Rediscover the joy of eating.
Step 1: Get in touch with physical hunger.
Dieting teaches us to suppress, mask, and or avoid our physical hunger. Remember back to when you were dieting and how annoying hunger was? This natural biological signal tells your body that your blood sugar levels are low and that fuel is needed. The 70 billion dollar diet industry will sell you pills, potions, and plans to trick your body into eating less.
The truth is, we cannot trick our bodies for very long. It’s well established that dieting has a failure rate of over 95%. Any weight lost will ALWAYS return, and typically with a vengeance.
The data shows that weight cycling causes rebound weight GAIN over time with each ‘failed’ dieting attempt. Your body and your hunger are going to win in the end, so why not learn to work with the body instead of constantly fighting against it? To break out of the dieting cycle, we first must learn to connect with physical hunger.
What does hunger feel like in your body? How do you know if you are really hungry or just in the mood to eat?
Physical hunger typically feels like: stomach gurgling, feeling faint, low energy, slight headache, irritability, nausea, empty feelings, difficulty concentrating, sense of urgency that you must eat now or very soon.
There are other kinds of hunger, such as emotional and symbolic hunger that may pull you towards food, but these are not true physical hunger. Learning to distinguish between these different types of hunger is important, so you can feed each the appropriate nourishment.
The first step in mindful and intuitive eating is getting to know what hunger feels like in your body. This is the first step in developing body trust.
THE HUNGER SCALE
|Starving. Too hungry. Low energy/weak/irritable/anxious. Metabolism
slows way down. Eating in this zone will often
trigger overeating or binge eating.
|Very hungry. Uncomfortable/anxious. Metabolism also slows down and you are at risk of overeating.|
|Hungry. Preoccupied with food and eating. You want to eat immediately.|
|Hungry. The urge to eat is increasing but you don’t feel so anxious. You could wait but not too much longer than ~15 minutes. You could eat a meal here.|
|A little hungry. You could wait another 30 minutes. Could eat a snack.|
|Neutral. Not hungry and not full. You cannot feel food in your stomach. You could eat more here but you are also okay to stop. You just ate a snack.|
|Satisfied. Not hungry. You could eat more. You can sense food in your stomach but not too full. You body feels relaxed, safe and grounded here.|
|Comfortably full. You just ate a solid well-balanced meal. You may not feel hunger until 3 to 4 hours later. You body feels relaxed, safe and grounded here.|
|Very full. Moving into uncomfortable. Ate more than your body needed.|
|Uncomfortably full. You definitely over ate. You want to lie down and rest.|
|Overstuffed. Painful. You feel as if you ate the whole turkey at Thanksgiving.|
Helpful tips on hunger:
- “Hunger is the best seasoning.” Coined by Geneen Roth, an early non-diet adopter.
- You need the ‘green’ light (hunger) in order to detect and sense the ‘red’ light or your stopping point. If you start eating at a 0 or a 1, you will most likely overeat because you are making up for food that your body did not get earlier in the day. Ideal time to begin eating is at level 2 or a 3. The first few bites will taste absolutely wonderful when you start here.
- If you have a hard time gauging hunger, know that the body uses up its stored carbohydrate in the liver every three to six hours, so its best to not go longer than five hours without eating. This doesn’t apply when you are sleeping.
- When you are truly hungry, you will be thinking of food constantly, which might feel obsessive. This is a healthy obsession as it ensures the survival of our species.
- When you go out to a restaurant and something jumps out at you on the menu, order that. Try not to just get what you think is “healthy” and instead tune in to your body as it may be seeking certain nutrients from these subtle cravings. Choosing what you most want is also the quickest way to reach satisfaction with eating.
- If you doubt or wonder if you are hungry, chances are, you are not hungry.
- If you are standing in front of an open refrigerator, you are probably not hungry.
- Hunger can be unpredictable and inconvenient. Some days you may feel hungrier and eat more frequently and other days you will not feel as hungry. This is normal as hunger varies from day to day and from season to season.
- Hunger can also go ‘underground’ where the signal appears and if you cannot eat at that time, it will disappear for a while. It will return in an hour or so, but you will likely be at a lower number on the hunger scale.
- When you are hungry, it is much, much easier to eat mindfully. You will naturally want to focus on each and every bite of food and to eat with very little distractions other than noticing the taste of the food.
- The best reason to wait until you are at a 2 or 3 on the scale is that the food will taste amazing and be most pleasurable. And, this will allow you to hear your comfortable stopping point effortlessly.
