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Beginning to Eat Mindfully

In this episode of the Mindful Eating series we are going to look at your relationship with hunger. In an ideal world, we can recognise when we are hungry and we can trust this feeling as a cue to start eating. After a while, we will feel full and use this as a cue to stop. It sounds so simple but, for many of us, the relationship between hunger and eating becomes confused as an unhelpful relationship between food and emotions takes priority.

What is Hunger?

Hunger, when it is working correctly, is a physiological sensation, whereby your body utilises a complex, biological process involving various hormones, neural signals, and metabolic factors to let your brain know what it needs to maintain energy and perform the thousands of intricate tasks that are essential for your survival.

Hunger is primarily regulated by the hypothalamus, a region in the brain responsible for controlling many body functions, including appetite. The hypothalamus receives signals from hormones like ghrelin (the 'hunger hormone'), leptin (the 'satiety hormone'), and others like insulin, glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), peptide YY (PYY), and cholecystokinin (CCK). When your energy is low, ghrelin levels rise, stimulating hunger and letting you know it's time to eat. Conversely, when you have sufficient energy, leptin and other satiety hormones are released, giving you a feeling of fullness.

Hunger vs Emotion

For many people, the neat and efficient system described above breaks down when food becomes tied to emotion and self-worth. Instead of eating being triggered by a rise in ghrelin, and it's associated physiological cues, a number of other cues become the primary triggers, including:

  • Anger

  • Boredom

  • Shame

  • Ambition

It is easy to become desensitised to your body's hunger cues and to cease trusting it to tell us when we need sustenance and when we don't. Calorie controlled diets involve prioritising numbers on a spreadsheet over your own brain in an attempt at quickly achieving a desired bodyweight. Ignoring your body's hunger cues can have consequences for your health, including an increase in cravings, caused by your body producing the neuropeptide Y (NPY), which stimulates carbohydrate cravings. So by declining to eat a healthy meal when your body asks for it, you may find yourself reaching for an unhealthy snack.

The takeaway here is that it doesn't make long-term sense to fight your body's physiology. People are always going to want to lose weight but mindful eating suggests a way to maintain a healthy weight without sending your body into a cascade of consequences that may result in overeating and all the emotional baggage that comes with it.

Beginning to Eat Mindfully

Here is an exercise that will help you to begin cultivating a mindful approach to eating. As with most mindfulness exercises, it is very simple. The risk here is that simple is confused with easy. Mindfulness isn't easy or quick; it takes time and practice, just like any skill.

So, the next time you go to eat something, stop and ask yourself: "Why am I going to eat this? What is it I need right now?" Try to check in with your body and ascertain whether you are actually feeling hunger, or something else. If you conclude that you are hungry then go right ahead and eat. In later exercises we'll start to look at 'how' and 'what' you eat.

For now we are just concerned with 'why' and, if the 'why' isn't that you are hungry then there is probably some other need which needs to be addressed but for which you are substituting food. If not hunger, ask yourself:

  • Am I tired?

  • Am I bored?

  • Am I lonely?

  • Am I acting out a habit?

The most difficult part of this exercise is almost certainly remembering to actually do it before you eat. If you find that it is hard to remember, you could try putting a post-it note on your fridge with a gentle reminder to yourself. Try to choose a word or phrase that doesn't cause resentment when you read it. Some of my clients opt for a simple question mark to trigger the question.

You might find that you are surprised by how many times you ask the question and discover that hunger is not what is actually motivating you. And every time you do this, whether you find that you are hungry or not, you are strengthening your connection to your body's hunger cues. One of the most important things to remember when doing this exercise is to leave judgement and recrimination out of it. It's fine that you're going to forget sometimes and it's fine if you just don't feel like it. Try to focus on the times that you are able to do it and congratulate yourself each time.

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