Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Honor Thy Hunger and Thy Fullness

3 ½ hours together driving back from New York gave us plenty of time to share music. I started by excitedly playing a recent find (Crayola by Kristen Andreassen a performer I recently saw live, and whose group I adore. I hear this song and a huge grin comes across my face. Pure happiness! I feel good listening to Kristen and her silly lyrics—they make me smile, and tap my feet, and lift my mood. So I like it. No, I love it!

Then my son shares his tune. It’s okay, I think. It could grow on me, but I’d have to hear it again. He’s shocked, I could tell. When I ask him what he likes about it, he starts by describing the amazing, complex musical composition, comparing it to classics I didn’t know he was familiar with. And he truly appreciated the sophisticated lyrics. He had listened carefully to the words, and deeply to their meaning, quite analytically.

Our differing approaches to listening to music really struck me. For him, it’s a cerebral activity. For me, a gut reaction, strictly emotional, arousing my senses, not engaging my brain.

It made me think about eating. We’ve gotten too intellectual, too cognitive, too academic about eating. We’ve been guided to count things and analyze—calories, points, fat grams, approaching eating like a math equation. Eating is reduced to a chore, as we straddle restraining our eating, restricting what we really want choosing instead what our brain (and our doctor, the health experts and our mothers) say are wise and healthy choices. Short term we follow the rules, later over-indulging and regretting it afterwards. We focus only on external guidance, based on shoulds, and rarely on internal cues such as hunger and fullness.

In my last post I shared my forty-eight hour food fest as a way to normalize eating, to show you it was possible. But I hadn’t guided you on the how. So sorry! I plan to make it up to you in this and upcoming posts, providing the steps to get there.

Denying hunger

Denying hunger seems to be normal, a goal even, and not just for eating disordered individuals. No, it seems that most people who present to my office describe a mode of denying hunger, attempting to not respond to it, to buffer it with everything from diet sodas, to coffee, to huge quantities of water. Part of this is learned—Weight Watchers has always told members to have a glass of water when they are hungry. Partly they see short-term success with this strategy (did you catch the short term part?) So let’s think about this brilliant guidance. It seems to me most people (and dogs) know when they are thirsty, as opposed to hungry. And that if you substitute water for food, it's gonna bite you in the end. You'll get excessively hungry, and irritable and end up less in control of your food intake.

It seems to me that your goal should be to listen to your hunger—to eat when your body says it’s hungry and to not eat when it has had enough. You can’t not eat when you've had enough, and also not eat when your body says it’s hungry! It just won’t work.

Honor your hunger

Ideally, you’d eat when your body tells you it’s hungry—but not too hungry. You know what happens if hunger goes too far. That is not our goal. Rather, strive to respond to your hunger when it is just moderate. However it does help, when you are just getting started and are not very tuned into your body and its signals, to avoid going long periods without eating. It’s variable, but generally by 3 ½-4 hours it’s starting to feel too long if you haven’t eaten.
This may require you to carry snacks with you, and to do a bit of planning so that you have food available for when you need it. Or to make a detour in your plans, as needed.

Honoring your hunger means eating whenever you need to, regardless of the hour, regardless if anyone else needs food. (Yes, even after 8 PM!) I was at a conference the past three days and found myself very hungry at times I was not accustomed to needing to eat. It certainly did make sense—I did a ton of walking throughout this enormous complex and used public transportation—a significant increase over my usual driving and sitting at work all day.

But we shouldn’t need to analyze it. It should be enough that my body said I was hungry, that I needed fuel, and I needed to trust that. And I did.

Yes, we need to trust our body and what it’s telling us. And we need to ask, when we feel like eating, if that is truly hunger, the need for fuel, or an appetite for food to satisfy some other needs. You know, when you need comfort, to manage stress, anxiety, or sadness. Or because you had a hard day and feel you deserve it, or simply because you can.  Or because it’s available and feels like now or never. Or because everyone else is indulging. If it’s for any or all the reasons listed other that hunger, than no amount of food will readily feel like enough, and so you’ll find yourself overeating until you’re in a very uncomfortable place.

But maybe you struggle on the other side of the spectrum. “I’m not hungry”, you may say, so why should I eat? If you are in a healthy place, when your body and its signals work for you to maintain energy balance, that may be appropriate to listen to. But when you’ve been restricting, appetite gets suppressed, and hunger drops off. Our body also slows down, using less fuel 24/7 as a result. This can be compounded by anxiety and depression, impacting your interest in food, and even causing physical limitations such as stomach upset and tightness and difficulty swallowing. So you get into a catch-22 situation and normal self-regulating of food for energy balance will fail you.

The point is, there are times the signals don’t work for us. So if you are not in a healthy state then yes, you need to start by following some rules or guidelines designed to get you and your body on track. But ultimately, your signals will work for you, if you choose to listen to them!

Honoring hunger means eating throughout the day, as needed, even if you plan to go out to dinner. It means getting hungry, and responding to that hunger with food, with fuel. It means eating at 9:30, or 10:20, or 11:50 PM, if that's when you get hungry.

Keep a journal if you can. You can start just with the times you ate and your hunger rating (1-7 works well). Eating when hunger isn’t there? Were there other triggers which led to the eating? Or did something interfere with your ability to sense your hunger?
This is just a start! There is so much to share about legalizing foods, eating mindfully and eating until comfortably full. For now, just start with focusing, and honoring your hunger.

And let me know how it goes.


