In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the physiological part of appetite. We learned that many hormones, neurotransmitters, glands and organs regulate appetite. Now we’re going to look at the interactions between biology and environment.
What is eating the right amount?
Ideally, our physiology regulates our appetite perfectly. We evolved to eat when we’re hungry, and stop when we’ve had enough.
Of course, it doesn’t always work that way in our modern society.
Appetite has a massive “real life” component. Subtle eating cues can trump physiology. These can include:
Cues from our physical environment
For example, the size of dishes, how close the food is to us, etc. One study found that people ate more from a candy dish right in front of them but much less from a candy dish 6 feet away. They also ate more from an uncovered candy dish than a covered candy dish.
Cues from our oral environment
- We like certain tastes and textures.
- We like sweet, fatty, and “umami” (savoury) things.
- We like creamy textures and crunchy textures.
- We also like multiple tastes and textures together, such as sweet-salty.
Cues from other senses
As the saying goes, “You eat with your eyes first.” We like food that looks pleasing, and we favour certain colours (ever seen candy with boring gray packaging?). Our smell is closely bound to our appetites as well as our memories and emotional associations. There’s a reason that Cinnabon smells so delectable — it’s part of a deliberate strategy to lure us in.
Cues from our social environment
- family, friends, peers
- cultural messages about when and where it’s OK to eat
Cues from our emotional and psychological environment
- desire for comfort
- symbolic associations with a certain food, e.g. “baking cookies makes me feel happy”
Cues from our familiar habits and routines:
- morning coffee in our special mug, or “the usual” at the coffee shop
- being rushed in the mornings, so stopping at McDonald’s drive-thru
- Friday beers after work with the boys
- snacking in front of the TV while watching our favourite shows
- cake at birthday parties
- mom’s casserole at holidays
Sometimes these cues are helpful. Most have an evolutionary purpose. For example, knowing what food looks and smells good can prevent us from eating something that’s gone rotten. Eating when we weren’t hungry, but when food was available, would be helpful in a context when we couldn’t be sure where our next meal was coming from.
However, in 21st century society, our evolutionary survival mechanisms don’t work very well. Now, we’re surrounded by good-looking food that is available to us 24/7. We’re chronically stressed and seeking comfort. Our eating impulses are out of whack. Our biology no longer matches our environment.
When we are perfectly in tune with appropriate appetite and fullness cues, we eat when physically hungry and stop when satisfied (not stuffed). We maintain a healthy body weight.
When we are not in tune with these cues, our health and weight suffer.
Under-eating and over-eating
There are many reasons why we might under- or over-eat more than we need.
Under-eating might occur because of:
- social pressures (e.g. among women to be thin)
- a desire to restrict food to feel “in control”
- over-preoccupation with “health”
- rigid restriction/elimination of certain foods
Over-eating might occur because of:
- social pressures (e.g. wanting to fit in at social events)
- feeling “out of control”
- a desire for comfort or self-soothing
- disrupted biological routines such as lack of sleep or shift work
- highly palatable tastes such as fatty and sweet foods
- food availability: the food is there and it ain’t gonna eat itself!
Eating when hungry and stopping when satisfied is something that nearly all mammals are programmed to do from birth. Yet, in the U.S. we tend to “unlearn” this and only stop eating when we are “full.” Many cultures discourage this.
Throughout India, Ayurvedic tradition advises eating until 75% full.
The Japanese practice hara hachi bu, eating until 80% full.
Islamic guidance from the Qur’an indicates that excess eating is a sin.
The Chinese specify eating until 70% full.
The prophet Muhammad described a full belly as one containing 1/3 food, 1/3 liquid, 1/3 air (nothing).
There is a German expression that says, “Tie off the sack before it gets completely full.”
“Drink your food and chew your drink,” is an Indian proverb that encourages us to eat slowly enough and chew thoroughly enough, to liquefy our food, and move our drink around our mouth and thoroughly taste it before swallowing.
When someone is finished eating in France they don’t say “I’m full,” rather, “I have no more hunger.”
And countries outside the U.S. emphasize that eating should be pleasurable and done in the company of others.
Homeostasis: The body’s secret weapon
The body likes things to stay the same, aka homeostasis. When homeostasis is interrupted, the body tries to self-regulate and get back on track.
With body weight, there are internal challenges in maintaining homeostasis. As nutrients are used, they must be replaced. Our bodies say “Please replenish these nutrients”, aka “Eat.” Our bodies say “Thank you, that’s enough for what I require”, aka “Stop eating.”
When we honour homeostatic hunger signals, we achieve optimal health.
- If we eat when we are not hungry, the distraction and pleasure are only temporary; consequently, we have to eat more to feel better, feeding the cycle.
- If we do not eat when we are hungry, our body gets us back eventually by cranking up our appetite signals and smothering our fullness signals. The biggest trigger of binge eating? Dieting.
Have you ever observed an infant eating? They eat when they are hungry, and they stop when they’ve had enough. If they don’t like something, they spit it out.
