Monthly Archives: October 2016

“Why Am I Mentally Hungry?” Or Why Your Brain Keeps Telling You to Eat When You’re not Physically Hungry

Can't stop thinking about food? Feeling mentally hungry all the time? 3 Causes of Mental Hunger

Can’t stop thinking about food? Feeling mentally hungry all the time? 3 Causes of Mental Hunger

Every so often I get an email or Facebook message from someone asking “why am I so mentally hungry when I’m not physically hungry?”. I’m not sure if it’s because the weather has turned colder (and we all feel a pull to eat more in the fall!) or if it’s just coincidence but I’ve had 3 really similar questions about this in the last 10 days, so I thought I should answer it here – since clearly this is something a lot of people are having trouble with!

Examples of Mental Hunger:

Mental hunger = That gnawing urge or desire to eat something when you know you aren’t hungry or that non stop chatter in your brain telling you that you need to eat a specific thing.

I have one woman who finds herself thinking of going to the vending machine in her work cafeteria an hour after lunch. She tries to ignore thoughts about this, because she can feel her belly physically still has food in it, but the urge to get up and go get a snack keeps pulling at her.

Another acquaintance is trying to lose body fat for an upcoming event and has been on a strict diet for several months. She has a certain amount of calories she allows herself each day and feels like she is eating enough. She says she doesn’t feel hungry on this diet but she is having a hard time staying under her calorie goal lately because even though she technically isn’t feeling hunger in her body, her mind keeps telling her to eat. Every day is a battle between staying under those calories or giving in to thoughts about cookies, crackers and donuts!

I also received a message from someone who is going through a tough time in several areas of her life. One area that normally isn’t a problem for her is food but lately her weight feels like it’s skyrocketing because she finds herself eating in front of the TV, while she’s cooking dinner, in her car – everywhere and anywhere. She’s always feeling the urge to eat, even when she isn’t really hungry.

The circumstances are all slightly different but the reasons we feel “mentally” hungry are almost always the same. There are 3 reasons I see over and over again. Do you see yourself in any of these?

 

3 Causes of Mental Hunger

 

You’re physically depriving yourself of food too often

This happens when you have been on a diet for a long time, have frequently been on diets in your lifetime or a general tendency to restrict food intake even when not actively on a diet.

The body keeps diligent track of how much food it’s getting, if it’s getting the right nutrients and if it has enough energy and fat stores to get through periods of difficulty. As much as we may want to be a certain size or body fat percentage, our body puts our general survival and health as a major priority and it sees depleting fat stores as a threat to our safety.

It thinks famine is here and in order to survive a period where less food is available, it will do whatever it can to get you to eat when food is available, in order to offset any fat / weight you would lose during a time of famine. In this way, your body is actually trying to help you! If you have been dieting or restricting for awhile and your mind is really working hard to get you to eat more, it’s technically doing it’s job. It’s working exactly the way it is supposed to.

You are emotionally hungry.

We tend to call this urge to eat mental hunger because the source of it seems to come from our brain. It’s the non stop thoughts we have about food or an unconscious pull to get up and go to the fridge but for a big portion of us, it’s not so much mental as it is emotional.

Everything in life “feeds” us in some way (if you want more info on this, check out this post). Our job, social life, home life, creative life and lots more contribute to how well rounded and satisfied we are with our life. If there is an area of your life where you are not emotionally satisfied, you may turn to food to fill that void or need.  If there is an area of our life that isn’t “nourished” well, we will feel “off” or like something is missing (even if we can’t identify initially what that is) and we turn to food to “fill” that space up.

How is your job/career going? Is it fulfilling or soul crushing? Somewhere in between? How is your social life? Full or lacking? Romantic life? Spiritual life? Do you have creative outlets? Time for self-care? Physical activity/stress relief? Do you feel that you have purpose? Do you feel you are giving back in some way? etc.