  1. I read your blog to remind me that I need to be more mindful about what and when I eat. Perfect reminder today as I sit with a co-worker's leftover Halloween candy two feet from my desk!
    What I really wanted to relate though comes from a group lunch yesterday and (kinda) relates to the denying/distracting/calorie counting diets...I was sitting in a group and was struck when someone related a story about a dare in which someone else had drank an entire bottle of flavoured oil. The first comment from a few people in the group? "Think about it...must be thousands of calories!" Seriously? Dude drank a bottle of flavoured oil, who cares how many calories? That's gross (and funny and fascinating and, and...). I was surprised a bit dismayed.
    I am not a big fan of calorie counting. I have done it and it did work (for a short time) but, it was a level of obsession I couldn't sustain. I would be interested in your take on obsessing about calorie count.

  2. Hi Erin,
    As you might have guessed I am not a fan of calorie counting. It gets obsessive and stands in the way of listening to one's physical cues. What would you do if you used up all your calories and were still hungry? Determining one's calorie need is far from a perfect science.
    I will also be doing a post specifically on mindful eating, which was addressed a bit in the "Zen.." post. Thanks for reading--and for posting your comment!

  3. I know that I don’t listen to my body. I mistrust the signals it gives me as trying to ‘trick’ me into eating. But I’m determined to get past this. Life might be tough, but I am tougher. So even though I had a little hissy last weekend (which unfortunately I let spill over into that ‘holy-over-reactions-batman’ comment of mine) I am trying to focus on the positive, rather than hide from my embarrassment. The positive being – I recovered from the panic. It did go away and I was fine. I didn’t purge and I didn’t over exercise. So I should be proud of that.
    Anyway, after reading this post I came up with this new strategy – eating my safety foods, but at 4 set regular times (since I know I won’t respond to hunger). I have been doing this now for 3 days and I am feeling okay. Honestly I didn’t think I would actually stick to the schedule but I have been. I’ve been planning what to eat at each meal. And then eating it calmly, I think because I know exactly when the next meal is coming. I find when I am going long periods without eating I think about food all the time and then I pick at silly snacks (and then feel too guilty to eat my nutritious food). But I haven’t been snacking at all. My weight has stayed the same (I was terrified it would go up exponentially), although not being hungry all the time is a bit unsettling, but I will be patient and see if this nervousness subsides.
    Thank you for the excellent advice :-)
    (and that is such a lovely photo of you and your son btw)

  4. Since I can't guide you personally (there must be good nutritionists down in Australia?)I feel compelled to address many of your wonderful points in blog posts.Setting realistic goals, identifying the positives, eating calmly and mindfully...I caution about weighing yourself--generally not a wise thing at this point (I'll address that in more detail too), and avoidance of trigger/forbidden foods. I do promise posts to more completely tackle these!
    Great job! I'm glad the post inspired you.
    And maybe I'll include more family photos if I feel bold!

  5. Hello,

    I have been deep in ED for 11 years, looking for a way out of this seemingly bottomless hole. I tried following my hunger cues recently but then discovered that my hunger cues are all out of whack. I have been soothed by starvation for so long that I do not know what hunger should feel like anymore. Like you said, I am one of the individuals who needs some guidelines to get started, but what guidelines? I currently only have 3 safe foods, so how do I face the fear of new foods.

    I know I need help, but I don't have health insurance, so I just don't know where to turn. I often get in the mindset that I can beat battle this on my own with my own plan, but I know that I am too anxious and depressed to carry that through.

    I hope I don't overwhelm you, and I really appreciate your blog. I just don't know what to do. Everyday is so painful. Thank you for listening.


  6. Hi Emily,
    First, thanks for sharing and reaching out for help. While my blog may offer some support and guidance,recovery takes more than reading helpful tips.It takes accountability. If an eating disorder team isn't available to you, then involve other supports in your life. At this stage of recovery, preplanning meals and snacks is key, avoiding going more than a few hours without food. Caloric beverages easier? Choose those to help fuel your body, without the sense of fullness that large increases in solids can cause. Make an increase for a few days or a week, then recognize that your biggest fears didn't come true. That will help you start to trust yourself.
    But truly, with many years in this pattern, and very restrictive eating, I'd urge you to seek out professional medical help through whatever means possible if you are serious about recovery. (Can't fault me for not being direct!)
    Hope that helps you get started.

  7. Oh, I don't blame you for being direct at all! My dream Christmas gift is a gift card for a month of dietitian or therapy sessions....if only such a thing existed! I appreciate your help and will work up the courage to buy some Boosts this weekend. That's actually a really great idea because a part of what keeps me from eating more is the horrible feeling in my stomach.

    Again, thank you.


  8. Also, keep in mind that when you continually eat less than your body needs, your hunger gets suppressed, making it more challenging to trust it. And when constantly restricting, stomach discomfort will be another disincentive to eating what you need. Keep this in mind as you fight your tendency to restrict. Hunger, your guide to knowing when to eat, will return!
    And thanks for joining as a follower!

  9. Lori, thank you so much for your encouragement. I have started seeing a dietician, but have not made any progress to date on that front as I have only seen her twice and spent most of that time folded up in the chair in front of her crying – not very productive (sigh). So I still feel essentially as though I am flying solo on this one until I get a better handle on my anxiety/embarrassment around her. I really appreciate having a safe space to ‘practice talking’ – and I really value your insights, experience and inspiration :-)