What is ''Normal Eating''? --Part 3

Do you often feel like your weight loss efforts are a constant battle, with as many defeats as victories? Are you plagued by frequent cravings when you stick to your diet, and by guilt or shame when you don’t? Do you even remember what real hunger feels like? How much time do you spend thinking about food, counting calories, and worrying about your weight—enough to think that something is seriously “wrong” with you?

If these examples sound like you, then you're probably still living in a “diet" mentality. With this mentality (and its narrow focus on numerical results), you are fighting against the very thing that can help you lose weight without all the suffering and distress—your own hunger. Furthermore, the tools and strategies that can actually help you succeed (nutritional knowledge, calorie counting, self-discipline) become transformed into weapons of self-defeat.

This article is the third in a series that describes "normal" and abnormal eating habits. (Part one looked at some of the basic characteristics of normal eating. Part two contained a checklist of behaviors often associated with disordered eating.) This article will explore mindful eating, an alternative approach that can help you turn around the problems described above. It involves learning to recognize, respect, and respond to your hunger, and making conscious, purposeful decisions about eating in the moment, not just before or after the fact.

The Roots of Mindful Eating: Paying Attention to Your Hunger

Hunger describes the escalating, physiological sensations you experience when your body actually needs food: rumbling, unpleasant stomach contractions (hunger pangs), mild lightheadedness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, faintness, and headaches. For most people who regularly eat a balanced diet with adequate calories, hunger will set in about four hours after the last meal, and will escalate after about five hours.

Feelings of fullness or satiety will occur when your stomach reaches a certain level of fullness (about 75% of its maximum capacity). These sensations also escalate from mild fullness, to "stuffed" to bloated and uncomfortable. Even if your stomach is nearly full, you may want to continue eating for a couple of reasons. One—it can take up to 20 minutes for your brain to receive the signal that your stomach is full and for the brain to send the “stop eating” signals to you. And two, eating feels good!

Dieting doesn’t work for many people because it doesn’t offer anything you can actually use in the moment, when deciding what, when, and how much to eat. In that moment, success or failure at achieving permanent weight loss is determined. Making good choices in the moment requires three skills:
  1. the ability to recognize your innate hunger and satiety signals;
  2. the ability to distinguish between hunger, appetite (preferences, habits, tastes), and impulse;
  3. the ability to stay grounded in your self and your goals so that it is you making the decisions—not hunger, appetite, impulses, or your diet rules.

Getting In Touch With Your Hunger & Satiety Signals

If you’ve been overeating and/or dieting for any length of time, you are probably out of touch with your hunger and satiety signals. Here’s a 7-day experiment that will help you find out where you stand and how to get back in touch with the "natural resources" of hunger and satiety.

Step 1: Organize Your Eating
Using the low end of your calorie range, divide those calories into a good breakfast, a moderate lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, a good dinner, and a small evening snack (optional). Plan your meals and snacks for each day in advance, so your calories and nutrients balance out for each meal and for the day as a whole. Schedule your eating so that you wait no less than four hours and no more than 6 hours between your meals. (Your snack can be scheduled anytime want it.) Stop eating at least two hours before bedtime. You will NOT weigh-in during the entire experiment.

Step 2: Stick to This Plan—No Matter What
No extra eating, no skipped meals, no excuses. If you go “off-plan,” don’t scrap the whole experiment. Just describe what happened in your journal (see below) and keep going. You need to give yourself a chance to experience true hunger so that you’ll know what that feels like; and you need to stick to the schedule so you can determine whether you eat out of hunger or other reasons. Don’t plan to do this experiment during a week when you know things are going to be crazy or unusual.

Step 3: Keep an Accurate, Detailed Food Journal
Note how you feel before and after each meal, including physical sensations (especially the hunger and satiety signals described above) and emotional reactions. If you feel like eating more or eating between meals, decide not to. Make a deal with yourself to wait 30 minutes, and then find out whether you still feel like eating. True hunger will stick around until it is satisfied whereas other “reasons” for eating will come and go. Describe how you feel when you stick to the plan and when you don’t. Either way, you will learn a lot about the differences between hunger, appetite, and emotional eating by simply observing yourself, your reactions, and the effects.

Step 4: Draw Your Conclusions
If you spent a lot of time feeling the physical sensations of hunger, it’s safe to assume you weren’t getting enough food. You may want to repeat the experiment for a few days at a higher caloric intake, until you find the level where you only experience hunger four to five hours after your last meal. If your desire to eat outside of your plan was due to anxiety, emotional discomfort, resentment or boredom, you can use your journal to identify the situations, thoughts, and feelings that triggered the urge to eat and find ways to manage them without turning to food.

Understand that by making it through this week-long experiment, you’re already on your way to learning to eat mindfully. You used your food management skills to get in touch with your hunger—not to replace it—and you used the temptations and difficulties you faced as opportunities to observe yourself in action, and use that learning to move towards your goals.

Even if you weren't perfect, each simple act of observing yourself in the present is itself a moment of being mindful. This observation of yourself from a distance gives you the ability to be the choice-maker, instead of the passive victim of your own feelings, impulses, and appetite. Every time you succeed at maintaining that perspective you make it easier to do it the next time.

If you had major difficulty sticking to the experiment, you may want to make it a long-term project, using the techniques above to gradually sort out whatever is causing you problems and refine your problem-solving skills. Long-term problems with emotional eating and/or a disconnection from your own internal signals can’t be overcome in a single week. But moving towards mindful eating at your own pace may still be your best bet.