Analyze your life a little. What is missing? Why do you feel restless? What do you want more of? Less of? And then try to “feed” those areas so that they’re more balanced, more satisfied. Eating emotionally will happen less and less as you find your soul is getting the nourishment it needs in multiple areas.

 

There are feelings you are trying to avoid feeling

No one likes to feel uncomfortable but uncomfortable feelings are a part of life but some of us will whatever we can to avoid them! Uncomfortable feelings like discomfort, confusion, sadness, loneliness, anger and shame get stuffed down and pushed away. As a way to deal with them, we may use food as a distraction or to seek comfort. If we are eating, it gives us something to do or makes us feel temporarily positive feelings that help us avoid the negative feelings we were feeling.  That repetitive urge to eat that we refer to as mental hunger is really our way of trying to ignore something we are feeling that we don’t want to feel.

To complicate matters further, we don’t even know how to feel uncomfortable feelings. When one arises, what do you feel? Panic? Anxiety? Confusion? Restlessness? All of the above? And then what happens? You reach for food because not only do you not want to feel what you’re feeling – you also aren’t sure what the heck to do with it! We think we need to take action on it somehow, but that’s not really necessary. Sometimes feelings just need to be felt.

We avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings (and not knowing what to do with them) by numbing out with food. Eating food temporarily brings us comfort and sometimes even joy – for a few minutes we can avoid the feelings we were having and feel something better. But these feelings will keep coming back up, and the urge to eat will keep coming back as long as we don’t let the feelings we have run their course. We can’t outrun our feelings. They have to come out! If you need more info on feeling your feelings, read this post or this one.

Does one of these causes of mental hunger seem to be appearing in your life? If you’re not sure or if you want help working on your own relationship with food, let’s talk. Honestly. Openly. Confidentially.


Like this? For more, download your free copy of Healthy Eating Shouldnt Be a Workout:  Real Life Strategies to Take the Confusion Out of Healthy Living (includes recipes, snack and meal ideas, ways to save money and more!).

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This is How You Respond with Love When You Overeat

How to respond with love when you overeat.

How to respond with love when you overeat.

Responding with love after an overeating episode.

How do we do that?

Last week I wrote a post on how the way that we respond to ourselves when old eating habits resurface can make a big difference in how often we overeat. I talked about how there are two ways you can respond – either with love or with shame, disgust and guilt and that responding the more familiar, negative way is the sure way to find yourself rooting around the pantry again. Responding with love can help these kind of overeating episodes become less frequent and less damaging over time.

So let’s talk about what responding with love actually looks like!

If you’re like me, you like lots of information when you are trying something new. Information, details and answers make you feel safe or like you’re on the right track. But I also have a tendency to overcomplicate things with my need for details (haha! If you’re like me you probably get that too!) so I’m not going to do that to you today! I’m going to give you the info you need but not so much that it makes you feel paralyzed or stuck in taking action.

Responding with love each time you overeat doesn’t have to be a huge, complicated process. It can just be something you do, naturally, simply and normally.

If we go into this by only focusing on giving ourselves love when we eat in a way we aren’t happy with, it’s going to feel like an uphill battle. So with that in mind, the way you respond with love in your overeating episodes is to respond with love every time you eat.

Each time you eat, whether it’s a normal meal, overeating, under eating, a binge, a diet, a snack say thank you. If you’re eating a salad, a steak, a cup cake, a whole sleeve of Ritz crackers, say thank you. Every day. Every meal. Every bite.

Thank your body for receiving the food.

Thank it for digesting it.

Thank your teeth, saliva, your tongue for chewing it so that you can digest it.

Thank your body for retrieving the energy and valuable nutrients from the food that it needs so that you can live your life.

Thank your body for giving you feelings of comfort and satisfaction and safety after a meal.

Tell your body your love her. For no reason other than you are present with her now. Thank you, I love you. Thank you, I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Get in the habit of sending her adoration and gratitude at every opportunity.

It might feel silly at first.

You might feel conceited.

