By: Heather Colomb, LCSW, LCAS-P, Southeast Bariatrics Social Worker
A large majority of America’s obese population have mindlessly ignored the inner regulatory process of fullness. Our relationship with food becomes conditioned as we age. If you reflect on the process of hunger beginning in infancy, we are tuned into our bodies messages. Babies eat in a balanced way and have the skill to stop eating when full. Young children typically view meals as a secondary function of life, using food as a necessary fuel to play. Have you ever noticed that children’s reaction of being called for dinner is seen as an unwelcome interruption to their play and activity? Children are called several times to come to the dinner table, then sit down to eat and eat just enough to satisfy their appetite.
Everyone is born with a built in appestat, an internal appetite thermometer. However, as children grow older, the once purposeful relationship with food becomes tangled with thoughts and emotions. Research has found that after the age of five, we begin to navigate away from our built in appestat and rely on the amount of food on our plate to determine the amount of food required to satisfy our appetite. Thus, by kindergarten, the greedy eye, nose, and mouth override the intuition of stomach and cellular hunger. Mindless eating, binge eating, overeating, emotional eating, and “the clean plate club” all condition us to detach from our appestat. This typically results in weight gain often times losing touch with our innate ability to regulate food intake.
Weight loss surgery is helpful in combating these habits, however patients must relearn the process of healthy eating. This requires mindfulness of the body’s signals of hunger, eating, and fullness. Learning to eat mindfully is a necessary skill to transform your relationship with food.
“Mindfulness is deliberately paying attention, being fully aware of what is happening both inside yourself, in your body, heart and mind, and also outside, in your environment. Mindfulness is awareness without judgment or criticism” -Jan Chozen Bays
Components of mindful eating (from University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine)
Am I Hungry? A huge part of mindful eating is being aware, that is, not eating as a reflex. When you feel hunger, pause, and bring awareness to that moment. Perhaps your mind/body/spirit needs something other than food to nourish it. Breathe deeply a few times, and do your best to determine the source of your appetite. Dr Bays, in her book Mindful Eating: A guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, describes seven types of hunger.
1. Eye hunger: the type of hunger that causes us to eat even when our bodies are full, after seeing the dessert menu, or driving by a billboard of a big, juicy burger. Much research has shown that it is very powerful and can override all other signals of fullness.
- Serve a meal for yourself as you would for guests, on your best plates and silverware.
- Look at something beautiful or interesting, truly contemplate and appreciate it for a few minutes, imagine its energy flowing into you and nourishing you.
2. Nose Hunger: scents and flavors entice us to eat, such as smelling the movie theater popcorn.
- Before eating, smell your food. How many smells can you detect? How does the taste change as you breathe in and out? How long does the taste linger after you swallow?
- Sit quietly and smell a spice, vanilla, or incense. Sniff your partner or your baby’s head. Let these aromas fill you up.
3. Mouth Hunger: the mouth is a “sensation junkie” constantly wanting new flavors and textures. When we do not pay attention to what happens in our mouth as we eat, the mouth feels constantly deprived.
- Fill your plate with foods of several different textures, e.g. cold, crunchy carrots and warm, creamy potatoes. Focus your attention on the sensations in your mouth. Chew each bite 15-20 times, noticing the intricate movements of your tongue. Swallow and notice how your mouth hunger has changed.
4. Stomach Hunger: Many sensations contribute to “hunger pangs,” but they are not always a signal that your body needs fuel. Your stomach may ask for food because you haven’t eaten all day or simply because it is lunchtime. You may confuse the anxious feeling in your stomach as hunger. Learn more about stomach hunger by delaying eating when you feel hungry. Notice the sensations, feelings, and thoughts you are experiencing. Does the feeling pass? Do you feel stomach hunger at the same time each day? Are you hungry each time a deadline is approaching or when you think of a friend that you miss?
- If your stomach is asking for something sweet, notice how you feel. Are you tense? Maybe your body is not asking for food right now but needs a break. Stretch and take a few deep breaths, enjoy a walk outside, or slowly savor a cup of tea.
5. Cellular Hunger: your body craves what it needs to optimally function, but most of us have lost our ability to hear what it is saying.
- Before you decide what to eat, or while at the grocery store, ask your body what it needs. Maybe it is bright-colored vegetables or some sustaining healthy fat and protein. Perhaps you are just thirsty. This may sound strange or difficult, but just listen to what your gut tells you.
6. Mind Hunger: Thoughts such as “I should eat less fat,” “I should eat more at lunch because I may not have time to make dinner tonight,” and “I deserve an ice cream cone” are examples of mind hunger. What your mind tells you changes based on the latest scientific study or your life situation. It can cause you to get caught up in extremes of “eat this, not that,” habits which can’t be sustained long term. “Dr. Bays writes, “When we eat based upon the thoughts in the mind, our eating is usually based in worry.”
- This form of hunger cannot be satisfied by food but is satisfied when we quiet our minds.
7. Heart Hunger: Feeling emptiness in your heart is part of being human. We all seek out foods that help us feel happy. Perhaps you crave apple pie when you are lonely because it reminds you of holidays when your family was together. According to Bays, “Most unbalanced relationships with food are caused by being unaware of heart hunger. No food can ever satisfy this form of hunger. To satisfy it, we must learn to nourish our hearts.”
- If you eat a comfort food, take a small serving of it. Slowly enjoy each bite and imagine it filling your heart with whatever it is you need.
- When you eat, think of all the energy you are getting from your food, from the sun that grew the plants, from the animals, from the truck driver or the cook. Be grateful and feel that energy fill you up.
- Fill your heart in other ways: call a loved one, nurture your garden, make a gift, listen to music, or play with a pet.
Dr. Bays states that the most important mindful eating exercise is to ask yourself, “What type of hunger am I experiencing?” each time before you eat. Only stomach and cellular hunger are satisfied by food. Other forms of hunger will only be temporarily suppressed. Rather than eating as a reflex, you can use this information to decide whether to eat or not. Even if you decide to eat a cookie, don’t criticize yourself. By being mindful of what it is you actually need, and then also being mindful of how eating affects that feeling, you gather lots of information. Then next time you are hungry you can use what you know to make better decisions.
More Ways to Eat Mindfully
After reading about the types of hunger, mindful eating may seem like a huge task that requires intense self-reflection. If you are not ready for that yet, you can still slow down your meals and be more mindful in several easy ways.
• Eat with chopsticks.
• Eat with your non-dominant hand.
• Eat sitting down.
• Eat without TV, newspaper or computer.
• Go around the table and each say something you are grateful for. A great activity for kids!
• Before you eat, sit quietly for at least 30 seconds. Smell your food, and think about where it came from. Picture it growing or roaming in its environment. Think about the steps that food took to end up on your plate…growth, harvesting, processing (hopefully not much), transportation, purchase, and preparation. Give Thanks.
• Concentrate on your arm movements as you bring your food to your mouth.
• Chew your food 10-15 times per bite. Pay attention to taste and texture and how it changes. Swallow when the food is uniformly smooth.
• Set down your utensils between bites. Rest for a few seconds before gathering the next morsel.
• Take a sip of water, tea, or black coffee between bites.
• Put the proper portions of food on your plate and try to make the meal last at least 20 minutes.
If you are interested in more information on mindful eating or participating in a mindful eating group at Southeast Bariatrics, please contact our office to make an appointment with Heather Colomb.