Years of yo-yo dieting and a disordered relationship with food makes it difficult to hear your body's hunger and fullness signals. Learn the strategies to help tune in to your body's hunger and fullness cues so you can better nourish your body.
Most people have a bit of diet advice they heard as a teenager that they still attempt to follow as adults. I'm no different. Luckily, the advice that sticks out to me didn't come from a fad diet, although it did come from YM Magazine...not exactly a reliable source. Despite that, it's stood the test of time, and a nutrition degree.
In middle school, I read an interview with Natalie Portman (still love her!). When asked how she stays in shape, she replied "I eat when I'm hungry. I stop eating when I'm full. That's it."
I was struck by it's simplicity, practicality, and how it flew in the face of all the other messages telling me that deprivation was the key. It's a message I still practice today, and something I frequently share with my clients.
If you're a chronic dieter or have any history of disordered eating, it's likely there have been times when you've ignored hunger signals, telling yourself "Nope, the diet says I can't!" Or conversely, there have been times you felt full, but kept eating, thinking "Well, I already screwed up, so I might as well eat it all while I can." Over time, these mixed messages can dull hunger and fullness cues. Emotions can also make identifying hunger and fullness cues more complex than it would seem. Is that hunger, or is it boredom or sadness or anger or exhaustion?
Does this sound familiar? Here are the three strategies I use with my clients to help them tune back into hunger and fullness cues:
1. THE HUNGER SCALE
Extreme hunger and fullness are pretty easy to identify, but the in between part can be difficult. Understanding the subtle differences and less extreme shifts in hunger and fullness is important, because otherwise we wind up living in the extremes, which can feel super uncomfortable both physically and mentally.
To learn how these subtle shifts feel, become familiar with the hunger and fullness scale below. Before taking a bite of food, rank your hunger on a scale of 1-10, 1 being famished, 10 being post-Thanksgiving dinner stuffed. When you've eaten about half of your plate, check in with yourself and rank your hunger again. Check in again after eating, and again about 30 minutes later. Over time, you'll begin to notice the slight differences in hunger levels. You'll also start to pick up on how much food it takes for you to feel satisfied for different levels of hunger.
2. PHYSICAL VS EMOTIONAL
When relearning hunger and fullness cues, it can be difficult to identify when these cues are driven by a physical or emotional need. I want to be clear that either way, it's absolutely okay to eat! However, learning to identify the difference can be key to taking better care of yourself, especially since we know that so much of the diet cycle is tied up in our emotions and how we feel about ourselves!
Although hunger can feel slightly different for different people, there are some common characteristics of physical and emotional hunger. Physical hunger is usually comes on gradually, is felt in the body (stomach growling, low energy, headache, hangry, etc...), and can be satisfied at least temporarily by almost any food. Emotional hunger generally comes on rapidly, often following a strong emotional trigger. There is often a craving for a specific food, and may feel like food isn't satisfying no matter how much you eat or how long it's been since you last ate.
On the flip side, emotional and physical fullness can be confusing to navigate as well. If you're coming out of a diet cycle or disordered eating pattern, you likely aren't used to eating enough to really meet your needs and keep you full. This may cause you to feel physically full before you have eaten what your body needs. Additionally, there may be a lot of shame and anxiety tied up in eating more than what you're used to. These emotions can easily lead to a false sense of satiety.
Checking in with yourself before, during, and after a meal to see where you're at both physically and emotionally can be super helpful in relearning your hunger and fullness cues!
3. WHAT'S FUELING YOUR HUNGER?
Again, eating in response to emotion is never wrong! Emotional eating often gets a bad rep, but in reality it's just another coping skill used to handle strong emotions! The problem, like with any other coping skill, comes when we only have one skill in our self care toolbox to handle such emotions! But before we can even get to the point of making a choice to cope with emotions using food or not, it's helpful to be able to identify what we're feeling and what's really fueling our hunger!
Some of the most common triggers for the desire to eat include:
- Negative emotions: Are you eating to dull or distract from a negative emotion such as depression, sadness, or anxiety?
- Positive emotions: Are you eating to enhance a positive emotion such as joy or pleasure?
- Smell: Are you eating because a food smells particularly good?
- Visually appealing: Do you want it because it looks pretty?
- Social: Do you want to eat because someone else is eating it?
- Procrastination: Are you eating to avoid doing something else?
- Low energy: Are you eating for an energy boost?
Practicing these strategies regularly makes it easier to tune into your bodies hunger and fullness cues. It takes time, but it's possible!
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