“Mom! I need food now! My little legs are so weak!!” My 7-year-old son eats like his dad (and is dramatic like his mom) so I wasn’t surprised when he came barging in the door after school as if he were auditioning for Oliver! He then proceeded to eat half the kitchen and only quit when he realized the spaghetti he was chewing on was the plastic pile that came with Jelly Bean’s play kitchen. The next morning at breakfast I prepared his usual feast only to have him shrug and say, “I’m not hungry this morning” and wander off to put Legos down his Captain America costume (I don’t question it as long as they’re dressed in something).
Now compare that with this recent conversation:
Friend: You want to go get something to eat?
Me: I dunno. Are you hungry?
Friend: Eh. I could eat. Are you?
Me: Maybe. What were you thinking?
Friend: I dunno. I’m kind of munchy.
Me: It’s okay, watching the 24/7 news coverage of Kim Kardashian’s Fairytale Divorce does that to a lot of people.
Figuring out if I’m hungry, when I’m hungry, what I’m hungry for and then when I stop being hungry has been probably the most important lesson I’ve learned and the hardest struggle I’ve had over the past year-plus of Intuitive Eating. Being a basic bodily function and all you’d think this would be easy but sadly for most of us we lose the ability to really understand our hunger cues sometime between childhood and grownup-hood. (We also lose the ability to sleep in bizarre positions which is another child superpower I wish I still had. My same son once fell asleep with his head and torso on his bed and his feet on his bookcase leaving his body dangling in midair. Awesome.)
I have hunger on my mind because today is “fast Sunday.” The first Sunday of each month is designated for LDS (a.k.a. Mormons) to go 24 hours without any food or drink. While I do it primarily for spiritual reasons, I do see other benefits from this as well and one of the best (and worst) is remembering what real bodily hunger feels like. It kinda sucks, frankly.
I went for a long time not knowing what this felt like. When I was in the grip of various eating disorders, I remember that hazy, light-headed, exhausted past-hunger-to-starvation feeling. And then when I was Getting Healthy By The Book By Golly and eating 6 mini-meals a day every three hours like clockwork, I remember always feeling kinda full but never quite sated. At the time I was experiencing these feelings I thought both situations were ideal – “I’m so hungry I don’t feel hungry anymore! Whee! Wait… how am I driving a car?” and “I eat so much I never feel hungry! Whee! Wait… am I eating a cold chicken breast while driving a car?” The problem with my thinking (and with myriad diet tips, frankly) is that feeling hungry is a good thing. It’s your body talking to you and telling you that everything is in proper working order and oh by the way, time for more fuel please.
All the food noise in our culture makes hunger hard to hear. These past few days, after an unfortunate incident with the Halloween candy that I’d rather not remember but the 20 mini candy bar wrappers can explain, I decided I needed to really focus on my hunger cues. Here’s what I’ve learned about me and my body so far:
- Hunger is the need for fuel
- Hunger is not the need for comfort, entertainment, stress relief, novelty or love*
- I feel real hunger in my stomach – it tightens and growls – and not as much in my mouth. When I see candy my mouth waters but my stomach doesn’t usually join in.
- If I get too hungry the only thing I want to eat is sugar and simple carbs
- If I eat when I’m not hungry I feel a little sick
- Real hunger ebbs and flows. A craving can be super persistent but true hunger does not feel like an emergency. Like today, when I choose not to eat for 24 hours I will obviously get very hungry and yet reminding myself of what I’m doing and why often makes the hunger pangs subside for a bit. And then they return in an hour or two.
- When other people around me are eating it makes me want to eat too, even if I’m not hungry.
- The “I’m full” signal is harder to hear than the “I’m hungry” one but it is there. I’d thought that I’d completely damaged the mechanism to feel satiety but when I eat quietly and am not distracted I’ve found that even I can hear it.
- When I eat past the point of fullness it’s most often out of a sense of deprivation, i.e. “This candy tastes so amazing but I can’t eat it ever again because it’s so bad for me (never mind I’m taking candy…from a baby)!” Eating because I feel deprived never ends well. In fact, one of the trickiest parts of IE for me is trying to mitigate feeling deprived.
All of this made me curious- what have you discovered about your hunger? How did you learn to hear your hunger? What’s your take on emotional eating?
*So is it wrong to eat for reasons besides hunger? A lot of diet gurus and books say yes but I don’t know that I agree. Food can be comforting, entertaining, soothing, and novel and I think using it for that purpose on occasion is fine. So much of food is about the experience of eating it, right? But I think that when I do this I need to be perfectly honest with myself about why I’m using food in this way and if it is really the best thing to help me feel better (and often the answer is no). Emotional eating in my book isn’t always harmful but it’s harmful when eating is all you do to deal with your emotions.