Mindful/intuitive eating is kind of like that.
When we eat this way, it promotes physical and psychological well-being. Physically, it’s gratifying to not feel overly stuffed or empty. Psychologically, it’s gratifying to be able to honor the internal cues of hunger and satiety, much like it’s psychologically gratifying to drink water when thirsty, get warm when cold, urinate when the bladder is full, or breathe after diving 8 feet to the bottom of a pool.
Years of mindless eating, restrictive dieting, and the “good” versus “bad” food mentality can warp the way we respond to internal body signals.
When the idea of “bad” food is discarded, it often removes the punishing cycle of restricting and gorging. Why? Because when we acknowledge that a food is available to us whenever we want, we can begin to select a variety of foods we enjoy and become the expert of our own body.
Three key components of mindful/intuitive eating are:
- Unconditional permission to eat
- Eating primarily for physical rather than emotional or environmental reasons
- Relying on internal hunger and satiety cues
Why is eating the right amount so important?
If we don’t eat the right amount for our needs, our bodies will try to self-regulate to maintain homeostasis or meet evolutionary needs. If we’ve under-eaten, we might compensate with a binge. If we’re over-eating on highly palatable foods, our bodies might say “This is great! Have more, just in case of famine!”
While many people periodically eat in response to sensations other than physical hunger, this type of eating becomes destructive when it’s the principal way of dealing with feelings or going along with easy food availability. If we eat each time we get lonely, sad, bored or happy, or if food is around us, we’re in trouble.
The problem of “dieting”
Few nutrition professionals question the wisdom of using food deprivation as a means to manage weight. “Eat less” is the most common advice given to people wanting to lose weight.
Still, it doesn’t seem to be working for anyone. Some are beginning to acknowledge that “dieting” — as in significant, short-term food restriction — doesn’t work for sustained health and weight management.
“Dieting” can increase food cravings, food preoccupation, guilt associated with eating, binge eating, weight fluctuations, and a preoccupation with weight.
We might get into a cycle of “deprivation mentality”: we restrict, then lose control, then vow to “get back on the wagon” (ie. restrict further), then lose control again, then apply an even more rigid control, then lose control… over and over and over.
“Dieting” can work in the short term. People can and do lose fat and weight… for a while. But more than 90% of individuals who lose weight will regain it within 2 years.
“Dieting” doesn’t address either the underlying deprivation-binge mindset, or the real problems of why you’re overfat in the first place.
Mindful/intuitive eating as an alternative
Mindful/intuitive eating asks “Why am I eating?” and “Am I truly hungry?” Thus it can reduce binging and emotional eating episodes. The more mindfulness and meditation someone uses, the more weight they can lose (and keep off).
Mindful/intuitive eaters aren’t obsessed eaters. Rather, they simply appreciate the value of food as opposed to hurrying through a meal. As they stop judging themselves, they are more present and aware of what they are doing.
What you should know
Learning body signals
Figuring out satiety cues involves trial and error. The level and intensity of hunger can vary, as can knowing what foods/amounts will satisfy hunger. How the body responds to food is going to be different for everyone. It can also be different at different times of the day.
As I mentioned above, consider children. Kids generally push food away when they’re content. And they know when they don’t like something. Intuitive/mindful eating is about tapping back into that wisdom.
Be aware of how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally. For example:
- Is your stomach growling?
- Do you have a headache
- Are you feeling shaky or irritable?
- Do you feel “stuffed”?
- Are you thinking, “I want to eat this” or “I need to eat this”?
- Are you aware of what you are eating or are you just plowing in the food while you do something else?
- If your eating routine is disrupted, are you upset because it’s a change in habit, or because you’re genuinely hungry?
- Are you anxious or stressed?
- Are you happy or sad?
One way to approach eating may be to start with a typical meal and then tune in to how you feel physically, immediately after and every hour after that meal.
- Immediately after eating: If you’ve eaten the right amount for optimal health, you’ll likely feel a slight level of hunger, but still content. It takes about 20 minutes for the satiety signal to go from the gut to the brain. The composition of a meal can influence satiety, so include real/whole foods with fiber, protein, and fat (and balance omega-6 with omega-3).
- About 60 minutes after eating, you should feel satisfied with no desire to eat another real food meal.
- When you approach the 2 hour mark, you may be starting to feel a little hungry, and could probably eat something, but it’s not a big deal yet. If you are feeling quite hungry, you may not have had enough food or enough of a given type of food to hold your satisfaction.
- At 3 to 4 hours, you should be feeling like it’s about time to eat again. Your hunger should be stronger, and will vary depending on when you exercised and what your daily physical activity level is. If you aren’t hungry yet, you probably had a bit too much food at your previous meal.
- After 4 hours, you’re likely hungry and ready to eat. This is when the “I’m so hungry I could eat anything” feeling kicks in. If you wait much longer, chances of making a knucklehead food selection goes up dramatically. It’s important to have nutritious and appealing foods available.
