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A Case for Hunger & How to Deal with It

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The concept of hunger has been coming a lot during the #moderation365 training, and so I thought I’d set aside time to put together a comprehensive post about it.

First, there’s a difference between hunger and cravings. Cravings are mostly felt in the head — we think, “I have a craving for chocolate right now.” or “I’m craving something salty.” Usually cravings are for something in particular OR we know it’s a craving if we just had a meal and still want to eat.

Hunger, on the other hand, is felt mostly in the gut. And the sensation of hunger can be elusive for many people — many people lose their sensitivity to it, or haven’t felt it in a very long time. And I get that. I felt that too — unable to really know when I’m hungry or not.

I would actually argue that in our modern western society, we very rarely feel hunger. Either because we are being ruled exclusively by cravings (mindless eating, snacking, stress eating, etc) OR because we don’t allow ourselves to get to the point of hunger because we are “eating every 3 hours” to preempt hunger.

 

Why I want you to get a little hungry

You’ve probably heard that you should eat more frequent meals so that you stay on top of your hunger. At Metabolic Effect, they call it “preemptive eating” and it serves to preempt hunger so that you don’t get the point of ravenous hunger and end up diving headfirst into a bag of Oreos.

This is a great strategy, but I also consider it the 1.0 version. I think it works best for beginners to a healthy lifestyle or for those who have blood sugar stability issues, like the severely overweight or obese, at least until they start getting their blood sugar more balanced (usually happens naturally with weight loss).

But what if you are not really in those categories? What if you are someone with a history of all-or-nothing dieting, yo-yo’ing back and forth and tend to have an obsessive relationship with food? You are constantly counting, measuring, waiting until it’s time to eat, planning meals, eyes on the clock, thinking, thinking, obsessing about every morsel of food you put in your mouth?

For you, I recommend the 2.0 version, which is allowing yourself the time and space to experience hunger. It’s useful for getting back to actually feeling hunger. Familiarizing yourself with the sensation of it.

The reason I think preemptive eating is appealing is because the aim is to constantly stay ahead of hunger to prevent the inevitable bingeing that would happen if we let ourselves get hungry. BUT. Isn’t this kind of a poor strategy — being so fearful of hunger because when it strikes, we’d have no choice but to binge? Like, there’s some arbitrary threshold of hunger, that when we step over it, some robot takes over our body and we all of a sudden can’t control our actions?

I don’t like that.

I don’t like feeling at the mercy of hunger. I don’t like feeling as though I have no say when and if I start to feel hungry. And the 1.0 version doesn’t really ever give us the chance to experience hunger because we are hyperaware of trying to prevent it constantly. The 1.0 version doesn’t give us the opportunity to then deal with it in that moment.

That’s where mindfulness comes in.

Being able to feel hunger and have it not mean you lose all sense of control is what practicing mindfulness is all about. I want to be able to feel hunger, understand it, and then surf it long enough to put together a healthy plan to remedy it — not be co caught off guard by it that I have no choice but to devour the closest sweet I can get my hands on.

But here’s the thing: feeling hunger and fighting hunger are not the same thing. The former is mindfulness, plus strategy. The latter is all about trying to control yourself, constantly white-knuckling your way through some restrictive plan. That’s what I would consider a practice of someone dealing with an ED. Totally understandable but it’s actually obsession, which I consider the opposite of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the opposite of obsession

There was a really great question asked the other night on the #moderation365 webinar: “How do you practice mindfulness without it turning into obsessively thinking about food?”

The short answer is that mindfulness is actually THE OPPOSITE of obsession. Mindfulness is thinking, but it’s automated thinking. It’s a pervasive, effortless awareness constantly — NOT of food, but of YOU.

When you’re mindful, you’re effortlessly in tune with your sensations on a low level at all times: hunger, cravings, stress, fullness, satisfaction level, etc. You’re actually NOT anxious about food at all, because you know that your awareness and mindfulness of YOU will help you no matter what. You trust YOU to handle whatever food (or lack of) appears wherever you are, next hour, later today, tomorrow, etc.

When you are mindful, you are the opposite of obsessed. Your level of awareness hums along easily with zero effort from you.

But the nature of mindfulness is such that it doesn’t get easy until, well, it does. It takes actively observing yourself for a while, before it becomes automatic. But once it does, it’s effortless. The exact opposite of obsession. And the more mindful you become, the less obsessed you become.

There’s a space between NO hunger and RAVENOUS hunger. And mindfulness helps you navigate that gap. It offers that little bit of time you need to acknowledge the hunger and create a plan for how you will move forward in a more healthy way. Mindfulness slows this whole process down so that you can surf the hunger long enough to be strategic.

So how do you start with the 2.0 version?

Start by allowing yourself to get a tiny bit hungry. If you are used to eating every 3 hours, maybe push it to 3.5 or 4 and see how you do. AND IN THOSE MOMENTS, harness your mindfulness. Watch yourself.

Remember, mindfulness is simply awareness. Observing how you feel and what you are doing in the moment. Mindfulness is the middle on the food awareness spectrum:

foodawareness

We are used to ping-ponging back and forth between obsession and brain-shut-down-mode binging that we have a hard time practicing the middle. But you begin by just watching yourself at your very next meal. Is this difficult? Yes, at first it will be tough because we’re not used to it. But the nature of mindfulness is that with practice (and surprisingly little practice actually), it starts to become automatic.

Here are some questions to ask, as you are engaged in your meal:

  • How’s my level of fullness?
  • Does this food still taste amazing or could I take it or leave it?
  • Am I simply eating this because it’s in front of me?
  • Am I eating this because I feel like it’s scarce, or I’m not going to have the chance to eat it again so I might as well take advantage? (Food FOMO)
  • Could I stop, put this away and take it out later if I am still hungry?
  • Could I keep eating? — one of my practices is eating to 80% fullness. How do you know when you are at 80% fullness (obviously not exact)? YOU COULD STILL EAT MORE. The nature of the feeling of 80% fullness is that you *could* keep eating, That’s how you know it might be time to stop.
  • Am I just eating out of stress or because I think I deserve a reward?
  • And my fav reassurance that, “Food will always be there. I don’t have to eat all of it right now.”

These are a few great ways to begin honing mindfulness. Again, it’s a practice. You don’t get it right every time but if you want to succeed at creating a sustainable approach to eating, then starting with mindfulness is paramount.

There are plenty of other components to the hunger equation, like foods that help decrease it and keep you fuller for longer, like protein, fiber and water. Here’s a great resource for that. This article is mainly to address the mental-emotional component.

Bottom line? I don’t want you to be scared of your food, your sensations, or your eating. I want you to embrace the entire process and take it on with your eyes wide open — that’s the kind of insight and trust that mindfulness provides. Go toward the scary stuff. Resist the temptation to put your head down and grind. Look up, notice how you feel, ask the tough questions, get investigative, get strategic and then learn and get better. It’s a process. Don’t be scared of it. Nothing is ever irreversible. You never “blow it.” You never reach a point of no returns. There are no failures, there are only lessons. The process is fluid, dynamic, constantly changing and when you stay flexible and open, you have the opportunity to make an sustainable change, something that lasts forever and also feels effortless.

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