Saturday, June 8, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Can you recall what you ate for your most recent meal? Not just the dish, but how consuming it affected your senses? What flavors did you taste? What smells did you savor? How was your food presented? Was there anything tactile about your meal? Did you hear anything? A crunch? A slurp? How did it make you feel, physically and emotionally? Sorry, did we just make you hungry? Not surprisingly, your body may not actually be hungry. For better or worse, it's just your physical senses tricking your body and mind into desiring food. One way to be more mindful of our food consumption is to recognize the source of our hunger in a given moment.
What is hunger?
Hunger is a craving for something you don’t have, whether that is physical or emotional.
When our bodies are in a food deficit, our brain reads changes in the levels of hormones and nutrients in the blood and makes us feel discomfort in our bellies, become weak, lose cognitive acuity and more. For the body to function efficiently, it needs calories, protein, fiber and vitamins, just as a vehicle needs oil, gasoline, windshield wiper fluid and other substances to function at its peak.
Physical hunger symptoms are easy to recognize, but conceptually, hunger also fuels other desires that are not related to food. Emotional hungers can include basic needs such as purpose, autonomy, safety, love, creativity, community and play. When these emotional hungers are confused with physical hunger responses, it can drive us to eat even if we don’t need to.
The Eight Hungers
Dr. Jan Chozen Bays of the Center for Mindful Eating has identified eight types of hunger to consider as you learn to eat more mindfully. “We delight in our food,” she writes in her book Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship With Food. “It calls to us through our senses, our eyes, our sensitive nose, our watering mouth, our longing heart.”
• Eye hunger: This kind of hunger is triggered when you feast with your eyes first. The sight of food triggers the brain to want to consume the food because it doesn’t know when you’ll eat next. Eye hunger can often drive an individual to eat more than they need and override other signals from the body telling you to stop. This leads to mindless eating and overeating. Try to satisfy this hunger by feasting with your eyes on something else, such as art or nature.
• Cellular hunger: This type of hunger doesn’t exist simply in the stomach, but throughout the whole body. It’s that feeling of “I just need to eat a vegetable” after you’ve spent days eating nothing but cold pizza and coffee. Thirst also falls into this category. Try to satisfy this hunger by eating foods that will match your body’s nutrient needs. As you practice mindful eating, you’ll be more able to figure out what those precise needs are. If you are thirsty, drink water. Avoid caffeine, sugary juice or soda and stick with water.
• Stomach hunger: The most obvious hunger, this is our body’s request for food. We’ve trained our stomachs to expect food at a certain time, so sometimes the hunger you are feeling is a general response to time. Ask yourself if it’s your brain telling you to eat at noon, or your stomach telling you it needs nourishment. Try to satisfy this hunger by eating a well- balanced meal or snack. Foods high in protein and fiber will make you feel fuller longer.
• Mind hunger: Mind hunger is based on thought, influenced by other senses including sight and hearing. Often times, people eat because they are bored. Additionally, instead of listening to the body, we often listen to the mind to tell us what the rules for eating are, what we should and should not eat, which diets are best and how we should categorize food. This kind of thinking when approaching food can lead to bargaining (“I’ve been working hard, I deserve a cheat day”) and bingeing. Anxiety and worry play major parts in mind hunger. When we feel unsettled, we may reach for food because we know we can control that aspect of our life in that moment. Try to satisfy this hunger by reading a book or learning something new to feed the mind. Try working out or exploring nature to curb anxiety.
• Ear hunger: The sizzle of bacon, the crinkle of a potato chip bag, the clink of cutlery on a plate—all of these sounds can activate the rumbling in our bellies.
“Food technologists exploit ear hunger,” writes Vania Phitidis, an intuitive eating counselor, inThe Huffington Post. “They spend a lot of time and money researching the exact crunch that eaters respond to, to make their food more appealing, so in turn, people will eat more of it.”
Satisfy this hunger by listening to music and being mindful of the sounds around you.