- Remember, your body is designed to want to feel comfortable and not be in pain. Eating is naturally meant to bring us pleasure and our body wants to feel comfortably satisfied, not stuffed and uncomfortably full.
- Ask your body before eating: how do you want to feel after eating? In 20 minutes and 1 hour after eating?
- When you practice starting at a 2/3, and stopping at a 5/6/7, over time, your body will begin to prefer this sensation, which feels good/comfortable. This is how to restore self-trust with your body.
- It’s also important to avoid grazing throughout the day or frequent snacking, as this will not allow your true hunger to surface. Your body will tend to be at a 5 on the scale or higher if you graze or snack throughout the day. Develop the discipline of waiting for hunger to
- Some people who have a history of food restriction and deprivation find it difficult to notice hunger signals. They may have convinced themselves that they are not hungry. This is a dangerous game of mind over matter. Hunger is a strong biological signal that eventually will come back and usually it comes back wanting to collect from past deprivation. This creates a sense of rebound eating as the body remembers past deprivation. This can feel out of control for many people. These folks need to eat ‘by the clock’ – usually every three to five hours to recalibrate the cues and to normalize the metabolic rate.
- Chronic stress can also mask hunger. Stress hormones cause these signals to go ‘underground.’ Hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine cause the ‘fight’ or flight’ response to turn on. For some this presents as no appetite, and for others it may present itself as an increase in appetite.
- Sleep deprivation is another major problem that interferes with hunger and fullness cues.
Chronic sleep deprivation causes the hunger signal to go ‘underground’ and feel non-existent or feel erratic and or unpredictable. The hormones that govern appetite (leptin and ghrelin) become out of balance and this effect shows up as an increase in cravings. Often the cravings are for high carbohydrate foods usually in the afternoon or evening.
- If you are having a difficult time with feeling reliable hunger cues, the best way to recalibrate these signals is to eat breakfast. I know, such boring advice, but it works. If your hunger is silenced and or your stress levels are too high to feel hunger cues, the best way to get them back to normal is to eat in a structured and mechanical way. Start with breakfast, or eating within the first one to two hours of waking up.
- When you eat, notice the pace and speed of your eating.
- Do you inhale your food? Or, do you linger with each bite?
- Do you eat “on the go,” or, in your car?
- Do you eat standing up in front of the refrigerator?
- Do you eat in front of the TV or computer?
- Are you scrolling on social media while you eat?
- Where are YOU when you are eating? Notice where your mind wanders.
- At your next meal or snack, make a note of the following things: what you ate, where you ate the food (standing up or sitting in front of TV).
- Next, put your fork down in between bites and describe the food as if you have never eaten it before.
- Next, notice ANY judgments or pleasant or unpleasant thoughts?
- What was this exercise like for you? Did you discover anything new?
- What am I feeling right now?
- What do I want to feel right now?
- What is it that I truly need right now?
surface between meals. This can be hard for some in the beginning of this journey especially if you are recovering from deprivation dieting. You’ll want to reassure yourself that you will always have access to wholesome nourishing food whenever hunger surfaces.
Question: What if I don’t feel hungry?
If you have a history of dieting, then your natural physical hunger has gone underground as a protection against starvation. Dieting also teaches you to numb and suppress your hunger. Maybe you have learned to mask your hunger with diet sodas, teas, chew-
ing gum, etc.; this confuses the body into thinking it’s not hungry.
Try to cut back on filling up with tea, water, and diet sodas in between meals. Also, chewing gum too much can interfere with hunger signals as well.
Step #2: Slow Down…
One of the first steps in becoming an intuitive and mindful eater is to SLOW way DOWN with your eating. One of the best reasons to slow down with your eating is not to get yourself to eat less, but rather to get yourself to pay attention and enjoy food more.
To begin this process, take an inventory of how you eat now.
Exercises to help you slow down your eating.
Hit the Pause button: One way to disconnect quickly from the automatic mindless eating cycle, is by imagining a ‘pause’ button; this can help you to slow down instantly.
In order to do this successfully, it will take setting an intention to do this exercise. Before you sit down to eat, tell yourself, “I am going to hit the pause button in between bites.” Without setting this as an intention before you eat, it’s quite challenging to disconnect from mindless eating. Once you pick up your fork, it’s very easy to slip into eating oblivion, and before you know it, you’re in the vortex of hand to-mouth eating.
Most of us also were raised by well-intentioned parents that might have told us to eat everything on our plate, because there are starving kids in X foreign country. With this conditioning, most of us are lifetime members of ‘CleanYour-Plate-Club.’ While I don’t advocate wasting food in general, it’s important to respect our bodies with regard to feeling overly- full, and that might mean leaving or ‘wasting’ food on your plate at times. (To avoid waste: bring a doggie bag home!)
