The holidays are upon us, along with the cookies, the holiday buffet, the bowl/box of candy on the desk. Now it’s up to us to decide – do we want some or not?
In normal eating, a decision can be made in a few seconds. Quick questions flash through the mind – am I hungry? If I am, do I want cookies? Whether I’m hungry or not, do the cookies look like something I don’t want to miss? The decision is then acted upon and life goes on.
With someone who is concerned about her weight, the decision takes much more time.
Fears, myths and misunderstandings about eating, wrapped in a cloak of wanting-not wanting, concern the weight worrier. They leave her unable to reliably make decisions in her own best interest.
And whatever decision she makes, it’s often one she will continue to debate for hours.
So here’s a stepped process that can help you make conscious decisions about eating that – like steps are meant to be – can lead you down the path to healing your relationship with food, your mind, and your body to end eating and weight struggles.
Only one: Give yourself permission to make your own choices.
That means no more listening to what someone else tells you about what, when and how much to eat. It’s all about you now – what do you want?
Once you choose, it’s time to take responsibility for your choices.
To be clear, responsibility isn’t a bad word. When it comes to eating, it means being aware of your choices and the effect they have on you.
If something you eat or the way you eat it makes you feel great or not so, it’s information you can use for future decisions. No blame, no shame.
This is about making choices that make us feel good in the moment and over time. That’s a powerful combination that supports our health.
For science nerds, making your own choices is about the self-determination theory. Basically, humans are intrinsically motivated to take care of themselves. However, outside influences can interfere with self-care.
In today’s world, for the weight concerned, that outside influence is the idealization of thin bodies and the rules about eating that come from that focus. That’s where so many of today’s fears, myths and misunderstandings about eating come from, too.
Before Eating, Ask Yourself
After you understand it’s your choice, it’s time to exercise that choice. Here’s how to do it in a thoughtful manner.
When you want to eat, whether it be a Christmas cookie or anything else, ask yourself: what is driving that desire?
- That you walk past the tray of holiday cookies and think, yes!
- The smell of the cookies as you walk past?
- The remembered taste of that Christmas cookie, even if you just ate one?
- Hearing someone eat a cookie?
- A food that you feel you shouldn’t eat, yet that’s all you can think about?
- A growling tummy, a feeling of emptiness, even that telltale sign of grouchiness?
- A craving for something that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as a food you’d crave (think vegetables)?
- A comfort a certain food seems to reliably deliver?
- The pleasure of enjoying how a cookie melts in your mouth as you savor?
I’ve just described the nine hungers that were first named by Jan Chozen Bays, MD, author of Mindful Eating: Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food.
(The current edition of Jan’s book only lists seven hungers. Since its publication, ear and touch have been added to the list. Jan thinks there are likely more that will be added as readers continue to explore the many reasons they eat.)
Using the 9 Hungers to Guide Your Eating Choices
The nine hungers help us understand why we want to eat, which helps us make decisions about what we really want.
By checking in with each hunger before eating, it can help you do exactly what Jan’s book title says: Improve your relationship with food so that you can better support your health and well-being.
Here’s how it works:
When the urge to eat strikes, check in with each hunger. It’s easier for me to remember them by starting at the top (my head).
- Eye Hunger. Is it that you just noticed the tray of cookies and thought, “Yum. Those look good!”
- Nose Hunger. Is it that you didn’t even see them on the desk but noticed their wafting aroma?
- Mouth Hunger. Is it that you remember how good those cookies taste? (This illustrates how the different hungers interact; in this case, when you see or smell them, mouth hunger awakens.)
- Ear Hunger. Do you hear someone pick up a cookie, perhaps the rustle of a paper cup that surrounds it, and you recall how much you like those cookies? (Ear and mouth hunger interacting here.)
- Mind Hunger. When you see the cookies, do you automatically start to question whether you should eat them? (Mind hunger often plays out via the diet mentality — “some foods are off-limits.” And of course, that just makes them more appealing.)
- Stomach Hunger. Does your stomach growl, or you feel your desire at the pit of your stomach, when you see the cookies?
- Cellular Hunger. Does your body seem to call out for the cookies? You feel at your very core that the cookies would supply something your body needs right now.
- Heart Hunger. Do holiday cookies remind you of special times when you felt loved? Are cookies a favorite food when you need comfort?
- Touch Hunger. Do memories arise of enjoying these kind of cookies at this time of year, picking through the choices, loving how the sugar melts on your lips and tongue? (Heart and touch hunger at work here.)
It may seem time-consuming to go through each of these hungers every time you want to eat. But in reality, it doesn’t take much time. As you become practiced, it can be a quick journey into yourself. And an extremely enlightening journey at that.
The Next Step
When you understand why you want to eat, you can better determine if eating is the best strategy to meet your need, or if food is your best strategy to meet the need, or even if you need to meet the need at all.
Using the examples above:
- Eye: Just because the cookies look good, do you really want to eat right now? You may decide yes, but you may just as readily decide no. It truly is your choice.
Freedom of choice gives you the power to decide what you really want. It’s at the core of the reasons why diets fail for the vast majority of people.
- Nose: Just because the cookies smell good, do you really want to eat right now? Same rationale applies as with Eye hunger.
And so on. It’s pretty much the same process for each hunger. You decide whether eating is what you truly want and need at the moment. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t.
Deciding Whether to Satisfy Stomach and Cellular Hunger
When it gets to stomach and cellular hunger, there’s an important difference. You actually need to eat. Perhaps not right at that moment but relatively soon.
If we get too hungry, it’s a sure set-up for emotional overeating for women who struggle with eating and weight. That’s because when you are overly hungry, you tend to eat more than usual. Then feelings of guilt or failure set in for those of us who are struggling with diet rules.
You may discover cookies don’t really call to you when cellular hunger is operating. You might find a balanced meal vs. a snack seems like it would better satisfy you. Or maybe not. Feel free to experiment to see what feels best.
Noticing when it’s stomach or cellular hunger calling can be a big help for those of us who are confused about when we need to eat. This is a common problem for women who have dieted on and off, to the point where they aren’t clear anymore about their bodies’ signals.
If that’s you, the Hunger & Satisfaction Gauge provides a bit more guidance as you explore the 9 hungers.
So there you have it: a relatively simple (once you’ve learned and practiced it!) technique for deciding whether you really want the Christmas cookies and if you do, how much.
Marsha Hudnall is president and co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women’s retreat for healthy weight and well-being, where she has been teaching mindful eating for over 30 years. She is also the president of The Center for Mindful Eating.
A version of this post first appeared on the Green Mountain at Fox Run blog A Weight Lifted.