Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hunger Conditioning

When I first started restricting my eating in the hopes of losing weight (as outlined in my plan linked on the right), hunger used to drive me nearly insane. Even now, with relatively moderate restriction (1400-1700 calories a day, mainly falling in the range of 1500-1600), there are times when hunger nags at me. Of course “nagging” is better than “gnawing”, which is what it used to be.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


Anonymous said...

I can relate to every word you write! But I'm still in the first phase, to borrow your phrase, in terms of hunger conditioning. I am still learning to recognize the feelings and thoughts I associate with hunger. A few days ago, for instance, I was upset and felt afraid that all my efforts were for nothing. That is, I recall thinking: "I'm trying so hard and things aren't getting better. This isn't fair." That was my reaction to seeing the scale hovering over the same number for a month, and, more saliently, experiencing one of those days when hunger felt particularly acute and painful.

But my feelings were out of proportion to the situation. Sure, this plateau is discouraging. And yes, it isn't fair. But I really believed for several hours that the scale would NEVER budge any lower. I thought: "This is as good as it is going to get??!!! WTF!"

Then I realized something. I used to think those same thoughts as a child. Often. In response to different circumstances.

During childhood, no matter how hard I tried to change my circumstances at home, no matter how I changed my own behavior, I continued to feel hopeless and miserable because I continued to be abused by forces over which I had no control (my parents).

Wow. When did the scale become my parents, I wonder? Or more accurately, when & WHY did I turn the scale into my surrogate parents?

And when did I start interpreting hunger as ABUSE? As something I must try to achieve freedom?

That illusion is so tempting to drift toward if left unexamined, the notion that feeling the absence of hunger is like feeling free from abuse. In truth, though, the lack of hunger does not equal my liberation.

This is something I need to continue to work through and resolve.


screaming fatgirl said...

I'm really glad you posted your comment because I have had similar feelings my whole life as well. I guess it really goes back to a sense of learned helplessness, insecurity, and feeling as if we have no control of the outcome of events regardless of our actions. We eat less, exercise more, but have a sense that we still won't lose weight. Of course, this is not true (at least not for most people), but there's certainly something in our lives which lead us to believe that we have no control even when we do.

The fact that both of us had hard upbringings which may have contributed to this is interesting. It does show how your parents have multiple effects on how you manage your life in regards to food. Not only do they set the stage for your nutritional understanding (and in my case, my weight was created by the way they fed me in childhood), but also your perceptions of your ability to do anything about anything (including weight) in terms of your ability to carry on with a lifestyle change which is very difficult to follow through on. And it is hard, on so many levels.

I wonder if, in your case, you are so accustomed to someone or something else having power over you that you find ways to give power away. In this case, you give it to the scale. In my case, I have often given it to other people, allowing them to manipulate my emotions or my value as a person. I wonder if I resist the scale so much at this point in time because I know I'll hand power over to it if I give it one scrap of influence over me.

Thanks for sharing, and good luck with your self-discovery.

Anonymous said...

Your insights empower me.

I have always been afraid of feeling powerful. I associate power with domination, or control. But domination (or rather the need to dominate others or to dominate oneself) comes from a place of insecurity, from the perception of inner powerlessness or isolation. I saw that in my parents. I see it in people who act cruelly and lack compassion.

As I lose weight, and become more comfortable in my body, sometimes I do feel a greater sense of power. But it is the kind of power that comes from a growing understanding of the human condition (enhanced awareness of our mutual struggles.)

And yet...I still protect myself from much social contact. As you suggest, it is very hard for me to NOT allow the opinions of others to manipulate my perception of self worth. More than anything, I believe my long term success with weight loss will depend on my continued cultivation of an unwavering belief in my own value as a human being.

Thanks for your kindness and honesty.