Remember, the best reason to slow down with eating is to enjoy the food more, not to trick yourself into eating less.
When we deliberately slow down and pay attention, the eating experience is immensely more relaxed and satisfying. We’ve all heard that it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to recognize fullness. Mindlessly eating on autopilot too fast causes us to lose connection to our body’s self-regulatory system, often resulting in overeating and sometimes discomfort in the body. Slowing down while eating allows these signals to surface so we can more easily gauge the right amount our bodies need to feel comfortably full.
Practices to interrupt mindless eating.
Put your fork down in between bites. Chew and finish swallowing what’s in your mouth before moving on to the next bite. Try this with finger foods, e.g., sandwich.
Eat with your non-dominant hand. It sounds funny and feels even funnier to do, but this practice really helps retrain your brain and interrupts patterns quickly. The awkwardness of this behavior creates new neural networks in your brain to re-train you to slow down. This is a challenging exercise for most everyone! By deliberately slowing down, you will derive so much more pleasure with eating, and you will feel so much more relaxed around food.
Sit down whenever you eat anything- every bite, lick and chew (if you can)! There may be some exceptions to this, but for the most part, try to sit when you eat. Sitting grounds your body into your experience with eating on every level: digestion is enhanced,
metabolism is supported, absorption of nutrients is optimized and so on. Also, when you sit and eat, you are without question more connected to how the food tastes, which allows you to derive more pleasure, as well as hear your stopping point of satisfaction.
Step #3: Eat Without Distractions.
When you eat, turn off the television, the computer AND put your phone away. Consider eating some meals in silence. This is quite difficult for most people to do, and for some it might feel impossible (if you are very new to this process or if you have an active eating disorder). If it is too daunting or impractical to eat in silence, begin first by making a cup of tea and drinking for a few minutes in silence. Just begin this practice, as challenging as it is in the beginning, over time, you may come to discover you prefer eating with as little distractions as possible.
Remember whenever you eat unconsciously and with lots of distractions you only deprive yourself of the total pleasure of the food experience. You get all the calories and none of the fun. Eating is designed to be emotionally and physically satisfying. Imagine eating your favorite ice cream right out of the pint as you watch your favorite show. The first few bites are probably pretty tasty but at some point, you begin to notice the taste of the ice cream less, and before you know it, your spoon hits the bottom of the carton, gone! How did that happen? At this point, your body registers ‘full’, but emotionally you might feel like you only ate half the pint because that’s about all you noticed and enjoyed. For some, this might leave them feeling unsatisfied and seeking more.
It’s true that after about 10 bites of some foods, we experience the law of diminishing returns. This means that after about 10 bites of ice cream, the food will begin to taste like sweet cardboard. Even if the ice cream doesn’t taste as good, most of us will not notice this subtle difference, and will keep eating out of habit or unconsciously. You will however, need to eat more than 10 bites of all the food combined on your plate to reach satisfaction or comfortable
fullness in your body! Get enough to eat! Do not turn intuitive eating into the ‘Hunger/Fullness Diet!’ Restriction/deprivation always leads to desire to eat more!
Step #4: Engage Your Senses: Pay attention to the overall experience of eating.
How does the food taste beyond the judgments of ‘good’/’bad,’ ‘healthy’/’unhealthy’? Next time you eat anything, pretend as if you are eating it for the first time. Use descriptive words: Is the oatmeal sweet, sour, biter or salty? Is it bland, spicy, rich, or light? What temperature is it? Hot, cold or room temperature? What is the texture like? Is it creamy, greasy, juicy, chewy, hard, smooth?
Before taking a bite, smell the food and notice your reactions. Does it trigger a memory or evoke an emotional response? Next, take inventory on how fast or slow you eat and chew before you swallow? What’s it like to slow down and not race through the meal?
Slowing down will help you to engage all of your senses so that you can really begin to feel more in control with eating.
Really try to savor what you are eating by radically and intentionally noticing all the tastes, textures, flavors, and aromas.
Engaging all of your senses brings you more pleasure and satisfaction with eating.
Exercises to get you started now:
Step #5: Eat Food you Love Without Judgment.
Give yourself permission to eat your favorite foods again! Avoidance always leads to more cravings of the foods you really want to eat. As humans, we are hardwired to want what we can’t have. Right? It’s also the same phenomena of, ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant!’ or the forbidden fruit syndrome. The forbidden fruit is going to become elevated in desirability = we think we want it more. Naturally, when this food is placed in front of us, and we are hungry, we are more likely than not to go overboard and over indulge. Makes sense, right? Especially, if diet mentality is telling us that tomorrow we will be “good” and start over.
