We eat for a lot of reasons, and the most primal of them is hunger. Hunger is the physiological need to eat. When we're hungry, the question is "What is there to eat?" Basically, almost anything looks good because when we're hungry we experience intense physiological responses, like a growling stomach, stomach pangs, or a headache, that motivate us to find food -- FAST if we're really hungry! This is why we don't always make the best food decisions when we're ravenously hungry.
Based on my experience, I believe that people view hunger in several ways. Some consider it the enemy. Others think of it as a nuisance. A few see it as their strongest ally in successful health management. I consider it a guide, and I'll explain how it can serve this purpose later.
On one hand, some people fear hunger because they aren't sure how to handle it. That is, they don't trust themselves to be able to handle it or to manage the thoughts and feelings experienced after so-called "handling it" (i.e., eating). So, they might ignore the hunger hoping that it will go away and they will not have to deal with it. Sometimes they try to fill up with diet soda or rice cakes. While there is an illusion that this fixes the problem, in reality it doesn't. The body is exhibiting signs of hunger because it IS hungry! It needs energy and nourishment from food, and trickery with non-caloric beverages and filler foods just won't cut it. Our bodies are very intelligent, complex machines, and we must not underestimate them.
Additionally, some people view hunger as an inconvenience. It gets in the way of our being able to work or to get things done. Some people tune out hunger for long enough that the hunger eventually subsides and the body's natural emergency response system that says, "Feed me. Feed me." becomes subdued. At some point, this process is challenging for many to sustain as the body keeps score and a ferocious hunger often follows.
Finally, some people embrace hunger. It's seen as a badge of courage or medal of honor for a great accomplishment. Some seem to believe that if you're on a diet and you're hungry, then you're succeeding. Others rally around them saying things like, "You can do it!" "Great job!" "I wish I could do that!" However, research and experience tell me that hunger is not the best indicator of a successful weight management strategy. In fact, an historical study conducted by Ancel Keys during World War II uncovered some of the negative effects of semi-starvation on 36 volunteers. The results weren't pretty. Subjects experienced fatigue, emotional disturbances, depression, apathy, preoccupation with food, and impairments in concentration, alertness, judgment, and comprehension. Many people who've been on a restrictive diet can probably relate.
With all this talk about hunger, you might think I'm suggesting that we are a nation of starving people. But something else is going on in our country: 67% of American adults, 18% of adolescents, 15% of children ages 6-11, and 11% of children ages 2-5 are overweight. What gives? One thing I haven't mentioned yet is the ugly truth about hunger. That ugly truth is...if most of us eat when we're not hungry, we are overeating. Given the stats above, notice that the older the population, the greater the proportion of overweight individuals. There are a multitude of possible explanations, but I will discuss one. We've been trained to overeat. Having spent enough time around children, I've seen how in tune they are with their natural hunger and satiety cues. On the other hand, many adults have been taught to override their sense of hunger or fullness. Instead, they rely on family members, friends, diet books, or magazines to tell them when and how much to eat. But honestly, who knows when and how much to eat better than you? YOU are the owner's manual!
So, how do we mindfully manage our hunger and fullness? The key is to check in with your body before and throughout the meal. Here are some strategies to guide you.
- Listen for it. In order to mind our hunger and fullness, we need to learn how to recognize each. Here are some of the typical signs of hunger: growling or rumbling stomach, mild stomach pangs, lightheadedness, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, headache, inability to concentrate, or crankiness. Fullness can start with a comfortable feeling in the stomach, calmness, and increased energy levels. Extreme fullness can lead to the stomach feeling stretched or uncomfortable, nausea, or sluggishness.
- Rate it. Use a hunger and/or fullness scale. There are several different versions available, but they typically provide range of numbers by which you can assess your level of hunger or fullness (i.e., 0-10 with 0 being ravenously hungry and 10 being absolutely stuffed). I personally like the ones discussed in the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
- Put down the fork. Setting your utensil down between bites provides the perfect pause for reflection. Consider two questions: 1) Is this food pleasing to me? If it is, proceed. If not, then you may choose to stop eating. 2) Am I still hungry? You may want to use the hunger/fullness scale to answer this question and determine your next step.
- Close your eyes. My mom once told me, "My eyes are bigger than my stomach." Isn't this true sometimes? Or maybe you've heard the joke, "I'm on the see food diet. I see food and I eat it." (wink, wink) Our sense of sight can definitely impact our eating as I've discussed before, so taking a visual break from our food can certainly enhance our mindfulness allowing us to make more informed decisions throughout the experience. Again, ask yourself: Is this food pleasing to me? Am I still hungry?
- Hara hachi bu. That is, eat until 80% full. This is one of many lifestyle practices that the Okinawans of Japan follow, and they have some of the longest averge lifespans on the planet.