Do you ever notice that sometimes you eat when you are not actually hungry? Or that, all of a sudden, you can be “hangry”? If so, it is likely you are missing your body’s hunger cues.
Two nutrition researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham claim that hunger cues go well beyond your stomach’s rumbling and grumbling — it has more to do with your overall mindfulness.
Department of Nutrition Sciences Professor José R. Fernandez, Ph.D., and Tara Harman, M.S., RDN, an instructor in the department, have insight into the science behind hunger and how to recognize cues the body sends when you are full.
What is hunger?
Hunger is a physical sensation experienced only when the body needs food. It may cause you to feel empty, or your stomach may rumble.
“We typically throw this term around loosely when we want something to eat, not when we actually need something,” Harman said.
Harman says there are several reasons people eat — social occasions, celebrations, boredom, stress — but there are a few good reasons people should eat: nourishment, sensation of hunger, to meet health requirements and health goals.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve eaten birthday cake because it is there, not because I’m hungry,” she said.
Harman says people are often not paying enough attention to hunger cues and hunger hormones — ghrelin and leptin — that tell the body when it needs to eat.
Ghrelin is the hormone that tells you that you are hungry and it is time to get something to eat. It signals the brain when the stomach is empty. After the body receives food, it will begin to shut down the ghrelin hormone and the body begins to release leptin. Leptin signals the brain to stop eating.
How do we miss these hormonal cues?
“We tend to eat based on other societal cues,” Harman said. “Many people tend to eat visually, which is eating based on plate and bowl sizes and eating everything on them. I like to call this the ‘Clean Plate Club.’”
Another way people may miss their hunger cues is simply by being distracted.
“Many people eat with the television on,” she said. “After a long day, you may just want to sit on the couch and relax while eating; but the problem is that you may be so absorbed in something else, it may be easy to be distracted from the cues your body is sending that you have had enough to eat.”
Eating nutrient-poor foods, such as high-sugar or empty-calorie items, can also distract from those cues.
How do we learn to recognize these cues?
Fernandez, a certified mindfulness consultant, says achieving mental awareness and focusing on the present can help you take control of your hunger.
“Mindfulness has been scientifically used to demonstrate that people who engage in practices of awareness without judgment have better outcomes related to health, pain, eating behaviors, weight control, and employee well-being and performance,” Fernandez said.
Mindfulness is not meditation, Fernandez says, but simply being aware. It is a method of mental training that allows the person to be present without judgment.
“It is not limited to meditation or technique, and it is not about accepting the unacceptable, but rather about seeing the world with greater clarity so we can take wiser, more considered action in our lives,” Fernandez said. “It’s a practice you can incorporate into your everyday life.”
Mindfulness and healthy eating
“You truly are the expert of your own body,” Harman said. “Creating awareness and learning to recognize hunger and satiety can help people recognize when they are truly hungry.”
Harman says people can build appreciation for the food they are about to eat, thus living in the present, by cooking more meals at home.
“How easy is it to just grab a candy bar and move on to the next task?” she said. “When you take 30 minutes to prepare a meal and enjoy the process, you can begin to be more aware and remove some of the distractions that clutter your day.”
Harman adds that there are several questions people can ask themselves before they decide to dive into the next dish:
- Am I hungry? If so, how hungry?
- Do I want this?
- What do I really want to eat?
- How do I feel?
- Will this nourish me?
Harman says many people have a hard time determining when they are full and when they need to stop eating.
Practices to help mindfulness techniques
Exercising regularly — at least 150 minutes per week—will support a healthy metabolism. Having a healthy metabolism can help your body recognize those hunger cues more effectively.
Drinking plenty of water can also help with eating too much.
“When you’re dehydrated, you can often mistake that feeling for hunger,” Harman said. “Think about how much water you drink each day.”
She adds that using smaller plates can help with portion control, and when using smaller dishes, people are likely to serve themselves less food.
Finally, chewing slowly and thoroughly will most likely cause the body to produce leptin, spurring you to feel full.
“Try chewing your food 20 times,” she said. “You will likely feel full earlier.”