I’ve been thinking about hunger and my response to it quite a lot lately, and reached a few conclusions. Hunger is not a good feeling and it’s not supposed to be, but there was a time not too long ago when people simply ignored being hungry because they had no other choice. Before refrigeration and preservation methods, we couldn’t simply pick up what we wanted to eat and eat it. In fact, it’s my guess that even 50-75 years ago before so much processed and packaged food was around, people viewed food and being hungry quite differently than we do now.
I’ve concluded that people in developed countries have lost the ability to endure hunger effectively. It's a psychological muscle which has nearly completely atrophied. We have this urge and we are free to act on it any time, so we do not develop the mental capacity to simply tolerate an uncomfortable state. It’s something our ancestors (even our grandparents) probably did a much better job of than we do. Of course, it helps that our grandparents weren’t surrounded by food cues like television advertising, T.V. shows where people are eating pizzas and Chinese food, or internet ads. Seeing, smelling, and thinking about food just makes hunger worse.
In order to help normalize my responses to food and hunger, I’ve been “stretching” my capacity to endure hunger and attempting to alter my response to food cues. The main mental exercises I’ve been following are:
- When I smell delicious food while walking around town, I consider that the aroma is actually better and more gratifying than the taste and texture of the food itself. I focus on the olfactory satisfaction alone and do not couple the consumption of the food with the lovely smell. In particular, when I walk past a bakery, I know the bread smells better than it tastes. If I feel tempted (and I actually haven’t been strongly so), I will think about relatively mundane experiences of eating that food like eating day-old bread, or bagged supermarket bread, or I will consider the times when I bought something based on smell and found it wasn’t as good as I’d expected. Attractive food almost always smells better than it tastes. I tell myself that when smell lures me to a food.
- When I am hungry, I consider how long it has been since I have eaten and whether or not my stomach has food in it. More often than not, I ate not too long ago and should be able to wait. I’ll try to put off eating for at least 15 minutes and then see if I can add another 15 to that. If I know or can feel that my stomach is not empty, I will make that “wait” longer, likely at least a half hour. I will choose a task to become engaged in to distract me for a while.
- When I eat and I’m really hungry, I often have the urge to eat a lot because I sometimes convince myself that being so empty means I need to be very full in response. The thing is that these factors are not related. Being very empty sometimes makes me ravenous (a normal physiological response), but a normally portioned meal (which is to say small and measured amounts of food) is going to satisfy me just fine. It’s extremely important to eat slowly and mindfully in these situations so that the experience of eating lasts and the mental need to spend time eating and to experience food is gratified when I’m very hungry. Wolfing down my food in response to strong hunger will not relieve the hunger any more rapidly.
- I’m endeavoring to react to hunger as something that I can set aside for awhile. Yes, it is bad to be hungry, and it is a signal from your body. However, I am not actually a starving person. I’m an overfed person. My body has energy to survive on, but it will only use it if I force it to dig into its stored energy. That means that there are times when I’m going to have to be hungry. I’m trying to develop an emotional response to hunger the way that we all have developed emotional responses to sexual arousal that occurs at a time or place when it cannot be acted upon. The urge is there, but we set it aside and act on it when the time is appropriate.
One thing that I often read from people who are trying to lose weight is that “you shouldn’t be hungry.” This is a premise that I disagree with. I think that hunger is a normal part of life, and losing weight means you will sometimes be hungry. I’m not talking about a ravenously, insanely, “I-want-to-eat-my-shoe-leather” type of situation, but simply that there are times when you may want to eat when you would be better off resisting. I want to slowly condition myself to have better hunger impulse responses because I think it will curb compulsive eating or poor eating choices induced by food cues. The latter refers to such things as buying fast food or a candy bar because I’m hungry rather than waiting a half hour and eating when I get home (not that I do that, I don’t, but it I have come close to making poor choices in the throes of strong hunger).
At the moment, I feel like I’m in a “second phase” of my lifestyle changes. This second phase is a lot more comfortable than the initial ones that I went through, but it is still something which I have to actively work on and endure some physical and mental discomfort with. I’m much better and more adept at portion control, spend less time ruminating on food or daydreaming about eating, rarely eat mindlessly (I focus on the taste and texture as I eat and eat more slowly), and I’ve conquered about 75% of my emotional eating. I’ve also broken the bonding between activities and food. I rarely think things like, “It’d really enjoy making a big bowl of popcorn and watching a movie”. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I thought about how this happy pairing of food and fun had just vanished without my really pushing it out of the picture.
That being said, I’m still dealing with compulsive eating and cravings. It is these factors that I’m doing these mental hunger resistance exercises to for. I don’t wish to stop eating or lose the pleasure I take from food (which remains considerable), but I do want to have better impulse control. I believe this will work, but only time will tell.