Pre-eating? On that…

Pipped at the post. I was all set to pontificate (and had written ~ 600 pearls of wisdom about) why people eat when they aren’t hungry. Then I notice the email notification for Sarah Wilson’s blog, and I click on it to reveal…. Pre-eating. Great minds…

There are many other reasons though for people to eat when they’re not hungry, but pre-eating –eating in anticipation of being hungry, or – in the case of the athlete – eating in anticipation of needing fuel for a workout – is a biggie for some people. Just a few days ago in the clinic an athlete told me their afternoon snack wasn’t because they were hungry, it was in case they ran out of fuel for their workout in the afternoon. I asked  what the worst thing that could happen was. Of course the automatic reply was that they couldn’t finish the workout. I then asked if they’d ever tried it to see if that was indeed the case. They hadn’t.

So many people pre-eat for because they fear being hungry. I get this a LOT. When I recommend that someone forgo the snacks during the day, sometimes it really is  fear in their eyes when they ask me ‘what if I get hungry?’ What if? While hunger has been the cause of death for millions of people worldwide, it hasn’t actually killed anyone I’ve ever sat down with. Or anyone they’ve ever sat down with. But the idea of being hungry can create this ingrained panic in some people that, if they don’t eat – even if they’re not particularly hungry – they will not be able to resist temptation that comes their way in the form of the jar of lollies on their colleague’s desk, or the biscuit tin in the staffroom. As Sarah pointed out, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the sensation of being hungry –and don’t trust themselves to hold back once they do get to eat.

The other obvious reasons people eat are out of boredom, habit, guilt, stress or because it’s scheduled. All of these deserve a blog post in themselves. A lovely friend I studied with was the classic scheduled eater. I remember quite clearly being in our office, both of us working away on our theses (this was before the internet was anything more than email and I was one of the first people I knew to have a cellphone; there was no Twitter or Facebook to distract us. Thus, I do believe we were in fact working). She started being a bit random in what she was saying (which wasn’t unusual, she was the most intelligent girl I knew, yet could be quite fluffy too…) however when I asked her about it she declared she could barely focus on the screen in front of her because her blood sugar levels had plummeted and she needed to eat. I suggested that we go for lunch, but she was adamant she couldn’t eat until 1pm, yet it had barely turned 12pm. This self-imposed scheduling of meals is not about the fear of being hungry, but more about exerting a level of control. For some, these food rules that govern our intake is a comfortable place to reside in, and if you have the willpower to adhere to them, then that’s the internal battle won.

Another example I came across where the wheels fall of was in the comments section at the bottom of Sarah’s blog: Kat has commented that she delays her breakfast until 8.30 (for as long as possible) yet this leads her to snack constantly throughout the morning. Again, this conscious (or otherwise) rule to not eat until later – trying to delay food intake and (in essence) reduce food intake has  unintended consequences. I see this a bit in my clinic also – people are scared that if they begin to eat earlier in the day, then the overall volume of food will increase because they will be hungrier earlier. Of course, right? Increased food, increased weight. Not necessarily. And, in this case, I believe the opposite is true. The reasons I thought Kat wasn’t able to regulate her appetite was that she either isn’t eating enough at breakfast (which is possible, as she mentions her weight has stalled and she’s not able to shift weight) or she’s not eating enough protein and/or fat to help stabilise both her stress hormones and her blood sugar to enable her to coast through the morning snack free. Those two food-related reasons could lead to higher than normal stress hormones as she isn’t responding to her body’s hunger cues. The body will store more fat in this environment, making it difficult to shift weight. The stress hormones will also cause the liver to dump additional glucose in the bloodstream which leads to fluctuations in energy and mood and (at worst) the dreaded ‘hangry’. Of course, if Kat is constantly grazing, she might never feel that way and could be overeating to compensate for the changing energy levels.

If Kat ate breakfast earlier, and ate MORE for breakfast, I believe she will feel far better. In addition, if this did lead to an increased food intake, the body’s stress hormones will be far more stable, and the way the body responds to calories is largely dependent on the environment within the body. The increased stress response created by delaying the meal could mean that Kat is far more likely to store those calories for later use. By tuning into her hunger signals and regulating her stress response, Kat might find that she is able to eat more food (and thus, more dietary energy) and burn it more effectively.

I actually think that whether Kat is eating too much (or too little) is almost a moot point. If Kat is hungry, she should eat. If she isn’t hungry, then she should wait to eat. As Kat was reading Sarah’s blog, then at least we know she is eating the right type of food to help maximise her nutrient intake and thus her health goals. When she told me what she was eating (quinoa porridge with chia seeds and almond milk), I suggested she go ½ and ½ with almond milk and coconut milk – and (obviously) eat when she was hungry. That’s what I love about open forums. It’s a great place to offer unsolicited advice. 😉

What, why, how, when and where we eat garners so much attention and so many emotions. Sarah’s blog was really just to highlight a fraction of the discussion (as this is), to get people thinking about why they eat and whether or not they needed to snack. It didn’t say to NEVER snack, it was about tuning into your hunger cues and recognising when you are hungry. For a lot of my clients, it’s a habit rather than a physiological drive. That’s why for many people I discourage snacking. However it’s really individual and there is no one size fits all approach. Do you snack? Do you need it? Do you even know? Try going without a snack at a time you would normally eat. What’s the worse that could happen? You get hungry. Well it’s unlikely to kill you.