You know that old joke about being on the Seafood Diet? I see food and then I want to eat it. Last time in the Health Doesn’t Weight series, we talked about what a balanced meal looks like and checking in with your stomach 3 or 4 hours after eating one to see if you’re hungry enough to eat again. The key part of this is that you recognize when you’re hungry. Do you know what that feels like?
Sounds simple enough, and you might be rolling your eyes saying “Of course I know what that feels like. Duh!” Many of us have lost this skill because we’ve gotten used to following diet plans that tell us what and how much to eat, or we’ve gotten used to that almost constant hunger while on a diet. I was in that second group and could ignore it like a champ until the first bite of something yummy. Then all bets were off.
You might have to relearn what normal hunger feels like to figure out how often and how much you need to eat. How do you learn the signs of hunger and fullness? A good place to begin is to eat regularly which means every 3 to 6 hours, even if you don’t think you’re hungry. Try starting with breakfast, lunch and dinner along with a snack, but figure out what works best for you along the way as you improve on recognizing your hunger and fullness.
As a guide to knowing what hunger feels like, check and see how you feel 3 to 4 hours after eating a balanced meal. You should be feeling slightly hungry and wanting to eat, but not shaky or like you want to attack anything edible that’s put in front of you. Ideally you should eat something when your hunger is between around a 5 or 6 on a hunger scale – 1 being not hungry at all and 10 being ready to eat your arm.
I strongly recommend eating within an hour or two of waking up. Most nights you’re probably sleeping 7 – 8 hours (Yes, I know there are exceptions and To Do Lists to get done) so it’s probably been more than 6 hours since your last meal. In the beginning, eat a small balanced meal shortly after you get up even if you aren’t hungry. It doesn’t have to be a massive omelet with all the trimmings but get a small protein and carb meal down.
Your body has interesting mechanisms in place to prevent starvation and unfortunately it can’t always tell the difference between waiting a long time for a meal and actual famine situations. It’s programmed when hungry to eat as much as possible to prepare for the next lull between calories. Binges and overeating often happen because we waited too long between meals. You may not feel hungry until you start to eat, then your appetite goes into overdrive at the first taste of food.
That’s your brain controlling you to make sure that your body has enough calories. Eating a small breakfast as well as regular meals during the day can help to prevent this from happening. Your body will gradually adjust to an eating schedule as your hunger regulates. Once you begin to eat breakfast in the morning, you’ll find you will start to wake up hungry for the morning meal. This is a good thing because it means you’re recognizing when you’re hungry!
Learn to listen to your body. Tune in to your natural internal cues to hunger like a rumbling stomach, not external cues such as seeing or smelling food. If you weren’t hungry before you walked in the breakroom and saw the plate of sandwiches from someone’s meeting, you probably aren’t hungry. If you want a specific food and don’t feel like eating anything else, you probably aren’t hungry. True hunger makes you want any meal, not a specific food item.
If you are really physically hungry and it’s been a while since your last meal, do not fill up on water, diet soda, or coffee to stave it off — eat something! That’s your body trying to tell you it needs food. Ignoring your hunger signals will lead to uncontrolled eating or overeating later on to make up for it and then some. It will also keep you in the habit of ignoring instead of recognizing your hunger signals.
When you’re truly hungry, eat enough so that you feel satisfied and stop. Don’t eat the amount that you think you should or even a set amount at each meal. Eat whatever amount you need to feel satisfied and learn to stop when you are comfortably full, not stuffed. The amount will vary based on the time of day, what you’re eating, how you’re feeling, and so on and won’t always be the same.
You’ll have times as you put this into practice that you eat too much and feel too full. Recognize that and use it to help you next time before you get to that point. Figuring out your own signals of hunger and fullness may take some experimentation along with adjustment mentally to this thinking. Your body is the best guide for how much you need to eat.
As you go through this process, you’ll learn how it feels to be hungry, full, and uncomfortably full along with figuring out what works best for you. You’ll be able to change your eating patterns and start to eat when your body is telling you it’s hungry and feel energized after eating instead of like a Thanksgiving turkey in need of a nap. It will take a little bit to get used to mentally and physically just like any new habit.
Once you know how to recognize when you’re hungry, you can start to focus on changing your tastes for foods and making healthier choices when you do eat. Baby steps! 🙂