The latest Small Bites survey dealt with the issues of physical vs. emotional hunger as well as recognizing satiety (a healthy feeling of fullness.)
The results were pretty evenly spread out:
Very well, always: 5% Very well, most of the time: 35% Somewhat well: 34% Not well at all: 24%
I find this to usually be the most difficult hurdle for many people to jump over in their quest to achieve their healthy eating goals.
After all, you can have the healthiest diet in the world (meaning, full of nutritious foods) but if your hunger and satiety recognition mechanisms are off, you can still end up overconsuming calories and gaining weight.
These behaviors -- and, in many cases, patterns -- can be very frustrating to change largely because they stem from years of conditioning.
I think a variety of factors can make it challenging for people to recognize their hunger level.
For one, too many people assign themselves strict eating times.
They may be hungry at 11 AM (say, two and a half hours after breakfast) but if they are meeting a friend for lunch at noon, they think, "Ah, might as well hold out. Don't want to ruin my appetite!"
WRONG! Part of being an active participant the hunger game is listening to your body's cues.
If your body is demanding a few nibbles at 11 AM, go ahead and provide them.
This is not to say you now have a pass to eat two Entenmann’s donuts or half a stack of Pringles.
However, if your next meal is in an hour, keep hunger at bay by snacking on an ounce of nuts (remember, an ounce is approximately 24 almonds – quite a bit!)
Those 140 calories will keep you satisfied until lunch, making it easier to have one roll, rather than three, from the bread basket.
What if the snack fills you up more than you think, and by the time you meet your friend you are only hungry enough for an appetizer? Then simply order an appetizer.
Don't order an entree just because your friend does and, well, you don't want to "make her look bad" or "insult him."
Sharing lunch with a friend is about communication, catching up, and enjoying yourself. THAT should be your focus. Not second guessing yourself or putting your needs aside just to "look" good.
The worst thing you can do is ignore your hunger. The trick is to feed your body foods that are filling and satisfying without breaking the caloric bank.
A srerving of whole grain crackers, for instance, is a great way to give your body a little something in a 120 calorie package.
Similarly, a piece of fruit or some baby carrots with hummus can help keep hunger at bay so you don't have that insatiable need to devour something -- ANYTHING! -- on your way home from work later that afternoon.
It is quite a simple formula. The more you ignore your hunger, the more likely you are to overeat and go past your satiety point.
You can't expect yourself to recognize a healthy feeling of fullness if you are absolutely starving!
Another trap for many people? The idea that in certain locations -- and situations -- you must eat.
Answer the following:
How many of you eat a slice of cake at someone's birthday party at your place of work simply because cake slices are being passed around, regardless of your hunger level?
I know I have done it before. I distinctly remember a time when I had just finished a very filling lunch and stopped by a co-worker's going away party.
Whoever organized the food had gone all out. Cake, cookies, brownies, chips and salsa... it was all there.
Sure enough, about five minutes after I arrived, the cake was cut, someone handed me a piece, and I dug right in.
It was actually a little dry, and the frosting tasted like chemicals. After the third or fourth bite, I felt uncomfortably full -- and dissatisfied!
It suddenly hit me. I wasn't having cake because I truly wanted some, or because I enjoyed the taste. I was having it because somewhere in my mind I thought I was "supposed" to.
I still remember that event pretty vividly to this day because it truly gave me a different perspective on my relationship with food.
Now, in social situations, I don't think about what I "should" be doing or even what everyone else is doing. I simply ask myself: would I be eating RIGHT NOW if I wasn't in this situation?
Sometimes the answer is "yes," but a lot of other times it's "no." And if someone asks why I'm not having a slice of cake or one of the catered sandwiches, I reply with the truth, "I'm not hungry right now, thank you."
And then there's the movie theater. Sometimes I'll snack on some whole wheat crackers and some trail mix (yes, I sneak food in -- so sue me!). Other times, though, all I need is a beverage to quench my thirst.
A few years ago, though, my mind always equated movie watching with popcorn, pretzels, malt balls, and soda.
This is not to say you can't enjoy some popcorn or share a chocolate bar with your movie companion next time you hit the multiplex, but the key is in doing that out of actual physical hunger, rather than some ingrained mandate that advertisers have lodged into our minds.
These check-ins with yourself might initially seem odd and different. In a society so obsessed with consumption, we generally don't hear the "Ask yourself -- why am I craving this right now?" message.
Once you develop it into a daily habit, though, you have quite a powerful tool in your hand.
PS: I'll discuss emotional eating in a future post (later this week.)