“But aren’t you supposed to have three meals and two snacks a day?” One client challenged me as we explored the concept of eating when you’re hungry.
“You’re supposed to have the nutrition and satisfaction that you need for the day,” I replied, “but there’s no rule as to when and how you’re supposed to have it.”
The meals/snacks scenario is just one of many of the major misconceptions around healthful eating, along with the rule that says a meal needs to be a meat and two “sides” of a “starch” and a veggie.
Ever wonder why “sides” are about the same whether you’re ordering in a sit-down restaurant or at a bake-and-take chicken place?
But I digress. One reason that so many of us are overweight is that in following rules like meals/snacks, we’ve lost touch with our own hunger. We eat more often than we need to, and more than we need. In many cases we substitute hunger for other things, like love, affection, a job we like and that likes us back, more money. And we try to feed these other hungers with food.
To rationalize feeding the hungers, we adopt rules that mesh comfortably with our lifestyles, quirks and habits. There is a rule that says you should eat three meals a day and mentions nothing about snacks. Why is it that nobody seems to adopt that rule?
A friend once glanced at my salad-filled plate and surmised that I was a “utilitarian eater.” I thought about it for a minute (in this age of peer-pressured eating, somebody always has something to say about a salad-filled plate) and agreed. Most of the time I eat when I’m hungry and I eat what I need. Now don’t get me wrong – I am known to answer when sweet treats call my name. But I’ve learned to put aside all the diet rules and take my cue from my body. I can tell when I'm hungry for food, and when I'm hungry for something else.
So today’s rule – so to speak – is to eat when you’re hungry, but to know which hunger you’re feeding. How can you get in touch with your authentic, physical hunger? Here’s a start:
- Eat with intention. Try this: Set a plate, make it pretty, sit at a table, use utensils and savor your meal. Don’t watch TV or read the paper or anything distracts. Note the colors, flavors and textures of your meal. Chew each mouthful at least 25 times (for many, that’s easier said than done). Stop. Put your fork and knife down. Drink (water, ideally), and start again. This exercise will force you to slow down and give you time to recognize when you are full. And when you are full, ignore the rule about cleaning your plate, and stop eating. You can’t do this all the time, of course, but mindful eating is a good foundation for developing other healthy eating habits.
- Let yourself “feel” hungry. A lot of us wouldn’t know what physical hunger felt like if it punched us in the gut. We eat dinner at 7 and a snack at 10, ad then we wake up at 6:30, not feeling hungry, but we eat anyway because the rules say “breakfast time.” Of course you shouldn’t skip breakfast, but recognize that if you don’t allow at least 12 hours between the last thing you ate at night (snacks included) and the first thing you eat in the morning, your body is still processing food from the night before and might not be ready for more. There’s a reason they call it “break” “fast:” you should wake feeling hungry if you’ve truly fasted. When you are hungry, eat a fiber- and protein-rich breakfast (fruits or veggies and certain grains or lean meat) – it should carry you to lunch without the need for a snack.
- Ask yourself, “What am I hungry for?” Consider that you may be bored and looking for entertainment. Or stressed over a big project that’s due. Or you had a hard day at work and “deserve” to treat yourself to an over-the-top dessert. While you’re considering the answer, drink a glass of water. That will help you break the habit mindless eating and feeding hungers that food can’t begin to feed.
Have a Healthy Day,