But it’s not conceit. It’s not pride. It’s one small, gentle, non-threatening way you can show yourself love.

We already are really good at saying thank you. From an early age we are taught and trained to say please and thank you. Saying thank you in response to certain situations becomes automatic. We want to show respect and be polite. We want to acknowledge the thoughtfulness and kindnesses others show to us. Why can’t we do the same for ourselves? Isn’t our body deserving of the same pleasantries? Literally everything we are able to do in life happens because we have a functioning, breathing, thinking body. And eating and processing food is a part of all that. Thank your body so often for it’s daily gifts that your positive response will become automatic (just like it is when someone holds the door open for you).

Your digestion will be better. Your body will absorb more nutrients from the food you eat. Your general outlook will be better. You may not even recognize why but it’s because you’re connecting with and acknowledging the role your body plays in your world.

If this feels crazy silly to you, you could also try saying a form of “grace” before you eat or after you eat. Instead of (or in addition to) a prayer to God or your higher power for providing the food you are eating, you could pause for a moment and to yourself (or out loud if you wish) say:

“Dear Body, I thank for all the work you will undergo so that I can eat this food and digest this meal. Thank you for making it so the nutrients in this food allow me to have a productive and satisfying day. Thank you for giving me energy today. I love you for all that you do, all that you are and exactly as you are right now.”

Alter that as you wish. What does your body want to hear? What does she do for you every day that you are grateful for? How is she worthy and deserving of your love? And will you try giving it to her so that it becomes easier to give it to yourself?

So now you know how to respond with love to your eating episodes. Will you try it?


Like this? For more, download your free copy of Healthy Eating Shouldnt Be a Workout:  Real Life Strategies to Take the Confusion Out of Healthy Living (includes recipes, snack and meal ideas, ways to save money and more!).

Need help with your own eating struggles? Let’s talk.

Why Old Eating Habits Keep Coming Back and How Your Response Can Reduce Their Frequency

Things were going so well. So why do you find yourself picking at junk in the pantry or eating when everyone else has gone to bed? And what can we do about it?

Things were going so well. So why do you find yourself picking at junk in the pantry or eating when everyone else has gone to bed? And what can we do about it?

Sometimes I am just going along in my day to day life and everything seems good, only to find myself staring in the pantry wanting something that isn’t there.

The pantry is filled with plenty of food and I’m not actually hungry, but there is something I want in there. And even though with every available brain cell, I know that the want I am feeling comes from something other than food and that responsible present day Andrea would walk away from the pantry and go think or write about her feelings and what might be causing the need to fill it up with food, and if I did that, I wouldn’t even want something in the pantry anymore. But there is another Andrea from my past who appears and says “Hey, shhhh, don’t listen to her! You listen to her all the time! What about us? We used to have so much fun together! Let’s eat like old times – just this once! I promise I’ll leave you alone if you just give me big two handfuls of trail mix and half a bag of popcorn. I swear!” Sometimes I let past Andrea in for a bit. Not for very long – but just long enough to have me go “Why am I eating this?”.

Old eating stuff is going to come up from time to time, no matter how long you’ve been at this healing process.

But why is it coming up? And what’s the best way to handle it?

These eating episodes are a little annoying but I handle it much differently than I would have in the past and that is the difference between still being in an unhealthy place and being a normal human being with an challenging eating past.

The women I work with have this struggle too. They confess to overeating at dinner, to choosing a cupcake over an apple when they wanted a snack, to still having small binges occasionally when they’ve had a rotten day. They know they have tools to turn it around, to choose something different and most of the time they do, but sometimes they may even want to give in to the old desire and they think that this means something has gone terribly wrong in their journey – that they are WRONG for these things to be happening in their eating life or wrong for wanting to eat this way sometimes.

Nothing has gone wrong. In fact, I don’t think you can truly make progress in healing the relationship you have with food without having some screw ups along the way. If you never get to test a skill out, how do you know if you’ve really mastered it? If you’re training to be a pilot but have never actually flown a plane, I don’t want to get in a plane you are flying. Learning is one thing, gaining lots of experience is another!

