Recognising genuine hunger

In my programme I encourage you to eat only when you’re hungry. Sounds simple but as you probably know, this is actually quite a tricky instruction.

The more I work in this area, the more I realise just how complicated it is to eat when hungry, particularly in a society which surrounds us with appetising food and bombards us with exhortations to eat.

I have written previously about research showing that our hunger hormones are affected by our beliefs. So, if you think you’ve had the “low fat” milkshake, your brain may “tell” you to be hungry, even though you’ve actually had enough to eat. So, are you hungry or not? You may feel hungry and (because of the hormones) you are biochemically hungry, but do you really need to eat? Probably not!

I’ve also blogged about research on rats where they were “trained” to eat a certain food when a coloured light was flashed. Initially they were fed the specific food (when hungry) in the presence of the light. After a while, they would eat that food in the presence of the light, even if they had just eaten their fill. They were not strictly speaking “hungry” at all, but something was motivating them to eat. We can’t be sure what it felt like to the rats, but it looks like a human craving.

Research in people has shown similar results – food becomes paired with “cues” such as having a cup of tea, passing a certain shop, getting on the train, going to the cinema, etc. and after a while you eat in response to the cue rather than “genuine” hunger. You may not even be consciously aware of the cue (in fact you almost certainly aren’t).  The urge to eat in response to one of these cues might feel like hunger or it might feel more like a craving. The cue may affect the hormones that make you hungry, so it is very hard to tell if you are “genuinely” hungry or not.

I’ve also noticed a tendency of people on my programme to eat “just in case”.  It’s as if there may be a famine around the corner and the next meal is uncertain. I think this comes from a combination of previous dieting, pressure to eat-up in childhood and just a general human tendency to err on the side of caution where hunger is concerned! (My friends and I picked up a dose of this attitude when travelling, even though it was totally unjustified since you can actually get food in foreign countries! )

I’ve realised that my advice to  “eat when you are hungry” can even make this pre-emptive eating worse. I want you to eat when you’re genuinely hungry, but sometimes it’s very hard to tell, and the cues we’ve talked about above can make you feel kind-of-hungry.  If you train your brain to expect to get fed in response to every little twinge, you will probably end up over-eating.

So what’s the answer?

There clearly isn’t a simple answer. I have to say that those clients who listen to the hypnotherapy CD regularly do seem to get the urge to eat less.  It’s clear that the unconscious mind is hugely influential in all this, and the hypnotherapy CD talks directly to it.  (It even worked on me – after I recorded the CD I found I couldn’t over-eat even if I wanted to! It was as if I hypnotised myself while recording it)

My suggestions:

  • Play around with letting yourself get a bit hungrier, just as an experiment.  Often it’s not so bad, and you may realise that you are consistently eating just a bit too soon. (All the advice on having to eat breakfast, etc, is being questioned at the moment.) 
  • Notice your “trained eating cues”.  Are there things that advertisers, your parents or just life circumstances have trained you into taking as a cue to eat? You may even feel “hungry” in response to these cues.  See if you can wait a while before you eat, rather than responding in drooling Pavlovian style.  This will start to “untrain” the response.
  • Notice if you feel the urge to eat a specific food. If you fancy something in particular (and wouldn’t want to eat something solid or boring) you may be responding to a cue that isn’t really hunger. If you’re genuinely hungry, you should be happy to eat pretty much anything edible!
  • Start to observe how things like portion size, plate size, company, room temperature, alcohol, etc affect how much you eat. If you can manipulate your environment to make it easier not to over-eat, why not do it?
  • Beware of foods high in sugar, particularly if they also contain salt and fat (and this includes most junk food). These foods seem to have a special effect on the brain which makes them very good training aids for the food companies! Your brain finds them rewarding even when you’re not hungry.

The book “The End of Overeating” by David Kessler includes more information on this research.




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