A few days ago, I recall a commute to work from about 5 years ago. It was a normal drive to work, 45 minutes of think time. Sometimes I listened to the radio, sometimes I rode in silence. Sometimes I called people. On this morning, it was me and my thoughts cruising into work. I remember this drive specifically because it ultimately changed the way I eat. As I drove, this thought bounced into my head:
“When was the last time my stomach growled?”
I kept driving in silence, thinking about this. It occurred to me that it had been a long time since I had experienced the sensation of a growling stomach. As I kept driving, I realized that it had in fact been many YEARS since I had truly felt hungry…you know that deep uncomfortable physical sensation of really needing food. It had been so long that I was unable to remember what it physically felt like to be hungry. As I rode in my car, carrying extra weight, feeling out of shape and very bad about myself, my new revelation about my lack of connection with my body and it’s needs bounced around in my mind.
I ate. I ate frequently. I ate because I FELT like I needed to eat…. mentally. I ate because eating felt good, food tasted good, because I was craving a flavor, feeling stressed or bored and eating distracted me. I did not eat because I truly needed fuel. Food was something more than just nourishment for my body. Food was very much a part of my emotional life, and I used it to help me manage my feelings.
This was a huge wake up call for me. But despite the fact that this new information had come to me, old habits die hard. I continued on my emotional eating train for many more weeks, but the truth that I didn’t need to be eating kept tapping on my shoulder, reminding me that this wasn’t part of any solution that was going to get me feeling better about myself. Like a giant gorilla hanging on me, every time I stuffed things into my mouth, I could hear that ape jumping around
“But you’re not really hungry. This is why you are gaining weight. You don’t need that.”
Man, I hated that monkey.
Eventually, I grew weary of the mental battle between myself and the ape and decided to get back in touch with my hunger. I would wake up tomorrow and purposefully not eat breakfast and possibly lunch until I heard my stomach growl, until I felt the physical sensation of hunger. I would pay attention to what I was thinking and feeling, but until I heard the sound, no food. Now, you may be thinking that this sounds extreme. Perhaps it is. But it was what I needed to do to get back in touch with my body.
The experiment was a great lesson for me, helping me to understand how far out of touch with my hunger that I was. When I finally heard my stomach growl, I was already experiencing the long forgotten sensation of hunger. It is a physical sensation, deep in your core, a hollow and uncomfortable feeling. It is unmistakable. My stomach finally roared like a hungry bear.
When I was experiencing hunger, my thoughts were not my normal cravings thoughts, my thoughts were very much focused on my discomfort. On that day, prior to experiencing that sensation, mentally I had many feelings about eating, many thoughts about eating, and many cravings for food. I repeated this experiment for several days, at different times, making sure that I was in fact hungry before I ate. The volume of thoughts and cravings I had about food when I wasn’t truly hungry was astounding.
If I was listening only to my thoughts and cravings as the criteria for eating, it was no surprise that I was eating more than I needed and thus gaining weight. I also recognized the pattern that after eating something high in sugar or highly processed (snack foods, sweets, fast foods) that within an hour to two hours, I was thinking about food and eating again. The quality of my food (or lack of quality) was leading to blood sugar swings that were contributing to my cravings.
Being out of touch with true hunger and subjecting ourselves to extremes in blood sugar as a result of less than healthy food choices is a common component to undesired weight gain. It is a vicious cycle. It feeds on itself. You feel bad for being unfit. Your emotions get overwhelming. You think of food, something that would taste good, make you feel better. You eat the food (donuts, chips, ice cream, French fries, etc..) and then you feel full and your emotions are at bay for a moment. But then fairly quickly you feel bad about what you ate, and start mentally beating yourself up and telling yourself what a horrible person you are for having eaten like that. Meanwhile, your blood sugar has skyrocketed and your body dumps a ton of insulin out into your blood do deal with the sugar. And in about 2 hours your blood sugar plummets and you start craving food again. And this time, it’s worse because not only are you craving food because your blood sugar has bottomed out, but you are mentally stressed because you have been beating yourself up over the last meal or snack. Your emotions are even higher or more uncomfortable and you need to soothe yourself even more than you did before. And so the cycle keeps playing, over and over.
This cycle isn’t relate to hunger.
This cycle can be broken. You can shake the monkey… and find your inner bear. Get in touch with your real hunger again and start the process of learning to eat only when you are hungry today.
** None of the information on this site is intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor. Always seek the input of your medical provider regarding changes in diet and physical activity levels.