During the peak of my diet and binge days, hunger had nothing to do with how much I consumed--I ate because I was angry, sad, bored, lonely, or tired, or because I was celebrating, grieving, or getting ready to go on another diet. It never occurred to me that eating had anything to do with hunger or fullness. That's because I didn't let my body get hungry. I ate from what I call mind hunger.
Most of us confuse mind hunger, which has nothing to do with food, with body hunger, which does. After years of off-and-on dieting, we aren't even sure we know how to feel true hunger; we no longer trust the innate wisdom of our biology. But being hungry is like being in love: If you don't know, you're probably not. Your body lets you know in no uncertain terms when it wants food.
Mind hunger, on the other hand, is endless, bottomless, erratic. You pass a bakery and suddenly you have to have an éclair, even though you ate breakfast 10 minutes ago. You're sitting in a restaurant, see a plate of mashed potatoes go by, and want some now, even though you're in the middle of a very good meal.
The way I learned to listen to true physical hunger was by rating myself on a scale of one to ten. "One" is so hungry that you're ready to eat what doesn't eat you first. "Ten" is so stuffed that when you roll over, your stomach stays on the other side of the bed. "Five" is comfortable.
If you start eating at five or above on the hunger scale, you're eating from mind, not body, hunger. But if you start at two or three, and ask your body what it wants to eat (which is different than what you think you should or shouldn't eat), you're eating from true, physical hunger.
When one of my students started using the hunger scale, she realized that she experienced different sensations during each of the phases of hunger. At two--when she was really hungry--she felt empty and hollow. When she was slightly hungry--at three or four--she felt spacey and cranky. These feelings became clues that she needed to eat. She also realized that it was best to start eating at two or three, and not wait until one, so she had time to figure out what her body actually wanted, instead of being so hungry that she would eat anything.
Years ago, a woman confessed to me that food was her main source of pleasure, the only time in the whole day she gave herself permission to have sweetness, tastes of good things, and time to herself. The hunger scale had no meaning for her--she ate when she needed to stop running around, not when she was hungry. Without treats to look forward to when she felt overwhelmed, she believed she was dooming herself to a life of drudgery. I suggested we come up with a variety of nonfood pleasures, ways to treat herself that did not involve cookies: Quiet time. Being in nature. Making contact with a friend. When food stopped being her only source of pleasure, she was able to follow the hunger scale.
Eating when you're hungry is not what causes weight gain; you put on pounds when your body has no need for food and you eat anyway. To reach your natural weight, you not only need to eat when you're physically hungry, but to stop when your body has had enough. Yet most of us have no idea what "enough" means. We keep taking more than enough of what we can get (food) because we believe it's impossible to get enough of what we really want--things such as love, joy, value, happiness, contentment, understanding, friendship.
In a recent workshop, a woman told me, "When I stop eating at seven, I feel deprived. Food still tastes good, even though my body has had enough." I reminded her that there are many kinds of deprivation. If you eat past seven, you might not be depriving yourself of food, but you will be denying yourself the sensations of feeling light, alive, and energetic.
When you start eating to satisfy your physical hunger, having enough is simply a matter of listening to your body's signals. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you begin to listen.
Being full and having enough are not necessarily the same thing. You can have enough without being full--or stuffed. As you eat, be aware of the point at which you feel satisfied. And eat slowly enough for that feeling of satisfaction to register. (It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to get the "I'm feeling satisfied" message from your stomach.)
You can never get enough of what you don't really want. If what you crave is time alone or a conversation with a friend, no food in the world will satisfy you. Or if your body wants a piece of chocolate and you eat carrot sticks instead, you can eat enough to turn your skin orange, but you'll still want, and possibly binge on, chocolate.
To be satisfied, both your mind and body have to be engaged. If you miss the entire eating experience by talking or watching television, you'll finish eating and feel as if you didn't get enough.
When you stop using food to feed the hungers of your heart, you not only discover the pleasure of eating exactly what your body wants, but you also are free to attend to parts of your life you never noticed because your attention was completely taken up with what should be on your diet or what you should and shouldn't be eating, wanting, sneaking, or bingeing on. You become aware of quiet needs, unspoken desires, and the thrilling, crazy, unexpected joys of being alive.
Now that's what I call a feast!