One of the biggest indicators of progress is in how we handle ourselves when things don’t go the way we planned them to. When our old habits resurface (and they will), do we roll over and say “I give up! I failed!” or do we dust ourselves off and keep moving forward? Do we shame ourselves for making a mistake or do we remind ourselves that we are human and aren’t expected to be perfect?

Old eating habits (overeating, restricting, bingeing, emotional eating etc) will reappear in your life. That is a given. So why do they keep reappearing? We’ll get into that below. I’ll also tell you how you can respond so that they happen less and less.

When and why do old eating habits reappear?

Old habits resurface when we stop being so vigilant or we stop paying close attention to eating. When we start to feel confident that we know how to do this now, we know how to eat mindfully or intuitively. We start to want to be “lazy”  – paying close attention to every bite we eat, and the sensations in our body, as well as why we’re eating etc is a lot of emotional work and sometimes we just want to go on autopilot. Don’t feel bad about this desire to be “lazy”, it’s actually the way our brains are designed to function. Your brain want things to be as efficient as possible so it can use energy on more important things so it’s going to try to make you choose actions that feel automatic over things that feel difficult. Remind yourself that “being present” eventually won’t feel like work if you continue to choose it daily. Your brain will start to see that as the “easier” response. And yes, it takes a long time but it will get a little easier.

Old habits also will pop up when we’re stressed out. New job, new baby, moving, worries about your kids or parents, illness, anxiety disorders etc. Anything that causes you to feel stressed or having a lack of control over your life can mean you will look for ways to comfort yourself and relieve stress. For those of us with a history of overeating or emotional eating, turning to food might be your first reaction, even if you’ve been doing really well. That habit is wired in your brain through lots of neural pathways and while you are building new ones every time you choose to do things differently, it will be a long while until those old pathways are no longer dominant and the “easier” route. We can’t undo decades worth of repetition in just a few months. Under periods of stress, our brains want to conserve our energy to deal with whatever crisis you are going through, so it’s going to choose the path of least resistance, and old, reliable paths that don’t require any thinking will win almost every time (that’s why we find ourselves grazing in the pantry and hardly even remember making a decision to do that).

Old habits will appear when we’re sick, tired, bored, PMS’ing or even overwhelmed. We don’t necessarily have to be going through a crisis or feeling lazy to find food starts to feel like a problem again. The level of self control we have at our disposal changes based on what else is going on in our lives. I know that when I get sick, I am more emotional and I want to wallow or indulge in feeling crappy. I know that probably sounds strange, but it’s the truth! When I get into a place where I want to “indulge in feeling crappy” I will turn to food. If I feel like crap when I’m sick, eating crappily or eating too much in general will make me feel worse and for some reason it feels justified. It’s ironic, because I know that eating well when I’m sick will actually contribute to me feeling better in general much quicker, but sometimes I have an emotional brat in me who wants to come out and she’ll take advantage when she knows I’m down. Maybe you can’t fathom overeating when you’re sick (most people aren’t even interested in food then!), maybe for you it’s when you’re feeling lonely, have a lot on your plate or are generally just exhausted. In any of these situations, our guard is down, we’re occupied by something other than being present and taking good care of ourselves (which in all honesty is most of the time, right??) and that means there’s an opportunity for less than desireable eating behaviors to show up.

Old eating habits can show up anytime. You probably read the above scenarios and go, okay, I see why they come back up when I’m busy paying attention to something other than my thoughts and actions around eating. That makes perfect sense. But what about when I’m going along in life and things seem pretty ok and suddenly I find myself in my car eating a bunch of cookies? Slightly stale ones at that. They weren’t even that good, but I couldn’t stop. I eventually had to get out of the car and toss the rest of the package in a garbage can in front of the store before driving home because I knew that if the rest of the cookies stayed with me, they would have ended up in my belly which was already stuffed to the brim. Sound familiar? Maybe your slip up happens in your kitchen at night when everyone else is asleep or maybe it happens when you’re out to dinner with friends, in full view, you eat twice as much as you know you need.

