Hunger Reconsidered

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Hunger Reconsidered

“Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be aloneEverybody’s got a hungry heart
Everybody’s got a hungry heart”
— From Hungry Heart, Bruce Springsteen

One Saturday morning after I woke up I did my usual cardio exercise on the elliptical and then I had breakfast. Around 11:30 that morning I started to mow the grass, with the plan of taking a break for lunch around noon, and mowing the rest afterward. I accidentally mowed over an old tree stump, and the mower sputtered to a stop with a broken cutting blade. Frustrated and determined, I went to the store to get a new blade, and upon return got caught up in the installation. At one point I realized that I felt shaky, irritable, was losing my concentration and having a hard time finishing the repair. I was hungry. I’d been active all morning, gotten so caught up in work that it was now an hour past my planned lunch time. My body was telling me that it needed re-fueling.

For many compulsive eaters, the state of hunger is much more confusing. Sarah was upset when after a previous day of healthy eating and exercise she had not lost any weight the next morning. She was preoccupied with this, feeling hopeless, cheated, and like a failure. An hour after eating a balanced, filling lunch she felt an intense urge to eat, and went to her favorite Mexican restaurant for a second meal. This comforted her for a while until the guilt and self- recrimination surfaced.

My hunger was physical, Sarah’s was psychological. My lunch was functional, her “double lunch” was dysfunctional. Many individuals need strategies for differentiating physical and psychological hunger and for avoiding self-destructive eating episodes that can be the result of poor hunger management.

Tune In to the Hunger Continuum

True physical hunger, like the kind I felt when I skipped lunch, exists on a gradient ranging from extreme hunger to extreme fullness. The diagram below illustrates this continuum on a 7 point scale.

We are always on this scale somewhere, but our location will vary through the day. The brackets from 2.5 to 5.5 identify the “good enough” zone within which feelings of hunger will fluctuate for the normal or healthy eater. The idea is to develop an eating plan that keeps you in this zone. Eating too little will send you out of the zone to the left, eating too much will send you out to the right. Significant movement in the zone may mean it is time to eat (from 5 to 3); minor movements (5 to 4.5) suggest no action is necessary and you can wait till meal time. Internal eaters are able to intuitively rely on this signal system to determine when and how much to eat.External eaters may need to rely more on a meal and snack plan, perhaps written down, to keep them stable through the day. These different approaches are neither wrong nor right. It is not one size fits all, and most people are a mix of both systems.

Regulate Eating

Whether you are an internal or external eater, you want to establish a regimen for eating that will keep you in the good enough zone, avoid big swings, and support your long-term goals. This will have some, or all, of the following features:

  • Eat regularly and don’t skip meals.
  • Eat at predictable times, which trains your system to have mild dips in hunger around the time of a planned meal or snack.
  • Practice “volumetrics”—eat balanced meals with healthy and filling food choices.
  • Eat at a table. This breaks the conditioned hunger link you may have developed by eating on the couch, watching TV, at the computer, or in bed.
  • Eat mindfully. Slow down, attend to taste, texture, smells, bites, with pauses and breaths between them. Notice if there is any upward movement on the hunger/fullness scale.

Respect the Effect

Hunger can be influenced by a variety of factors that interfere with or confuse awareness of its true physical nature. Imagine you watched a video of what you learned from food and eating situations in your childhood. I suspect you will see that you learned to link many things to food that go far beyond eating for basic nourishment: comfort, reward, punishment, control, companionship, celebration, escape, freedom. At age five I accompanied my father to the bowling league on Saturday mornings. During break time I was treated to a hot soft pretzel and felt special. To this day pretzels are a food I will eat for comfort, driven by the emotionally rich memories I associate with them.

Before acting out an urge, ask yourself what result you are seeking and whether there is a more effective way to produce it. Deep breathing provides calming, a funny movie offers a mood shift, and neither results in mindless eating.

Heed the Need

Our life experiences can result in blocked awareness of legitimate needs. At age 8 John went through a period of having bad dreams and sought comfort from his parents. The response was “big boys like you should not cry.” He concluded that his need to be comforted was a sign of weakness, and grew to be an adult who used food to take care of himself rather than take the risk of reaching out. Marie was consoled with ice cream whenever she got sick as a child, and now when she feels lonely or vulnerable she is prone to bingeing on sweets. Bob likes to munch on chips and salsa after a bad day at work, finding that the crunchiness helps relieve stress and anger at his boss.

John, Bob and Marie provide examples of psychologically-driven hunger; their cravings represent legitimate underlying emotional needs for caring, comfort, and ventilation. Using food to meet these needs, however, is an illusory fix. These “hunger” moments need to be reconsidered: what is the real need and what strategy would be a more effective way to meet it? Leaning on others, assertiveness, meditation, physical activity, journaling are options for meeting these needs more directly and preventing binge behaviors.

Find A Better Way

Physical hunger is the body running on empty. It is not an ache in the soul. Knowing the difference and responding accordingly is vital to recovery. If you eat adequately to regulate your physical hunger, urges and cravings can be viewed as signals to respect the effect or heed the need. The lyrics of Springsteen’s song above remind us that certain needs are universal: for rest (soothing), home (belonging), and connection. They are at the heart of who we are. Our challenge is to recognize them and respond at the highest functional level. This frees us to trust and satisfy physical hunger, thus building the foundation for a healthy and respectful relationship with our body.

by Lee Kern
Reprinted with permission from ©2011 Gürze Books

About the Author:

Lee Kern, LCSW, is the Clinical Director at Structure House, a nationally recognized, psychologically based, residential weight control center in Durham, NC. He received a Masters of Social Work from the University of North Carolina and serves as an Adjunct Instructor for the UNC-CH School of Social Work. He is a regular contributing author to WLS Lifestyles Magazine, and has conducted studies and authored publications on successful weight management. In 2011 his articles were published in a collection calledLosing Lessons.

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