Have you ever thought to think about what prompts you to start or stop eating?
Is it thoughts about it being lunch “time”? Or maybe that it’s been 3 hours since you last ate? Do you stop eating because you are satisfied or is it because you think you shouldn’t eat any more?
When was the last time you ate a meal and stopped eating when your body told you to?
It’s very common for those who eat emotionally to feel challenged by knowing how much or when to eat. In fact, most of our society is a bit screwed up by this (so please know that this isn’t something unique to you – it’s not your fault)! Let’s examine some of the social cues and eating rules that we’ve come to use day in, day out that override and confuse the physical cues that we already have in our body.
First, know that no matter what your current relationship or feelings around food, you were born with a body and mind that worked together that helped you determine when to eat, what to eat and how much to eat.
If you’ve ever spent time around babies or small children and watched them eat, you’ve probably noticed that they don’t care what time of day or night it is, and they don’t measure out controlled portions of food. They don’t concern themselves with whether they’re eating too many carbs or fat. They eat when they feel hunger and they stop when they’ve had enough. They don’t overeat and they don’t worry about overeating. They respond to physical cues and sensations that are in their bodies that tell them it’s time to start or stop eating. They also have the amazing ability to communicate this need to the adults that care for them so that they can get what their little bodies need.
You have this ability inside of you still. I promise you do.
And the reason you may feel like you don’t is because of the way we handle mealtimes in our culture.
What went wrong isn’t that you “can’t control yourself around food”, it’s that you live in a society that dictates that you have to eat 3 square meals a day at 8am, 12pm and 5pm (or close to it). You have been trained to eat at roughly those times of day whether you are hungry or not because group meal times are a convenient and somewhat necessary practice of a productive society. Because of these regulated meal times we lose the ability to feel WHEN it is time to eat in our bodies. If you went to daycare or kindergarten, your first induction to group meal times likely happened there and it was probably a bit of an adjustment period (“snack time” in these little ones classrooms give young ones time to get used to more rigorously scheduled eating times than they probably had at home).
What went wrong is that we live in a society that has convinced us all that food is “dangerous”. It’s either dangerous because of how it’s produced (GMO, pesticides, factory-farming, antibiotic resistance, overly processed etc), dangerous because of it’s nutritional content (it’s too high in fat, too high in carbs, not enough protein, too high in calories etc) or it’s dangerous because it tastes good and we won’t be able to stop eating it. All of this “danger” means we can’t be trusted to make good choices about food on our own. So with the “help” of our government (remember the food pyramid recommendations? Lobbyists have helped to shape those recommendations more than science), well meaning doctors and dietitians, and profit hungry companies who saw an opportunity to get rich, we have come to rely on food labels, food scales, measuring cups, calories, point systems and more to tell our bodies how much to eat. We learned that we can’t trust our bodies to tell us HOW MUCH to eat and over time we had to ignore those hunger and fullness signals in place of portioned out and rigidly controlled food until we no longer knew what those sensations feel like.
What went wrong is that we live in a culture that encourages confusion, nutritional science studies can’t agree on what is actually healthy. Complicating things even more is if you look into who paid for many food studies, you’ll find some interesting conflicts of interest, such as in this summer’s coconut oil is bad study. Every food or macronutrient at one time gets hailed as miracle cure or made out to be a villain. Remember how huge kale was for awhile?? Then people heard about oxalates and kidney stones and the excitement went away. We listen to all the conflicting advice, we jump on bandwagons for awhile, find out the science was “wrong” get stuck and confused and don’t know where to turn until the next food panacea shows up. And the cycle continues.
I talk to a lot of women who say they don’t know what to eat anymore. They don’t know who to listen to for real and accurate information. They are making themselves sick over worrying about what to eat. This is no way to live.
We can’t change the way our culture handles food quickly. It’s something that is going to be running in the background silently (or not so silently) for a very long time, until more of us than not decide to do things differently.
If you want to reclaim your own natural hunger and fullness cues and you want to feel more sure of your decisions around food, then I recommend you start tuning out what everyone else says you should do (this includes me!) and start listening to yourself!
Here are a few ways you can begin to reawaken and connect with those cues you already have in your body:
- When it’s an option, eat meal times without distractions. Don’t watch TV, read or look at your phone while eating. Try to take in your food not just with your mouth but with all your senses. Doing this helps our brain interpret signals from the stomach and recognize when it’s had enough. You’ll also eat slower and will get more enjoyment out of your food.
- Play around with the times of day and how much you eat. Explore having smaller or larger meals and then not eating again until you notice pangs of hunger in your body. Note where you feel it and what it feels like. Note how much food you have to consume to make the hunger quiet down again. How much do you have to eat to feel satisfied? And where does fullness and too full come into the picture? What feels best? Play this game often until you are an expert in your own hunger and fullness signals.
- Do the same thing with what types of food you eat. Notice how different textures taste and feel. Of the foods you like, what is it that you like about them? And what is it that you don’t like about foods you don’t like? Is it texture? Flavor? Bitterness? Or how it feels once it reaches your belly? Notice if some foods make you feel more energetic than others. Perhaps some make you feel comfort and others anxiety. Explore it all and be relaxed about it. Be Curious and take notes!
- Walk away from calorie counter and diet apps. Scary at first, I know. But practice not using them. They’re not helping you tune into your body.
- Do all of this without judgement about yourself. You’re not bad if you ate “too much”. You’re not good if you experience hunger frequently. You’re just a human who is trying to make their way in this world and food is not about morality. View these experiences as an internship where you are learning about your particular body’s needs for the first time.
- Don’t worry about whether a food is “healthy” or “unhealthy”. All foods can be part of a nutritious diet (and healthy people eat all sorts of things). Use your best instincts (you smarter than you know) and aim for eating a wide variety of foods and include foods that you love. Tell other people to mind their own business if they put their own food beliefs on you.
You’re the best guide you’ll ever have. Listen and trust yourself and your judgement. It’s in the listening to everyone and everything else that got us into this confusion with food. You’ll find freedom in the expertise of being you.