There is variability with all of this, but getting to a point where you’re slightly hungry between meals is a healthy sign. If you are eating every 2-4 hours without ever feeling a level of hunger, you are likely eating more than you need.
It’s OK to be hungry sometimes
If you’re trying to get or stay lean, it’s OK and normal to feel hungry occasionally.
It’s important to accept this feeling because it’s not going anywhere. Nor would that really be a good thing since hunger plays a vital biological function.
“Hunger is not an emergency.” — Judith Beck
Choose the right foods
We didn’t evolve with highly processed foods. These foods confuse our natural appetite mechanisms.
Eating a dessert on its own will often increase the craving for more. It’s not that you necessarily need more processed carbs, just that you’ve triggered the body into thinking it wants more. Processed foods trigger our natural reward systems (think: opioids and dopamine released in the brain) and we want more (and more).
Unprocessed foods help keep hunger/satiety cues clear, and it’s easier to make adjustments. Remember, if you’re not hungry enough to eat broccoli, you’re probably not hungry.
Incorporate activity properly
Regular exercise makes us more efficient at using body fat, which can help balance appetite.
The type of activity can determine our appetite. Intense exercise, such as heavy weight training or high-intensity interval training, tends to suppress appetite in the short term, while low-intensity, endurance-type activity tends to stimulate appetite. (Ironically, many people do a lot of “cardio” when trying to lose fat, which can end up making them more likely to overeat!)
Still, some people play games when it comes to exercise and eating. They might allow themselves more food because they exercised, regardless of hunger changes. This “reward” system can be fickle and create a negative relationship with eating. “Exercise bulimia” occurs when we engage in a cycle of overeating then overexercising to “compensate”.
Practicing yoga can help with mindful/intuitive eating and assist in overall body satisfaction. This makes sense since yogic philosophy aims to unify mind, body and spirit.
Summary and recommendations
Dieting and cognitive control of food intake may actually lead to weight gain, disease, and disordered eating patterns.
Intuitive/mindful eating involves:
- Slowing down the pace of eating (e.g., break during bites, chewing slowly, etc.).
- Eating away from distractions (e.g., television, books, magazines, work, computer, driving).
- Becoming aware of the body’s hunger and fullness cues and utilizing these cues to guide the decision to begin and end eating as opposed to following a regimented diet plan.
- Acknowledging food likes and dislikes without judgment.
- Choosing to eat food that is both pleasing and nourishing, and using all of the senses while eating.
- Being aware of and reflecting on the effects caused by non-mindful eating (e.g., eating when bored or lonely or sad, eating until overly full).
- Meditation practice as a part of life.
The goal of a meal is to finish feeling:
- Better than when you started
- Able to move on (not think about food until you are hungry again)
- Energy to exercise and stay active
- Mental focus
Eating too much or too little will result in variations of the normal responses mentioned above. This may include:
- Anxiety or jitters
- Low or nervous energy
- Food cravings, even when physically full
- Mentally sluggish
- Heavy gut
- Extremely thirsty
What type of person is most likely to eat unhealthy food? A restrained eater depriving themselves of a forbidden food. This is the psychological phenomenon of disinhibition. Habitual disinhibition — in other words, regularly overriding our natural fullness cues — is the factor most closely linked to weight gain.
The goal of mindful/intuitive eating is to master the process of eating and not focus on weight loss. For dieters, this task is extremely difficult.
In 2006, American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee told the media she won her battle against bulimia through intuitive eating. And yes, the popularity of intuitive eating grew.
One study found that infants cry more intensely when hungry than when in pain.
Those who eat intuitively naturally are slimmer than those who diet.
If hunger doesn’t tell you to start eating, what tells you to stop?
If you eat when you’re not hungry, you’ll never be satisfied.
Food is a costly antidepressant.
If you have any doubts about whether you’re hungry, you’re probably not.
Hunger is physical. Over-eating is psychological, mental, and emotional.
When your true needs are unmet, triggers will return again and again.
“I looked at my history and saw clearly that diets and exercise did not work for me. I was trying to change my outsides, while my problem was inside…I focused on my emotional and spiritual development. I put 10% of my energy into eating and 90% into spiritual and emotional healing. When I changed my focus, I found my body was restored to normal proportions over time. I didn’t lose weight because I tried to lose weight. Weight loss occurred as a by-product of working on other things.” –Allen Zadoff
“Real hunger is satiated with a healthy, moderate amount of food. Head hunger is insatiable.” –Allen Zadoff
“If you focus on how you feel as the goal, rather than on weight loss, you’ll find, ironically, that you can’t help but lose weight. If, instead you continue to focus on weight loss as the goal, you’ll get tied up in the old diet-mentality thinking and find that permanent weight loss is like a carrot dangling on that stick in front of you — you’re forever dieting without reaching the mark.” –Intuitive Eating
If you’re a coach, or you want to be…
Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes—in a way that’s personalized for their unique body, preferences, and circumstances—is both an art and a science.
If you’d like to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification.