One of the things that clients fear most is being hungry. When I talk to some of them about removing snacks and eating just three times a day (or 1-2 times, depending on their individual plan), there is a look of fear that comes into their eyes. For others, though, they almost relish the opportunity to feel hungry because it has been forever since they’ve felt the grumbling in their stomach that tells them they are ready for food. This doesn’t, however, mean that they never eat! But it does affect their enjoyment of food – and, let’s face it, food is not only fuel, but it is one of life’s pleasures. One that, for many, they’ve denied themselves the opportunity to experience.
Which camp do you fall into, why do you feel that way, and how do you change your mindset around hunger (if you need to?)
Why do you fear being hungry?
In my clinical experience there are two main reasons why people are scared to be hungry. Firstly, hunger is not actually just felt in your stomach, your entire being experiences it. If your hunger comes on suddenly and without warning (you go from feeling fine to being ravenous), if it changes your physical state (ie you start feeling light headed, lacking in energy, maybe even start sweating) and your emotional state (you feel irrationally angry, sad or conversely, on something of a high before a big energy crash), then our emotion around being hungry can be one of fear. No-one likes being shunted from one emotional state to another, particularly if it comes completely without warning, which is often the case in this type of scenario. The fear of over-eating in response to this physiological and emotional state is the second reason for being scared to be hungry. When they do finally get to eat, they don’t trust they will make good decisions around food, and thus starts a (sometimes perpetual) cycle of fear, eating, self-punishment, eating….
What gives? This kind of hunger isn’t hunger at all – it’s blood sugar. Whenever we eat too little, or too little of nutrients that regulate our appetite hormones (nutrients such as protein, fibre and fat) at a meal, it is going to cause our blood sugar to drop and – in some instances – drop too rapidly. This response from our blood sugar sends an alarm signal to our brain that we are in danger (or potential danger) of having no fuel on board. In evolutionary times, this could have meant almost certain death: we wouldn’t have fuel to either fight for our life or run for our life. There may be no sabre-tooth tigers lurking around in everyday life now, but our body’s genetic blueprint hasn’t changed in that regard. Those ringing alarm bells drive us to search for food and do it fast – hence the rapid change in our physical and emotional state. The type of food our brain tells us to seek out is that which is going to deliver quick energy – sweet or starchy food. That is what will bring our blood sugar back to within normal range and get us out of the state of emergency our brain was experiencing. The problem is, though, is that the type of food we go for is the same as what got us into the blood sugar position in the first place.
No wonder you are scared to be hungry, and you feel you can’t trust yourself around food. While one option is to eat frequently (thus, almost to prevent being hungry), this isn’t the best approach. Every time you eat, you send signals to your body that you’ve taken on board fuel, therefore causing changes in your blood sugar levels and creating a hormonal environment that is more favourable to fat gain. In addition, it’s likely the types of food you are snacking on are those which created this blood sugar problem in the first instance (this is not your fault! We’ll blame the 80s-early 2000s for that, and the message to eat ‘six small meals a day’*). They may not be high in free sugar (ie ‘junk’ foods), but they could well be low in fat, fibre or protein, all potent regulators of our blood sugar. Cue the creation of the same problem as if you had just eaten a high sugar snack. Your body doesn’t know the difference without a good amount of the aforementioned nutrients to go alongside it.
If not ‘eat more often’, then what? Eat more but eat less often. The main driver of this is fluctuating blood sugar levels, therefore to combat this we need to fill up more at our meal times (be it 1, 2 or 3 times per day) to avoid a dramatic drop in them. The approach to eating I advise takes care of that for you. As I said, this physiological response is because you’ve eaten too little (or too little of the right** foods) in the first place. Your blood sugars won’t rise to the same extent, will be buffered by the additional protein, fibre and fat, so will decrease at a far slower rate, thus there will be no alarm bells ringing, and no stress response. Hunger will come on gradually (perhaps 4 hours after a meal) and, if you were called into a meeting, you would be able to concentrate on the situation at hand, rather than be distracted, irritated or hangry.
And what if you fall into the other camp, when you are never hungry? The main reason for this is often due to the first scenario – you are pre-emptively eating, thus never allowing yourself the opportunity to digest food and wait for your body to send signals to your brain that you are hungry. More often than not, this is because you are scared to be hungry (so, back to the first reason then). However, there is also another factor I see that impacts on appetite – and it is stress. If you are in an elevated state of ‘doing’, and are constantly on the move, stress hormones can suppress your appetite – therefore eating is somewhat of a chore, something that you feel you should do and therefore you don’t enjoy it. Conversely, you don’t eat which leads you to overeating later in the day when you are finally able to relax. Interestingly, a lot of clients report that, in both scenarios I have described, they continue to eat after having a normal (or larger) size meal because they are not satisfied. This is usually despite the fact that physically they feel full, but emotionally they are somewhat empty. If you don’t take the time to enjoy your food (and it’s something you derive pleasure from) then no amount of additional food at this time is going to make you feel better. In fact, most people report feeling worse. Taking the time to sit down and enjoy your food helps you to listen to your body and eat when you are truly hungry.
*like anyone knew what six small meals a day were – most examples were enough to feed a 110 kg body builder, not a person trying to maintain a size they felt comfortable at.
**foods higher in protein, fibre, with added fat for satiety.