One of the biggest challenges for people trying to lose weight is what to do when they feel like eating but aren’t hungry. That’s the reason people are overweight—because they don’t eat in response to their hunger and fullness signals.
They eat because someone brought pastries or pizza to work, because they’re upset about something someone did or didn’t do, or for entertainment. There are at least a thousand reasons why people choose to eat that have absolutely nothing to do with their body’s need for food.
I’m a weight loss coach for foodies, and because diets don’t work, I take a different approach. If you want to lose weight without dieting or depriving yourself of the foods you love, it is essential to get in touch with your body’s hunger signals and only eat in response to them. You see, when you eat when you aren’t hungry, your body stores that energy as fat. That’s how you gain weight.
And don’t say, “But I’m eating healthy food!” You can overeat healthy food. I know. I did it for years.
Most of us experience two kinds of hunger. “Body hunger” is when your body needs food for energy. It’s the kind of hunger you feel in your belly. It produces hunger pangs, a hollow feeling or even lightheadedness or mild headaches. When our body gives us that physical hunger signal, we should respond by eating.
Then there is that urge to eat for any other reason. I call that “head hunger.” This signal doesn’t come from your belly. It comes from habits developed to use food to fix things it can’t fix. Like to be your friend when you’re lonely. That kind of thing.
A good clue that you’re experiencing head hunger is when you aren’t sure what you want to eat, or you definitely crave something like crunchy or sweet foods. If you’re not sure, ask yourself whether a cup of plain yogurt or a banana would do the trick. If you only want something exciting to eat, you probably aren’t experiencing body hunger.
All this means that to lose weight, you have to learn how to deal with the urge to eat when you aren’t hungry. That urge is a habit. Like any habit, you can change it.
Here’s how that works.
- Start with your thought. Remember, that’s all the urge to eat is when you aren’t hungry. It’s just a thought. It’s that little voice in your head saying, “I want chocolate!” or “that looks good” or “I deserve that.” You have tens of thousands of thoughts each day and you don’t act on the great majority of them. If you had a thought, “I wonder what it would be like to try heroin,” you would ignore that one, right? Acknowledge that the urge to eat is just another thought. Observe it and choose to not act on it. I like to visualize letting the thought float away like a helium balloon. Often, if you ignore it, the urge will be gone in a few minutes. Sometimes, it may come back, but you can just notice it and release it again.
- Don’t reward the urge. Have you ever trained a dog? When the dog sits on command, you give him a treat, and that encourages him to do it the next time you give the command. The same is true for giving into the urge to eat. Psychologically, you’re reinforcing that behavior.
- Keep it up. The converse is also true. You can reinforce new habits with repetition. To change a habit, you have to repeat the new behavior over and over again. Habits are like well-worn paths in our brains. Often the longer we engage in the habit, the more worn the path is, making the habit more entrenched. It takes longer to change our behavior. When we let the urge to eat when we aren’t hungry pass, that path gets overgrown while we make a new path with the new habit of eating only when we are hungry. This is how neuroplasticity actually works. If we give into the urge, the old familiar path starts getting worn down again. Stay on the new path!
On the other hand, you can think of the positive effects of your efforts and use that to reinforce the decision to let these urges pass. When I was learning to eat when I was hungry, and got the urge to eat for other reasons, I would think, “I’ve worked too hard at changing my habit to undo all of that effort!” I used my progress as an incentive to keep going. Then I would congratulate myself by saying something like, "Yay! You didn't eat when you weren't hungry. Nice work!"
The same was true with overeating. When eating a delicious restaurant meal, I sometimes would want to keep eating after my body had enough. I would think of how good I felt not overeating, how good it felt to have lost weight, and would decide that those extra bites just weren’t worth feeling bloated afterwards or gaining the weight back. Again, it was all about my thinking.
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