I’m writing this post in response to comments I’ve been receiving on a blog post I wrote back in 2013 titled 6 Reasons to Stop Counting Calories & 11 Things To Do Instead.
It’s one of my most popular posts on my website. For many people, this article gave them permission ditch restrictive dieting habits and quit the numbers game around food.
However, I get a fair number of comments where people ask how to do this.
How do they learn to listen to their body when for so many years they’ve been listening to labels instead?
How do they cut through the fear that if they abandon calorie counts they’ll gain weight?
Can they really trust their body to do this when they are already struggling with their weight?
My answer is to tune into their hunger and fullness cues, but many people don’t know how to do this. How do they know if they are truly hungry?
As one commenter put it:
“It’s driving me nuts. I just want to eat healthily 6 days a week and have a meal out once a week without gaining weight. Sounds easy right? My brain makes it incredibly difficult because I don’t know how much is a healthy amount to eat without counting.”
“So, question is, why couldn’t I trust it to let me know what it needed in regards to hunger? When to eat and when not? What it really needed when a craving hit? This article has given me a new lease on life– we always hear to love our bodies… but what’s love without trust?”
Before I delve into how to know if you’re truly hungry, we need to talk about the difference between hunger and appetite.
Hunger and appetite both encourage you to eat, but with a distinction.
Hunger is an inborn instinct. It’s the physiological drive to eat that we feel “below the neck”; that mild gnawing in your stomach that usually sets in a few hours after eating a meal. It’s that slight decline in energy that signals you it is time to refuel. True hunger dissipates after eating when your body’s demand for more energy has been met.
Appetite, on the other hand, is a learned response to food. It’s the psychological drive to eat that we feel “above the neck”; that feeling of wanting more regardless of how much we’ve had to eat. It doesn’t always go away after eating. Isn’t necessarily influenced by the time you last ate.
Hunger is the physical drive to eat while appetite is the mental drive to eat.
I explain the differences here not to call hunger “right” and appetite “wrong”, but to bring awareness that the drive to eat can mean different things. Neither one is good or bad. It doesn’t require us to make a judgement call, just something to notice within our body before you do the Hunger Awareness Exercise I describe below.
With practice, bodily hunger and mental appetite can reconnect into a single healthy desire for food.
The key is to distinguish between the two in the beginning of this transition, so we don’t mistake an emotional urge to eat for a physical need. So often we’re just eating because we “want” to, because it’s a conditioned response and by tuning in to our body we can break the pattern.
This greatly reduces eating when you’re not hungry and overeating when you’re already full.
So let’s delve right into this exercise. Try this before you eat a meal or snack.
Hunger Awareness Exercise (It only takes 60 seconds!)
At first this will feel strange. Why? Because from a very young age, we’re trained to use our brain, not our bodies, to make decisions. But I’m going to ask you to go against your first grade teacher’s advice for a bit.
Sit quietly. Feel your whole body for a second. Close your eyes and direct your focus to your belly and scan for sensations of hunger. Then place your hands on your stomach.
Is your tummy rumbling? Feel empty?
Is your mouth watering at the thought of food?
Have your energy levels dropped?
If you answer yes to any of the above questions, continue with the exercise. If you’re not hungry, try this again later.
What food is your body asking for? A certain food group, like fruit? A certain taste – sour, salty, spicy, sweet? A specific food?
Does it want a snack or meal-sized portion?
3. Choose & Observe
Choose the food. Before eating, notice the food. Observe the shape, color, texture, smell, temperature, etc.
If you’re doing this for practice, you may choose a single raisin, chocolate chip, almond, slice of fruit, piece of cheese, or a cracker.
If you’re sitting down to a meal or snack, take a moment to observe the food in front of you before you eat.
Take a bite. Slowly move the food around your mouth. Notice the change in flavor and texture.
Begin chewing. Chew each bite thoroughly before taking another.
Notice how quickly you are eating. Become aware of tendency to rush and get another bite.
After every few bites, check in with body’s sensations of hunger or fullness.
5. Check in
Rate your level of hunger. Is that gnawing feeling in your stomach still there? How’s your energy?
What would your body say if it could talk?
- Would it ask for more?
- Would it tell you to stop eating?
- Would it tell you that there’s absolutely, positively no more room for food?
- Is this the food what your body wanted (in terms of flavor, texture, etc)?
- How did your body respond to the speed at which you were eating?
At first, this sort of exercise may feel cumbersome. How in the world would you do this at each meal?
Maybe it seems time consuming or annoying. (Though I have to argue that calorie counting is way more annoying!)
It may be pleasant or it may bring up feelings of stress, guilt, judgement and failure.
Over time, this exercise will become more natural. It will likely become a little less structured, but nonetheless something that you automatically incorporate into every meal and snack.
Being aware of your body’s signals after eating is just as important to feelings before and during eating. In general, the slower you eat, the easier it is to tune into your body’s needs and naturally eat less. And sometimes when we’re really hungry, it feels good to rush through a meal! (Remember, you’re in charge. There’s no right or wrong.)
The truth is, your body is already sending all of these signals.
It’s a matter of learning to listen and respond to them with respect.
It’s honoring the drive to eat, even when sometimes it’s our mental appetite running the show.
It’s being aware of how our body feels after eating certain foods and choosing not to eat the ones that make us feel terrible.
It’s choosing the amount of food that satisfies us, but does not leave us feeling so stuffed that it hurts to move.
It’s choosing to eat at a pace that allows us time to taste and savor every bite (and digest it all efficiently).
What I’ve described above is mindful eating in a nut shell.
It’s why I don’t heavily preach one way of eating over another. Yes, there are certain foods that are inherently healthier than others, some that promote weight loss over others, some that drive us to overeat (refined sugar, I’m looking at you!), but not all foods are right for all people for a variety of reasons. Be it a psychological aversion, like triggering an unpleasant memory or even a physical one, such as a food sensitivity reaction.
How we approach food is more about honoring our body than it is following someone else’s definition of healthy.
None of this is defined by calorie counts.
“But I ate 650 calories?! I should be full!”
Calories are numbers, hunger is a feeling.
Learning how to unmistakably identify this feeling will serve you far better than carrying a calculator with you.
Mindful eating means trusting your body, not a calculator.
I hope this can give you the courage to leave the calorie counting to hospital dietitians, delete that diet tracking app from your phone, and enjoy food for what it is – nourishing, delicious, satisfying, and something worth celebrating.
“Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leaders.” – Diane Nash
Now that you have a method for figuring out if you’re truly hungry, I’d like to hear from you:
- What signals does your body send you when you’re hungry?
- What did you learn from doing the Hunger Awareness Exercise?
Until next week,