• Nose hunger: Much of what we consider to be taste or flavor is actually the smell of food. This is why food tastes strange when you have a head cold. Our tongues can only taste five flavors—sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami/amino acid. By comparison, recent studies have shown the human nose can detect nearly 1 trillion odors, all of which have a powerful effect on our subconscious, triggering systems such as our memory and physical responses. Just as flowers emit scents to attract pollinators, grocery stores will even pump smells like baking bread throughout the store to attract customers and encourage hunger. After all, the hungrier you are (or the hungrier your brain convinces you that you are) the more groceries you may buy. Satisfy this hunger by smelling something enjoyable that isn’t food.
• Mouth hunger: When we think of touch, we think of our hands, but our mouths are also big fans of things with different textures and temperatures. What your mouth deems pleasant or unpleasant can depend on several factors such as genetics, familial food habits, culture, conditioning, etc. Keep your mouth entertained with a variety of tastes, textures and temperatures. Branching out and trying new foods can help keep things diverse. A bored palate can easily become a mindless snacking palate as the mouth searches for something interesting to experience. Try to satisfy this hunger by giving your mouth something else to do, such as chewing gum.
• Heart hunger: This hunger is about a strong desire to be loved and cared for. This is the source of “eating our feelings” instead of finding fulfilling connection. For example, triggered memories can make you feel hungry for Grandma’s peach pie even if you aren’t truly hungry. You’re eating to distract yourself from recognizing or experiencing your feelings. Think about whether you eat certain foods to soothe specific feelings. Notice any patterns? Try to satisfy this hunger by calling a friend or family member, snuggling a pet, etc. Even something as simple as having a conversation with someone at the library can make you feel connected and not so alone. Unfortunately, food can’t fill emptiness in your heart.
Mindfully satisfying hunger
To determine if you're truly physically hungry, Dr. Bays recommends taking intentional pauses when eating. Cultivate the intent of learning about (not judging) physical or emotional hunger.
Consult your doctor
Note: Talk with your doctor, nutritionist or registered dietitian when making changes to your diet. Not all bodies are the same. Remember the law of individual differences and do what is best for you.
Before the first bite, ask yourself:
1. What kind of hunger do I have in the moment?
2. What are distractions that may cause me to take my focus off the act of eating? (Example: Are you watching television when you eat? Scrolling on your phone?)
3. Will food help my hunger? If so, what type?
During the act of eating, be wholly aware.
• Override your eye hunger by consciously using smaller plates, bowls and utensils, and by keeping serving dishes out of sight.
• Choose a satisfying and balanced combination of foods to keep you fuller longer.
• Put down your utensils between bites to interrupt the sense of touch.
• Check in with yourself. It takes the stomach 10 minutes to recognize fullness. Don’t feel guilty about leaving food on your plate or eating seconds if you need to.
After eating, talk to your body.
• How did the food physically make you feel? If eating french fries doesn’t make you feel full and well, consider alternatives.
• Try to make a plan for your next meal—ideally in the next 3-4 hours—or for a nutritious snack. This will help cut down on mindless grazing.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept; it is the act of being present in the moment. To practice it, one must be fully aware and conscious of each experience, free of distraction and the flood of random thoughts. When applied to eating, mindfulness can encourage healthy habits by fostering awareness of what we are putting into our bodies and how it will be used.
“Mindful eating teaches you how to eat using all of your senses. [It] is defined as deliberately paying attention, being fully aware of what is happening inside yourself—in your body, mind and heart—and outside yourself in your environment,” says Tracie Abram, health, nutrition and well-being educator for the Michigan State University Extension Office. “Mindfulness is awareness without judgment or criticism.”
This approach to eating can begin at any stage in life. Seattle Children’s Hospital, one of the leading hospitals, foundations and research institutes in the nation, recommends using an approach to mindful eating with children to help them develop healthier relationships with food as they grow into adulthood.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.