Understanding our Hunger - Working towards a healthier relationship with food
So often when we have disordered eating patterns we become estranged from our bodily sensations – or they become something we seek to conquer and suppress. When we consistently overeat our hunger signals can be drowned out because our tummy rarely gets empty enough to fire off the chemical reactions and messages which inform our brain that we need food. Conversely, if our aim is to eat as little as possible we can be aware of hunger but work very hard to ignore the pain and discomfort. Over the longer term this could mean that it becomes more difficult to recognise true, physiological hunger. The end result will be that we eat less food than we need, or in the case of the former, more food than we need. (At times this can result in eating disorders which would require medical advice and support. This article is aimed at those who have disordered eating at a moderate level.)
What we want is to be able to in sync with our bodily sensations, and respond to them appropriately. Babies and infants can lead us by example – when they are hungry, they tell us, often quite insistently! However, over time we can learn to ignore those natural, in-built prompts. This may be because we have to fit in alongside the eating patterns of others or our relationship with food (and ourselves perhaps) becomes distorted and drowns out our natural rhythms.
So what can we do to get more in touch with our true, physical hunger?
Firstly, in most cases there are multiple reasons why we over or undereat and getting to the root of these is important. However this can be a very challenging journey to undertake so seeking help and support will be essential. This could be in the form of a support group, rallying friends and family or working on these issues with a counsellor.
Secondly, I think it paramount that we first understand our patterns of behaviour before implementing changes – how else will we know what changes to make? So this may involve observing ourselves as we eat/do not eat, becoming aware of what thoughts are running through our heads, what emotions we are feeling and if we are reacting to an event or person. (Watch out for future articles about the use of food diaries.)
Thirdly, begin to try very small experiments with your eating – making small changes are more likely to stick around longer.
If you overeat:
- Put slightly less food on your plate. Perhaps a few extra vegetables instead of chicken.
- You could try taking a 10 minute break during your meal to allow your brain to catch up with your stomach.
- Depending on how resilient you are feeling emotionally and what support you have around you, you could work on allowing yourself to be slightly hungry for short periods of time, rather than eating immediately. This could be quite provocative as it can poke some very deep-rooted beliefs so if you find it too difficult allow yourself to stop attempting this.
If you undereat:
- The converse of the above: allow yourself slightly larger portions, particularly foods which you may see as ‘bad’. All food is ok in moderation and our bodies need a wide range of nutrients and minerals to function at their optimum. But take it slowly.
- Try eating more regular meals and snacks. Often if we are dieting regularly and eating less than we need, this can lead to binges as our willpower buckles under the strain. Eating at regular intervals may reduce these deprivation-induced binges, as well as maintain steady energy levels.
- Everyone always says it, especially the Grannies of the world – eat breakfast! It really is a very important meal and gets your metabolism going for the day. Just eating something small would be a good start – some fruit, a small bowl of wholegrain cereal, half a slice of wholemeal toast with peanut butter and banana, or a fruit and oat smoothie.
Evidently this article has only touched a few of the complex issues which surround our relationship with food, and how we might begin to make changes. Unfortunately more often than not, changing our eating and relationship with food is a long-haul effort. Quick fixes are just that – quick but rarely sustainable. But making small tweaks can make a big difference over time.
If you think you may have an eating disorder it is important to seek medical help and advice. Your GP would be your first port of call. For more information and support about eating disorders, Beat is an excellent organisation. You can find them at www.b-eat.co.uk