Sometimes, we choose foods because we think they are ‘healthy’ or ‘clean’ or lower calorie. Sometimes, this might be okay and feel in alignment with our body’s needs. At other times, we are only choosing these foods because our judgment mind is telling us to do so.
Maybe the inner critic or food police is yelling: ‘You can only eat a salad tonight since you didn’t work out today!’ Choosing foods from this place often backfires and leaves us feeling deprived and unsatisfied. And, as you can probably guess, this will be a set up to eat MORE (later on)….
So, it’s vital to distinguish between what your mouth wants to eat, and what your body wants to eat.
Sometimes the mouth is reacting and wants to overeat on chocolate, but the body most of the time does not want this experience.
Remember the body likes to live in a state of balance and comfort.
If we struggle with this step, then we are still in the grips of the diet mentality. The diet mentality is insidious in our culture and trains us to categorize foods in moralistic good/bad categories. When food is viewed in this light, this causes our inner rebel to step in and want to break some rules. This is a classic example of the restrict–binge–dieting cycle.
You’re being “good” on your diet, but then you go to a birthday party, slip and eat some cake and end up feeling so guilty, that you tell yourself, ‘screw it, the damage is done, so might as well keep going…’ You know how this cycle goes; it leads to feeling out of control with food and back into the restrict-binge cycle.
It’s time to reject the diet mentality and begin to make peace with all foods. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat ALL foods again, and you will eventually break out of this painful cycle.
Also, to let go of dieting, you must give yourself permission to EAT ENOUGH. Any hint of future restriction or deprivation will continue to get you trapped in the “restrict-binge-guilt” cycle of eating. Restriction causes overeating and for some folks, binge eating. EAT ENOUGH!
Step #6: Learn how to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger.
Underlying emotions, such as fear and anxiety, can also drive mindless over or under eating. Oftentimes, we may not even know what we are feeling at the moment as we grab another
cookie to mask or numb some underlying feeling.
While this behavior might seem crazy or irrational on the surface, it’s actually a creative way to cope and take care of ourselves. Using food to cope with emotions works to numb and or sooth from underlying feelings that are too difficult to name, face or feel. So, while using food to cope ‘works’, it only works short term. The essential pain (underneath the pain of over or under eating) will resurface again. What you resist persists.
When food is used to cope, we cannot get to the real issue that needs to be addressed. Using decoding exercises, we can begin to decipher the symbolic language of the foods craved, so that you can discover your true emotional and spiritual hunger hidden in the food. As you discover other things you crave in your life that don’t involve food, you’ll find new ways to better satisfy those needs, and the food cravings will diminish without the use of ‘will power’ or other external control measures.
When food is no longer forbidden or ‘the enemy,’ then we can begin to get more curious about why we are craving specific foods.
Food cravings can be a direct route to learning about our emotional state and what we need to feel satisfied and fulfilled in our lives.
We begin to discover the foods we crave are speaking to us and for us. When we begin the process of listening and decoding these symbolic food hungers, the information can be quite revealing. Some foods craved can be a direct route to express certain feelings. For example, someone craving ice cream might be attempting to soothe and cool their anxiety. Cravings for crunchy, salty foods are often associated with the need to express frustration and release the tension of anger in some area of one’s life. Cravings for sweet foods may indicate a longing for more sweetness in life. For many women, chocolate represents images of love or forbidden sexuality. Cravings for spicy foods might indicate the need for more spice and excitement in one’s life.
Get curious about your unique food cravings; they may be a powerful way to reveal underlying feelings and unmet intrinsic needs. Food is merely the vehicle for transmission of these messages. When you’re not hungry and you start to crave ice cream, chips, or chocolate, then we know that the food is holding an emotional charge and deeper meaning.
Your food cravings are letting you know that your heart or soul hunger needs to be fed.
Get curious about these cravings as clues to feed your emotional and spiritual hunger.
Ask yourself these 3 questions anytime you want to eat and are NOT physically hungry.
If you can identify how you want to feel and what you might actually need (other than food), then this is a first step in breaking out of the cycle of emotional or non hunger eating. Anytime you have a craving, this is a great chance to slow down and ask yourself these three questions. If you can begin to bring more awareness to how you want to feel, you can begin to meet your needs in ways that are more sustaining than emotional eating.