Even though things are going well, we can still have “blips” in our progress. Self-sabotage is real. Some of us can’t handle for things to go well and we will do whatever we can to mess it up, so that if it does go badly, we can say “see! it wasn’t meant to be!”. Deprivation is another reason this stuff will keep coming back. You think you’re eating mindfully, thoughtfully. You think you are eating what you desire and also eating nutritiously, but deep in the back of your mind are a whole bunch of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” and you’ve listened to the “shouldn’ts” a few too many times and now all you can think about is those damn cookies. And also, sometimes a little overeating is a normal part of life – yes, normal.

Slip ups, mistakes, old habits are inevitable. We’re human. There’s nothing you can do to stop the occasional overeating hiccup from appearing. No matter how “good” you are, no matter how rigorous you’ve been in applying all you’ve learned about habit change, you will still find yourself making food choices sometimes that could bring up old feelings of shame, guilt, disgust or make you want to take drastic habits. There’s no avoiding this part.

But here’s what you can do about it:

You can choose how you respond when it happens.

There are really only two options.

Option 1

Respond with the old familiar ways – feel shame, disgust, guilt. Beat yourself up. Tell yourself how gross you are, how foolish you are, how undisciplined you are. Make this eating choice mean all possible terrible things you’ve ever thought about yourself. Remind yourself that this is why you aren’t getting farther in life, that this is why you are single, that this is why you don’t have more opportunities in life. This is the source of every problem you’ve ever had. Let this one moment in eating turn into more years of pain, sadness and despair.

Option 2

Respond with love. Remember ultimately WHY you are eating like this in the first place. You are trying to bring yourself comfort. You are trying to give yourself a kindness when you aren’t feeling any elsewhere. You are just trying to feel love. Let the few hours of physical discomfort be just that. Let any feelings of shame, disgust or guilt float on by. Remind yourself that you are not bad or gross for eating something. Accept that this was just one small choice and it’s in the past now. It does not mean anything. Respond to yourself the same way you would to a crying child (you are eating this way because a part of you is crying inside in some way – answer that cry with LOVE). You are just a person, trying to do her best, with the way she knows how in this particular moment. Let this one moment in eating just be that, one moment of eating.

One of these will make it a lot easier for overeating, bingeing to come back over and over again. One of them will make your eating life remain an uphill climb. And the other, while it may feel harder at first, will make your long term success more likely. It will make these episodes less frequent. Which will you choose?

I hope you choose love. Responding with love and letting go of the urge to shame yourself can be challenging at first, but do it over and over again and not only will it feel easier, it will start to feel good and you will see your “mistakes” as no big deal in the scheme of things. This makes moving forward so much easier. When this happens, you will truly have made progress – your backtracking and slip ups will happen less and less, and when they do happen, you will have the tools necessary to get out of it and get on with your life.

It’s just love. The very thing you are looking for when you eat, is the thing you need to get out of here, and you already have it inside of you. Practice using it on yourself and you will cultivate more of it in your life.

Do you find old eating habits reappear in your life from time to time? How do you choose to respond to these episodes? What benefits does that choice bring you?

What is Normal Eating? (What Normal Eating Looks Like and What it Doesn’t)

Is eating food for pleasure normal? Is it normal to overeat? Find out the answer to these questions in today's post!

Is eating food for pleasure normal? Is it normal to overeat? Find out the answer to these questions in today’s post!

If you have a complicated relationship with food, you may have noticed that you tend to fall into some sort of extreme, at least most of the time. You may overeat for weeks at a time, only to find yourself trying to “make up” for those extra calories by undereating and overexercising in the weeks following. You may eat super “healthy” for long stretches of time only to have it backfire and lead to binge eating spurts.

