking for can cause it to be hard to eat when you get too hungry.

Try thinking of hunger on a scale:

0. Painfully Hungry

1. Ravenous … hunger is distracting

2. Very Hungry … excited to eat

3. Hungry … but not starving

4. Slightly Empty Stomach

5. Neutral (not hungry or full)

Ask yourself what it feels like to be at different points on this scale. Where are you comfortable? Where do you start to feel tired? Where does your mood start to change?

Have you ever felt nauseous if you wait too long to eat? This is why it is important to listen to your body’s physical hunger cues and eat when you start to notice hunger. Most gymnasts do the best when they eat when hungry (around a 3) but not feeling ravenous or starving.

When it comes to being full and staying full until your next meal or snack (approximately 3 hours), it’s also important to think about how much and what types of foods will actually make you full. It is important to include a variety of foods at meals and snacks, especially foods with protein, fat, and fiber. Utilizing your athletes plate during meal and snack time will help you to feel full, satisfied, and fueled.

2. Taste Hunger

Taste hunger is another type of hunger, and is commonly known as our food cravings. Have you ever craved one food but eaten a different food instead because you thought you should? Maybe you woke up and really wanted something sweet like waffles, but you had a savory omelet instead. You might be physically full, but your brain is still hungry. You might be thinking about sweet foods non-stop and craving them despite having just eaten and not feeling physically hungry. It is important to eat mindfully to feel satisfied with your meals and snacks. This can be difficult, so here are some suggestions to eat more mindfully.

  • Before you choose what to eat, think about what you are craving. Are you thinking about a specific food? Something hot or cold? Salty, sweet, or savory? Crunchy or soft? Light or hearty?

  • Think about the hunger scale before you eat, in the middle of eating, and after eating. How do you feel before sitting down to eat? How are you feeling after 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes? While you are eating, you might find that you are no longer feeling hungry, but if you don’t take the time to think about the hunger scale you might not realize this. Or, when you are done eating you might find that you are still at a 2 or a 3 on the scale, and need to eat more to feel full.

  • Once you make your meal and go to eat it, sit down and involve all of your senses. Look at your meal. Smell your meal. Feel your meal. Hear the sounds your food makes. Describe what your food tastes like.

  • Try to treat your meals as a learning experience. Even if you eat past fullness, not enough, or don't the food didn't quite satisfy your cravings, don't beat yourself up! Use this as a chance to learn, for the next time you eat.

3. Emotional Hunger

Emotional hunger happens when we eat for emotional reasons such as celebrations, sadness, stress, happiness, boredom, comfort, or for a reward. You may hear that emotional eating is a bad thing and should be avoided. But it is actually a normal coping mechanism. It is important though that it is not your ONLY coping mechanism, since turning to food instead of acknowledging and addressing the actual route of the problem is not actually fixing anything and the problem will remain.

It can be hard to know whether you are physically hungry or experiencing emotional hunger. If you are unsure, before you go to eat, take yourself through the three “P’s” to help assess if you are feeling emotional hunger.

The Three P’s:

  1. Pause. Before you eat, tune into your own body and ask yourself what you are feeling. Are you feeling physical hunger or taste hunger? Are you feeling sad? Are you just feeling bored? Maybe you are feeling angry?

  2. Process. Next ask yourself why you are feeling whatever it is you are feeling. There might be a more appropriate solution to what you are feeling then turning to food. For example, if what you are feeling is actually boredom maybe instead you read a book, listen to music, or another activity of choice. If you are feeling sad, instead of turning to food it might be a better idea to reach out to someone, or reflect on why you are feeling this sadness.

  3. Postpone. If you're not physically hungry, give yourself 15 minutes to engage in whatever that more appropriate solution is. If 15 minutes go by and you are still thinking about eating then eat! You may also be experiencing physical or taste hunger that needs to be satisfied.

4. Practical Hunger

This last type of hunger is when you are not feeling physically hungry BUT it is important to eat anyway. It can be hard to eat if you are not hungry, but it is important to recognize that sometimes you may need to eat even if you do not feel like doing so. Practical hunger might occur in the following situations:

  • You've gone more than 4 hours without eating and your normal feelings of hunger may have faded. Sometimes if you feel hungry but you are busy or distracted, the feelings of hunger may fade so when you do have time to eat you might no longer seem hungry.

  • You anticipate that you will be hungry in the near future but your opportunity to eat is now. This may happen in school or gymnastics because there are often designated times to eat. It might be hard to eat during the designated time, but if you know that you won't get time later to eat it is important to eat then.

  • You need to prioritize performance nutrition and fuel before, during, and after training. It may feel difficult to eat if you're not physically hungry, especially around a workout. But if you are heading to the gym and haven't eaten in a few hours (or practice is early in the morning) or notice that exercise mutes your hunger signals (making it difficult to eat during or after practice) you still need to eat in order to have the best energy, train your best, and prioritize recovery.

  • You have a history of underfueling, disordered eating, or an eating disorder. A prolonged energy deficit can actually make your hunger signals less reliable or even turn off your hunger signals. If this is the case, it is important to work with a Registered Dietitian to help you develop and implement a fueling strategy that meets your needs.

A few ways you can easily fuel for practical situations, even if you're not very hungry include:

  • Keeping extra non-perishable snacks (like granola bars, trail mix, pretzel sticks, roasted chickpeas, etc.) in places like your backpack, gym bag, purse, or the car.

  • Incorporating low volume foods like nuts, seeds, or dried fruit

  • Fuel with drinks like smoothies, milk, 100% fruit juice, and yogurt drinks.

  • If you are not given a break for snack during practice you can always use a sports drink (water + electrolytes + sugar), to give you some of the energy you need.

It can take some time to understand these four different types of hunger, and to learn how to listen to your body. Just being aware of these different types of hunger is the first step!


Kerry Bair, RD, LDN, MPH

The Gymnast RD

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