Listening to your body is an often coined phrase, in relation to many aspects of our lives, particularly around health and fitness.
One thing we really need to listen to is our gut, and I’m not referring to whether you get a ‘good feeling’ or not about something. Listening to your tummy for hunger and fullness cues is fundamental to changing your eating habits.
For years I ate until my plate was clear, no matter the size of the portion. I ate when I wasn’t hungry, just because it was ‘mealtime’. I ate when someone offered me food, just because it was there. I ate when I saw food that I could pinch, just because I knew I liked the taste, or I wanted to find out if I liked the taste. And every time I ate, when I didn’t need to my stomach stretched, I consumed more calories than my body needed, and ultimately gained weight.
I think most of us know if we are overeating or not. But it does help to put a bit of context around it, so that you can start to recognise the subtle cues.
If you are eating at a calm and relaxed pace, paying attention to the feelings in your stomach, you will notice three things when you are satisfied, and really should stop eating.
- Eating the food but no longer enjoying it – we often get this with big plates of food, but something we are conditioned to do from a young age tells us to keep going until the plate is empty.
- Feeling of discomfort in your stomach – if you continue to eat when you are like this you might also feel nauseous and get stomach cramps.
- You might start to feel sluggish. Once you do it is best to stop there, or you may begin to experience the start of a ‘food coma’ or ‘meat sweats’ – both these symptoms are caused by the extra energy your body needs to use to process the additional food, either causing you to produce extra insulin to combat the higher blood sugar levels, leaving you feeling drowsy or the high protein levels in meat increasing your body temperature as it takes more energy to process proteins, or what it termed the Thermal Effect of Food.
The Hunger Game
There is a scale that we can use to assess how hungry or full we actually are, and from that gauge if we need to eat or not.
0 – Painfully hungry – your tummy hurts and is cramping.
1 – Ravenous – You might feel dizzy, lightheaded and irritable or ‘hangry’
2 – Very Hungry – Tummy is rumbling or growling, you feel a little bit moody and like you need some energy
4 – A bit peckish – You could eat, but you aren’t desperate for some food or energy
5 – Neutral – Neither hungry nor full
6 – Mild fullness – Stomach feels full but you don’t feel satisfied
7 – Comfortably satisfied – If you eat any more you will feel uncomfortable
8 – Uncomfortably full – You have eaten just a little bit too much, maybe your pants feel a bit tight
9 – Stuffed – Christmas Day full – Eaten far too much and need to undo your pants and have a lie down
10 – Physically ill – Binge eating full, feeling nauseous or like you need to be sick
Using the scale above, I would say the best place to be after eating a meal, is at number 7 – feeling like you have eaten enough, but not so much that you feel uncomfortable. If you regularly feel like you are an 8 or above, you are overeating, and stretching your stomach so it takes more food to fill it in the future, and putting yourself at risk of gaining weight.
It is worth remembering that it can take 20 minutes for our brains to connect with our stomachs, for us to actually realise that our tummy’s are full enough and we are satiated. Eating slowly and sipping water can help with this, giving our brains the time to catch up with our tummy’s.
It’s OK to be hungry
When it comes to how hungry we feel, it is OK to let yourself get hungry, and we sometimes need to teach our bodies and minds to accept that we will feel hungry occasionally, and we don’t have to feel full all the time.
I think it’s best to eat at about a 2. You are more than just a bit hungry, but you aren’t at the point where you want to eat your workmate’s right arm, and are getting irritable or feeling dizzy. Leaving yourself to get hungrier than this can cause you to overeat. We have all been there, I know I have, you are so hungry that you want to eat the entire contents of the kitchen, so you eat and eat and eat, really fast to bring your blood sugar back up and curb that gnawing ache in your stomach, and 15 minutes into your feeding frenzy your brain still thinks you are hungry, so you carry on. After another 10 minutes you stop eating because you feel full. Then another ten minutes later you feel even more full, twenty minutes later you are loosening your pants, and thirty minutes later your stomach feels like it’s going to burst, all because you ate so fast and so much that your brain hadn’t caught up with how your stomach actually felt. This is why it is important to eat when you are hungry but not leaving it until you feel like you are going to faint.
Eating at this point will also keep your metabolism ticking over, so that your body efficiently burns calories. When you get to the point where you are at a 0 or a 1, your body may well go into ketosis and fat burning, but it could slow your metabolism down, meaning that when you do eat, it isn’t burning your food efficiently, which is counter productive to what you are trying to achieve.
