Understanding Hunger & Mindful Eating

Article posted in: Nutrition
person on phone while eating

When you’re hungry or have a food craving, you don’t typically think about the type of hunger you are experiencing. In her book Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, Dr. Jan Chozen Bays explains that there are seven types of hunger we experience on a daily basis. Staying aware of the kind of hunger you encounter along with mindful eating practices can help you maintain a healthy weight and avoid overeating.

Types of Hunger

  • Eye hunger: Picture the restaurant dessert tray or the soft pretzels at a baseball game. Our eyes, constantly barraged by food establishments, have the power to convince the mind that we’re hungry, often overriding signals from the stomach and body that we’re full or content.
  • Nose hunger: You walk into a mall and smell fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies in the food court. Noses are always hunting for food (because our ancestors were hunter-gatherers and because olfactory nerves are short outgrowths from the brain). Again, our stomachs are overruled.
  • Mouth hunger: Our mouths desire pleasurable sensations, says Bays. Pleasure is determined by genetics, culture and conditioning. The mouth desires variety in flavor and texture and has trouble “staying present” as foods lose flavor and become mushy. We eat to give the mouth something to do or to keep it entertained.
  • Stomach hunger: Americans tend to eat when the clock says its time, not when our stomachs say they’re hungry. We’ve also become confused by feelings of unsettledness caused by acid reflux or anxiety. Are you hungry or not well? How can you tell the difference?
  • Cellular hunger: Babies know exactly when they need to eat and when they’re full. Small children know exactly what kinds of foods their bodies need if they’re dehydrated, salt depleted or deficient in a certain mineral. Our bodies communicate these essential needs through cravings.
  • Mind hunger: Influenced by what we hear, read and see, mind hunger is difficult to satisfy because we constantly change our minds. One day dessert is fattening; the next, we deserve a treat. Mind hunger is often based on opposites: Good food versus bad food; should eat versus should not eat.
  • Heart Hunger: Mom’s chicken soup. Homemade apple pie. Ice cream. Food nourishes us body and soul. And sometimes people eat in attempts to fill a hole in their heart.

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Assess Your Hunger

mindful eating

When our senses are activated by food—even if we’re not truly hungry—we respond by putting food in our mouths. But hunger can be controlled with mindfulness. Every time a hunger sensation arises, pause to consider the source of the hunger and then pause again to assess your hunger. Are you really hungry? Where in the body do you feel hunger? Where do you feel satisfaction? What does half-full feel like, or three quarters full? If you’re not truly hungry, distract yourself from the food craving. Have a cool drink or a hot, comforting beverage. Try chewing gum to entertain your mouth. Go for a walk. Call a friend.

Slow Down

mindful eating

“You would think that we would naturally eat more slowly in order to savor food, but instead the opposite is true,” Bays says. “The more we like food, the faster we chew and swallow it.” When you sit down for a meal, it’s important to practice mindful eating practices. Pause to give thanks for your meal, deeply inhale the aromas and then take a bite. Think about the flavors, the texture—be totally present in your meal. Chew your food up to 32 times to totally extract the flavors and allow saliva to do its job in breaking down food for better digestion. Put the fork down while you chew and take frequent breaks.

It takes 20 minutes for food to reach the first part of the small intestine, at which time chemicals are sent back to the brain to say, “stop eating!” If you do not constantly assess your hunger and you finish the contents of your plate in less than 20 minutes, you’ve likely overeaten.

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Be Aware of Stress & Distraction

mindful eating

Overeating happens when we’re distracted. Our phones buzz. We’re surrounded by friends or loved ones and are caught up in conversation. We have 10 minutes to eat before your 1:00 appointment shows up. We forgot to eat this morning. All of these common, everyday scenarios can prevent mindful eating and lead to overeating. Remove as many distractions as possible when you are eating so that you can have a conversation with your body.

You can also yourself up for success by eating small, frequent meals and giving yourself ample time to eat. Be aware of when you’re are anxious, sad or stressed, as you’re more likely to eat in an unbalanced way. “Stress can also change how the body processes and stores food, and stress can raise levels of cholesterol in the blood stream,” says Bays. If you’re feeling stressed, don’t eat. Prioritize your tasks, cut out extra steps and ask for help. Meditating for a few minutes can help you refocus and be more mindful.

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