You might find yourself having a lot of black and white thinking around food or needing to control your food intake very strictly. Other people making food for you might stress you out or not having access to foods that you feel “safe” with might cause stress for you.

If any of this sounds like you and you are trying to go from a disordered relationship with food to a more natural or normal one, you may find that you feel a little rigid about what you think that is. Since our relationship with food has been very strict or extreme, we tend to want to attack “normal” eating the same way.

But normal eating is anything but rigid, strict or extreme. It’s actually the opposite.

Normal eating is:

  • occasionally eating more than our bodies need.
  • occasionally eating less than our bodies need.
  • eating for pleasure.
  • eating just because something tastes or looks really good.
  • eating because we are hungry.
  • eating sometimes because we are bored, tired or having a rough day.
  • eating food that you desire.
  • eating foods that give you energy.
  • eating until you’ve had enough.
  • eating nutritious foods and also less nutritious foods sometimes.
  • not judgemental or very rigid.
  • flexible and adaptive to day, the seasons, your schedule, environment and mood.
  • permissive. You can eat whatever you want or need and nothing is off limits.
  • not full of shoulds or shouldn’ts.
  • listening to and eating according to your fullness and hunger signals on a regular basis (but sometimes overriding them).

I know this can be confusing, right? On one hand, we hear that overeating and emotional eating are problems (and I even work with the population who struggles with these things). Or that undereating is a cause for concern. Or that we shouldn’t eat whatever we want whenever we want.

The difference between “normal” and abnormal eating

The difference between “normal” and abnormal or disordered eating from my perspective (remember I am not a therapist and do not give out medical advice) is in what we make this stuff mean (for example: “I am a bad person for eating this.”, “I am going to get fat from eating that ice cream.” etc) or the frequency with with we engage in these behaviors and thoughts. Overeating or undereating occasionally is not a problem. Doing those same things daily or for long periods of time (or bouncing back and forth between the two in extreme ways) is likely an issue. Inflexibility is another hint that something is off. It is not normal eating if you refuse to eat before you know the amount of calories in something. It can be normal to want to eat nutritious food most of the time but it’s not normal to never be willing to eat something that isn’t 100% for nutrition.

Another clue that eating strays from normal is if we have any physical or mental health issues developing because of our eating habits. Also, our own perception is a big clue to whether it’s normal or abnormal (though there are lots of people with eating issues who are unaware that they are doing anything abnormal). Does it “feel” like your eating is not normal? Do you find you think too much about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” eat? Do you make judgements about yourself if you eat too fullness or eat junk food? Does eating make you feel stress? Do you avoid social situations where food may be involved?

It’s entirely normal to sometimes overeat and sometimes eat for emotional reasons but when you find yourself always doing it or responding to it with harsh measures of retaliation it has entered disordered territory. Eating for pleasure is wonderful and a completely normal part of life but when eating becomes your sole pleasure in life or you don’t allow yourself to eat pleasurable food, it can be an issue. As a side note, you don’t have to be diagnosed with an eating disorder to have an unhealthy relationship with food or to not be eating normally. There is a huge spectrum of what is normal and what isn’t.

A final note if you want to work on eating normally:  Be cautious about labeling food or yourself as good or bad based on what, why and how you eat. Watch out for guilt, shame, rules, judgements or retaliative measures about eating – they never lead anywhere good! Be wary about how much of your thoughts or energy go towards thinking about food. It’s one thing to plan healthy meals to make your week easier, it’s another thing to obsess over it or freak out if you have to get take out one night. It’s one thing to look forward to a delicious upcoming meal, it’s another thing to have it be all you can think about.

You are supremely knowledgeable about your own body and her needs. Believe this! If you feel like you are really far removed from knowing what is “normal” eating anymore, let’s hop on the phone (schedule a discovery call with me here). Coaching a helpful and non-threatening way to explore what is going on in your life, find out your motivations and make lifestyle changes with judgement free support (all in a way that helps you get back to listening to yourself!).