Why ‘Only Eat When You’re Hungry’ is Bad Advice
And What To Do Instead
You’ve heard it a million times: only eat when you’re hungry.
It’s a great theory. But it’s unhelpful advice, mostly dolled out by well-meaning thin people who are perfectly in control of their weight and everything that goes in their mouths.
But when you don’t have that kind of control? When you struggle daily with your weight and stress relentlessly about what, when and how much to eat, telling yourself to only eat when you’re hungry is not only bad for you — it’s a bit mean.
- If you have long been on the yo-yo diet treadmill you may have lost the ability to accurately gauge hunger. You can’t hear what your body is trying to tell you — even though you’re straining to listen.
- When you have slavishly dieted for years you won’t fully trust your own decisions. You worry if you don’t eat little and often you will lose control altogether.
- Continually asking yourself if you feel HUNGRY will increase your anxiety around eating and make you focus too intensely on food. Food will become your ruler, giving it the power to ruin your day.
- When you don’t have an accurate hunger barometer you may wait so long to eat you become ravenous and end up eating all the wrong foods — and far too much of them.
What are You (Really) Hungry For?
In the simplest terms, hunger is the urge to eat. For most of us, that means food. But please insert whatever takes your fancy — as long as it’s digestible and not poisonous. That we get hungry is not interesting, it’s fact. The interesting bit is why we get hungry. There are three key reasons:
- Physical Hunger — a primal physical urge to eat because we don’t have enough food in our bodies for our requirements.
- Opportunistic Hunger — when seeing or smelling food (or a reminder of food such as a fast food outlet) triggers a physiological urge to eat.
- Psychological Hunger — driven by our emotions and mental state which is a hunger for something other than food: it’s a longing to feel better or calmer or happier than we do.
In western society, there are very few instances where we would physically pass out from hunger. However many people who struggle with weight issues won’t let themselves get hungry because they believe if they start eating in that frenzied state, they’ll never be able to stop. “Trust me, I would eat every piece of cake in town,” a woman once told me — and although she was laughing, she was genuinely fearful.
That fear leads many people stick to a rigid schedule of frequent eating which, over time, comes to dominate their lives.
It’s OK to feel hungry sometimes; your goal should not be to obliterate hunger altogether.
But, when you have a long history of dieting, restricting food or erratic eating, you have to think of yourself as a novice in this area, and so allow yourself time to learn.
Teach Yourself to Feel Hungry. Slowly.
The best way to start is to set a few simple rules for your day. For example, let’s say you decide to have three meals and two healthy snacks.
Then, before you consume each of them, assess your hunger — if you don’t feel like eating at the time, it’s fine to pass on it, but keep yourself feeling safe by just staying with your next planned meal or snack. And keep the quantities consistent. Skipping a meal shouldn’t be a leave pass to overcompensate with an extra large portion at the next one.
Taking a slow and consistent approach is the key to success. When you get proficient at knowing what real (physical) hunger is for you, and have built up trust in yourself, you can begin to relax the rules.
Remember, you need your mind and body working together to change your approach to eating. If you set them up for a fight, they may bite back.
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