Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re satisfied. These two simple nutritional strategies might be the most impactful skills you can have to remain in a place of choice with eating.
We have an internal system that is wise and can be trusted. We don’t have to count calories or restrict the time of day we’re eating or cut out carbs. I would argue that these arbitrary rules take us further away from choice–we are letting the number or the time or the food be in control.
And we can take these internal cues of hunger and satiety anywhere. As my coach says, “internal cues travel well.”
And it is simple. But simple doesn’t mean easy. Many of us have decades of experience ignoring our internal cues. Dieting, rigid work and meal schedules, parenting young children in an atmosphere of constant chaos, certain medications and medical conditions, being forced into the clean plate club as a child, and numerous other reasons have taught us to ignore our hunger, to use something external to determine when it is time to eat.
Hunger comes in many forms, but today I’m talking about hunger in our bellies. It’s a hollow feeling, maybe some churning or slight cramping, and it comes on gradually and intensifies over time. For me, it comes in waves–a burst of hunger that subsides after maybe 10 minutes, and then another wave a little while later that’s a bit stronger, and again later, if I haven’t yet addressed it and eaten a meal.
I’m a member of Balance 365 coaching, and they use a 1-10 hunger and satiety scale. Hunger is represented by numbers 1-4. For me, a “four” is that first notion of “I could eat,” but it’s easy to ignore, and I’m perfectly comfortable for a while longer. A three is more intense but I’m still fine for a while. If I ordered dinner at a restaurant while at a three, I’d be eager to eat my meal but not at all uncomfortable waiting. By the time I’m a two, I’m absolutely ready to eat. Should things go south, the meal at the restaurant takes an inordinate amount of time, or I’m stuck at work without a meal prepped, I’ve reached a one, where I’m totally distracted by my hunger.
Each of these physical sensations come with thoughts and emotions, if I’m mindful enough to notice them. My thoughts at a 3-4 are “I could eat (4)” and “am I ready to eat? (3)” or “when is lunch?” By the time I’m at a two, the thoughts become more focused on figuring out when my next meal is, or even daydreaming about enjoying that meal. The emotions have moved from curiosity and anticipation towards readiness (or anxiety if I don’t have a plan for when I’m eating). My thoughts are all-consuming about food by the time I’m a one, and I might also experience symptoms of low blood sugar like headaches, shakiness and irritability (although increasing my protein at each meal has dramatically reduced how often this happens).
Many of us have been trained to fear hunger. It can feel very urgent and like something that must be dealt with immediately. Getting comfortable with this gradual increase in sensations and intensity of thoughts has taken me a lot of time. When I was a vegetarian, I was hungry sometimes every two hours. A few hours after a meal, I would get shaky, headachy, sweat, and had trouble regulating my emotions. That decade or so taught me to fear my hunger. I didn’t want to feel crappy, and I certainly didn’t want to lose my temper with someone who didn’t deserve it. So, I learned to eat at the first signs of hunger. I kept snacks in my purse, in my car, in my desk at work, and stuffed in the pockets of my coats. It felt like I was always eating. It felt like my hunger was out of control. I would go from neutral (5) to hangry (1) in seemingly a blink of an eye.
It’s taken me years to unlearn the anxiety triggered by my hunger. I’ve had to learn to trust my body again. As mentioned above, for me it also included changing how I ate so that I could experience hunger more gradually. But this is also the real gold of learning to eat when we’re hungry–the more consistently we can do it, the more trust we build with ourselves and our bodies.
I value living in choice, having a sense of independence and feeling in control. I can eat what I want when I want to eat it. I am living in my values when I wait to enjoy meals and snacks until I’m hungry. I also find this means I enjoy the food more, I’m more able to savor it, which connects to my value of pleasure.
I do want to emphasize that I’m not saying I never eat when I’m not hungry, and I wouldn’t make that recommendation to someone else, either. The goal isn’t to never eat outside of my hunger, the goal is to make a conscious choice about when I eat. I can notice a donut in the staff lounge and decide I want it. I can decide to eat it right away, even if I’m not hungry, or I can decide to wait until I’m hungry and enjoy it with my meal. I can also decide to wait and see if it still sounds delicious later in the day. All of these are fine and can be done without judgment, but it feels very different to me to CHOOSE to eat it or not rather than to let something arbitrary (like a diet rule) or something automatic (like the visual cue of seeing the donut) make the decision for me.
If you share with me a value of living in choice and this is a new concept for you, I encourage you to be patient with yourself. Remember you didn’t learn to use other strategies in a day, and learning this kind of awareness won’t happen overnight, either. Your internal experience of hunger may be different than mine. The thoughts and emotions that rise up might sound different, too. The work starts with awareness, noticing how you’re feeling before eating and slowly noting what information you’re getting. It can take a while to “click,” but once it starts to work for you, it can feel like a superpower. Internal cues really do travel well. Wherever I go, there I am, and there are my hunger cues. External restriction can be replaced with the freedom of internal comfort and choice.