It can be difficult to gauge when we are actually hungry when we are used to overeating regularly. We can get out of tune with our body’s cues, and lose our sensitivity to actual proper feelings of hunger and fullness.
We can also mistake other feelings in our bodies for ‘stomach hunger‘. Stomach hunger is the feeling described above, where your stomach is empty and your body needs fuel. But there are other types of hunger, that we should be aware of. If we are aware of them, we can treat them the right way.
Teeth hunger – I think football managers get this at important football games. We quite often see them eating gum or in some cases I have seen them sucking lollipops. Teeth hunger is when we feel anxious, and we feel the need to put things in our mouth and chew to burn that anxious energy perhaps, or to just do something. So we put food in our mouths and chew. If you know that you do this – carry sugar free chewing gum to chew, to avoid eating extra calories, but still satisfying that need to chew. Not only will you satisfy that urge, but your minty fresh breath could mean that you might be less likely to eat for other reasons later on.
Mouth hunger – This is when we have a need for a particular taste in our mouths. I often get this after a meal, particularly when I haven’t had a drink with it. I want to taste something sweet. Whereas in the past this might have meant devouring a full pudding, now it might just mean having a drink of sugar free cordial, or a small sweet or piece of chocolate. The trick is having the will power to stop at one, and not the whole packet. When you experience mouth hunger, the feeling is satisfied after a mouthful or two, so if like me you do crave something sweet, plan something small and sweet to have on hand and curb these cravings. Sugar free jellies are great for this!
Mind hunger – This is not really hunger at all, it’s just eating because it’s time to eat. My dad does this – if it’s ten o clock, it’s time for a brew and a snack, it’s 12 o’clock it’s lunchtime, 3 o’clock brew and a snack again, and 6 o’clock tea should be on the table, then supper at 10pm – even if he’s not hungry. In fact I don’t even know if he considers whether he is hungry at this point – it’s just time to have food.
Thirst – Sometimes we just aren’t hungry, and we are in fact thirsty. So it is always worth trying a glass of water before you eat something. An indicator for me in these scenarios, is how quickly I drink the water. If I gulp it down in 3 seconds flat, then I know I was definitely thirsty and not hungry, so job done. If I don’t feel the need to gulp it, then the water might just fill up my tummy and stave off the hunger pangs for a bit longer anyway.
Fatigue – When our energy levels are low, we can start to crave food to perk us up. The reasons for this are hormone led in our brains. When we are tired or sleep deprived, we release more of the hormone that tells us we are hungry and less of the hormone that tells us we are full and satiated. Our brains reward centres are also stimulated by sugary junk food, making us crave that in particular at these times. What we really need to do in these situations is have a kip or go to bed early, not stuff ourselves with sugary foods to boost our energy levels.
Heart Hunger or Emotional Hunger – This is when our hearts are heavy with some emotional problem or other, and we turn to food to try and fill that emotional void and make us feel better. We eat our feelings! Really what we should do is address those emotional issues that we are having and talk to someone until we feel a bit better, rather than trying to stuff those feelings down to the bottom of our stomach with food. Some people are fortunate enough to go off food when they are feeling upset or stressed, I am not one of those people, and will start to crave chocolate or cake when I am feeling emotional. But I have learnt to recognise these feelings and find different ways to meet my emotional needs – a chat with a friend or my mum, or spending quality time with my family.
Boredom or entertainment eating – We are all guilty of this, I am sure. Wandering around the kitchen, foraging for goodies, after your evening meal, during the ad breaks of whatever program you are watching on television, while the kettle is boiling. The answer to this is to change your behaviour patterns. Plan things to do when you get bored. Maybe wash up some pots while the kettle is boiling, or put some clothes away in the ad breaks, or if that isn’t enough, change your evening habits all together – do something different, plan activities, go for walks, learn a new skill, do a living room workout. Just stay away from the fridge and the treat cupboard!
Each time you feel a hunger pang, stop and check in with what kind of hunger it might be. Try the tactics above, a pint of water, a piece of chewing gum or a sugar free jelly.
Stave off the hunger until you are truly at a 2 on the hunger scale then eat until you are a 7 and no more. Retrain your body and your stomach that you need a little less than you have had previously.