Hearing Your Body's Hunger Cues

brunette taking a big bite out of huge sandwich on white background

We live in a culture of over-consumption. From a young age, we’re taught that bigger is better. But this mentality of always wanting more has hurt our nation’s collective waistline. We eat for the wrong reasons: boredom, emotional distress, habit, emotional connection. To change the number on the scale, we need to change how we are addressing our hunger, and this starts with learning to determine when we actually are hungry.

Mealtime Routine

We have set times in our head when we think we’re “supposed” to eat. A daily routine keeps us grounded, but it also potentially keeps us stuck. If you feed yourself at nearly the same times every day, your body learns to get hungry at those times. In those moments of perceived hunger, a substance called ghrelin is pumping through your system. Ghrelin, created in the gut as a response to predicted mealtime, births that feeling of emptiness in your stomach which you recognize as the desire to eat.

An At-Home Experiment

For one week, don’t stick to your daily routine. Even though you may have heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, toss out all preconceptions for this one-week period and only eat when you feel pulled to do so. This may mean eating breakfast at 11 AM, a snack at 3 PM, and then a combination lunch and dinner at 6 PM. Feeling what your body wants instead of listening to your mind or clinging to a previously created pattern. That means, after a tough meeting with your boss, don’t reach for a donut unless you’re actually hungry. That’s what your head thinks it wants, not what your body actually needs or is craving. You may be surprised that the routine you thought made sense for you actually doesn’t align with what your needs at all.

If the only factor in the hunger cycle was ghrelin, you’d be eating yourself silly, day in and day out. But the body, a machine of checks and balances, has an appetite-control mechanism in place to prevent you from constantly gorging. As you eat, the nerves in your stomach and upper intestine alert the brain that you’re getting full. A peptide and two hormones journey north from the stomach to the brain, sending a clear message that your stomach is full, and it shouldn’t move anything further along into the intestines because what’s already there needs time to break down. If those don’t stop over-eating in its tracks, there is leptin, an anti-suppressing hormone produced by body fat, generally in proportion to how much fatty tissue you have.

Tips for Learning Your Body's Language

Ultimately, beyond learning to read your body’s hunger cues, there are other ways to help you feel good in your own skin.

  • Get in touch with your body by actually touching your body.

Place your hands on your stomach and take deep breaths, feeling its internal rhythm. Sometimes we rush through our hours, giving ourselves little opportunity for reflection. But feeding your body well means getting to know what it needs and when.

  • Give your body the sugar it craves.

When you reach for that tub of ice cream your body may be telling you it wants sugar. But you’ll be much more satiated if you fill yourself with natural forms of sugar instead of the artificial products reigning over your local supermarkets. Refined sugar and packaged foods won’t satisfy your craving; you’ll end up hungry again soon after. A handful of fresh strawberries or grapes will kick that sugar craving, and you’ll feel lighter than if you’d downed half a bag of chocolate-chip cookies.

  • Drink only water.

Soft drinks, artificial juices, and coffee can alter our sense of fullness. They also don’t aid in the digestive process. Drinking water will hydrate your cells from the inside out, and you’ll be cooperating with your body’s natural cycling of nourishment and waste.

Knowing when you’re hungry and when you’re full will decrease the influence that senseless eating has on your mood and your body.

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