When I teach people how to lose weight and keep it off without dieting, I say things like:
- Stop dieting and start listening to your body’s wisdom.
- Your body knows what you need, you just need to tune into it and listen.
People will say to me, “My body says all brownies all the time” or “If I ate what I wanted, I’d eat all the junk that was within reach.”
Responses like that tell me that many people don’t understand the difference between the bodily sensation of hunger and the emotional feeling of hunger. They don’t understand the difference between wanting to eat and needing to eat.
If you want to lose weight without dieting and you want to keep it off, understanding this difference is crucial. To repeat, real bodily hunger is a sensation. Emotional or “head hunger” is caused either by an emotion or some external cue.
Think about a time when you went too long without eating. When you felt really hungry. Remember what it felt like? Maybe you haven’t experienced that for a long time.
When I feel physically hungry, I feel it in my stomach. It is clearly a physical sensation. My stomach feels empty. Sometimes it makes noises like a rumble. It is a feeling I get even when there is nothing I like to eat available. When I think about what to eat when I am physically hungry, the answer usually is something I love but that is still fuel for my body. Healthy and delicious food. If I don’t eat soon, I get hungrier and cranky.
Some people may get a hunger headache, feel low on energy, or be grumpy.
Head hunger is very different from physical hunger. It feels more like a desire for pleasure than a need for nutrition.
Whenever you want to eat because you see or smell something tasty and you haven’t noticed that you were hungry before that, it is probably head hunger. Head hunger can be eating out of habit, like always eating breakfast first thing in the morning, having lunch at noon every day, or munching while watching TV. It can be part of a search for pleasure. Maybe it is based upon a belief that you’ve held for a long time, like, “I’ve loved candy corn since I was a kid.” Or maybe you’re watching a commercial for ice cream, and you suddenly feel “in the mood” for some.
Other examples of emotional/head hunger include:
- This work is so hard. I need to get something to eat because I really would rather not be doing this right now, and eating will make it better.
- Look, someone brought chocolate birthday cake to the office! I just ate a big lunch, but I love chocolate cake. I want some!
- I’m so angry at Chris. I can’t believe she said that! I really need some cookies.
- Wow, smell that lasagna! That’s making me feel hungry (but I just ate an hour ago)
- I’m bored. There’s nothing to do. Let’s see what’s in the kitchen.
- I always eat popcorn at the movie theater.
- I feel lonely. A grilled cheese sandwich will help me feel better.
- Who knows when I’ll be in Brooklyn next? I’d better eat some New York pizza while I can.
When you eat in response to external cues or emotions, you consume food your body doesn’t need, so it stores it as fat. The more you do that, the more weight you gain.
If you eat when you are hungry, and tune into your body, your body will tell you what it needs. Maybe it will sometimes say brownies, but I promise you it won’t tell you brownies all the time. If all you ate were brownies, you would feel sick. Your body is too smart to tell you to do that!
You have to learn to listen carefully to your body’s signals. Not your brain’s. You have to learn to trust your body.
Then magic starts to happen. You start to feel satisfied with less food. Your cravings begin to go away. Your desire to overeat fades. The weight starts to drop without depriving yourself of the foods you love.
I can’t believe I haven’t seen as good an explanation of the difference between eating stimuli but I haven’t. This could apply to so many other behaviors that exist only to support a feeling control through routine.
I was struck by your statement that people feel less need for food once they tune into why they’re eating in the first place. This suggests that such improvement can come from greater self-awareness, but then, many great things do, don’t they.
Thanks, Susan. I believe that awareness is the most important factor for people who want to lose weight. As you said, that’s true for so many things.