In addition to decoding food cravings, take some time to identify other ways you can feed and nourish yourself that don’t involve food. Set an intention to bring back more of these into your life. Make a list of activities, experiences and things that feed your soul. Some examples might be to make a vision board of places you want to travel, or a trip to the Farmers market, a hot bath, or playing music, spending time with friends and so on. There are so many ways that we can feed and nourish ourselves to bring more joy and balance into our lives. Finding other ways to fill us up beyond food will ultimately liberate us from this struggle.
Step #7: Self-compassion: Befriend your Inner Critic.
When you feel out of control or out of balance with your eating, then you are likely battling with negative thoughts and or emotions. Diet culture encourages black/white, good/bad thinking patterns in matters of food and body. This way of thinking is problematic because it doesn’t allow room for the gray that happens with real life. Black/white, good/bad thinking with dieting is a set up for disappointment. You must only eat the ‘good/safe’ foods and if you have a slip and eat ‘bad’ then you have ‘failed.’ Thinking this way about our food and our bodies leaves no room for changes that happen from real life experiences. If things don’t go the ‘right’ way, then diet mentality leads to a profound sense of failure, disappointment and negative self-talk. And the result is negative moods and self-esteem.
Intuitive and mindful eating provides a more compassionate, realistic and forgiving way to work with hunger, food cravings and our bodies. The first step to unravel from negative thinking is to cultivate curiosity; come from a place of curiosity, instead of judgment.
Befriend your inner critic with curiosity…
Perhaps you are already aware of multiple voices in your head that yell at you everyday. These voices feel critical and compare yourself to other people. You may believe you are not good enough, or that you will always struggle with food and body image. Some of these voices include: your inner perfectionist, your inner food police, and your inner critic.
These voices can be loud and seem impossible to turn off. So, how do we befriend these parts of ourselves? Is it even possible? The short answer is, yes. And it begins with curiosity and meditation. Start with a simple 2-minute meditation practice. Meditation helps settle and quiet the mind, creating space around these inner voices. When we do this inner listening through
meditation, we may discover that our thoughts are actually trying to protect us. These voices carry useful information, but when they become too powerful or overwhelming, their potential for destruction outweighs their intent to protect us and we suffer.
When we practice mindful eating, we may hear the inner critic yell, “You should eat less.” Identifying this voice is the first step. Hearing these voices cultivates awareness and awareness is the key to awakening. Believing these voices to be true is the problem. An essential aspect of mindfulness is to see through these voices, to not get caught up and fooled into believing them as truth. These thoughts are driven by fear, and fear always distorts clarity and reality. The critic is not telling you THE TRUTH. The mind constantly produces many thoughts throughout your day, and it’s up to us to determine which ones are true, and which ones are not true, (fears). Meditation will allow you to unhook from your thoughts so that you do NOT identify with all of your thoughts as TRUTH.
If meditation sounds intimidating or too overwhelming, that’s a normal response. I encourage you to start small and do just 2 to 5 minutes to start. Use apps like Headspace or Insight timer. This is one practice that does get easier with time and repetition, and has tremendous benefits in helping you to become an intuitive and mindful eater. Also, yoga is an example of a movement based meditation that is incredibly effective at helping you to access this place of stillness and the ability to unhook from the inner chatter or monkey mind.
Developing self-compassion takes a lifetime of practice. Start by noticing how you talk to yourself, and see if you could talk to yourself differently, more kinder, as if you were talking to a good friend. You probably wouldn’t be so hard on your best friend for re-learning how to eat, right?! So, why not cut yourself the same slack?
When you begin to learn and practice mindful and intuitive eating skills, such as slowing down with eating or eating formally forbidden foods, be gentle with yourself as you re-learn this new way of relating with yourself. Be kind. Be patient. It takes lots of practice and repetition to replace your negative self-talk. It might feel strange at first, but over time, your compassionate voice will grow stronger and eventually crowd out the negative voice.
A great exercise to create more positive self-talk is to make a gratitude list. Expressing gratitude is a powerful way to move from negativity to positivity. Examples: “I am grateful for the strong body I have, which gets me to yoga.” Or, “I am proud that I have the courage to reject dieting.”
Be encouraging to yourself, as you have made it this far. You have decided to end the war on hating your body and becoming kinder with yourself. Shifting from negative self-talk to positive affirming self-talk happens with repetition and with intention. Connect with how it feels to talk to yourself with a kinder, more compassionate way. It feels way better than the harsh voice of the critic. And, hopefully by now, you have come to realize that you deserve and are worthy of kindness and compassion towards yourself!