We all know what it’s like to feel hunger. It’s the number one bête noire of dieters. We hate feeling hungry: it’s embarrassing when our stomach growls in front of others and it’s just generally uncomfortable. We are told repeatedly that hunger is our body’s way of telling us it needs fuel so when we feel hungry, we should eat!
The problem is that we program our bodies to expect food at certain times of the day. (I usually think of this as “snack memory ” or “meal memory.”) This is why we tend to feel hungry at certain times during the day: our body is remembering that this is when it’s normally fed and it’s expecting to be fed again. This is why on days when we’ve been really active, we feel like we’ve “worked up an appetite” for lunch or dinner. On those occasions, our body most likely really needs fuel, while on most days, the hunger we feel is meal memory. Our bodies are also programmed to feel hungry when we smell food: our digestive system is preparing to go to work since “food is in the air.” Even though we may have just eaten, we feel hungry again because something smells good!
This is one of the biggest problems people have when they try intuitive eating (eating when your body needs fuel rather than eating according to the clock.) My body routinely told me it’s hungry about 3:30 every afternoon because that is when I am most likely to eat a snack on my way home. Why do I eat the snack? Because my body tells me it’s hungry. But it’s only telling me it’s hungry because this is when I usually have a snack. Hmmm. Notice the circular reasoning there? It took me a while to figure it out, but if I don’t eat a snack at 3:30 every afternoon, usually in about 20 minutes or so, I stop being hungry. My stomach realizes “gee, no one is feeding me so I guess I need to move on.” This is how we learn the difference between snack memory and real hunger. Real hunger just intensifies the longer you go unfed. Your stomach goes from sending a mild hunger signal to growling noisily and really making you uncomfortable: You need fuel, buddy! Once you learn the difference between the two, it’s easier to dismiss the hunger pangs of snack memory vs the real hunger of your body needs to refuel.
Once we do decide to eat, most of fall prey to the number two bête noire of dieters: eating too much. There’s a lag time between when the food hits the stomach and when the brain recognizes that we’ve refueled. The stomach sends a signal via hormones to the brain that enough food is in the tank, and the brain responds by turning off the ghrelin hunger hormone. The problem is that lag time is about twenty minutes or so and by the time we realize “hey, I’m not hungry anymore,” our stomach is full (sometimes painfully full!) and we’ve usually eaten too much. We are so used to the full stomach being the signal that we’ve had enough to eat instead of the feeling of being satisfied. This usually happens because portion sizes in modern society are way out of line with what our bodies need and secondly, because most of us don’t monitor our appetite while we are eating. A lot of us grew up with the mentality that we eat what’s on our plate. When mom and dad were feeding us, that was okay, because they usually gave us appropriate amounts, but at restaurants, what’s on our plate can be as much as two servings or more. I remember once at a fancy four star restaurant in Anaheim, my sister, our friend and I all ordered the same dinner and were each served two large chops, a huge mound of garlic mashed potatoes, and a mound of broccoli in addition to the a small loaf of bread and about a half pound of butter already set on table. It was enough for six people! We could have easily ordered two of those meals, had enough to eat and still taken some home. As it was, a lot of the food went to waste since there wasn’t a refrigerator in our motel room.
Once we know what the problem is, the solution is pretty easy. When we do sit down to eat, if we are eating at home, serve yourself the appropriate portion sizes. If you aren’t sure about the portion size, there are a lot of databases that can help you with that (I like My Fitness Pal). If you go out to eat, then remind yourself that it’s normal and expected to leave food on your plate. Just ask for a box or bag to bring it home. It’s also okay to split meals or dishes with your friends. When I go to my friend’s favorite burger place, we usually split the “individual” size garlic fries because the “regular” size feeds a family of four (no kidding). While you are eating, whether at home or out, take a short pause about halfway through your meal. If you are out with friends, just pause and chat a little bit. At home, since it’s just me and my pets, I usually have my veggies first while my meat is cooking, and by the time I’m done with those, I serve the meat and judge my hunger from there. Usually I only fix one serving at a time and if I need to put some in the fridge, it’s okay too.
As a culture, we have gotten used to “eating our fill,” which is one of the reasons Western societies are so obese. By the time we realize we are full, we have eaten too much, and yes, our stomach does stretch out so it takes more and more to fill us up and we keep getting bigger and bigger. It’s one of the comments we hear a lot on My 600 lb Life: “I don’t ever get full!” and I’ve heard Dr. Nowzaradan make similar comments when he performs their bypasses: “His stomach is so large, it’s impossible to get full.” Being full is not a good thing, but, like eating when we are not hungry, it’s a habit we can unlearn. We need to re-learn what it feels like to satisfy our hunger and eat until we recognize that feeling rather than eating until our plate is empty or our stomach is full. It takes a little practice, just like learning to tell the difference between real hunger and “time to eat.” Both of these seem like insignificant details, but they’re the devils that keep tripping us up when we try to lose weight. Learning to sidestep both these little devils will put us a lot farther down the path we want to go!