“Learning to be aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decision to begin eating and to stop eating.”
This is one skill that children are typically considered the experts – If not manipulated by adults, children have an innate ability to adjust caloric intake based on caloric need until around the age of 4 or 5. However, when guardians emphasize a clean-your-plate mentality, or provide other incentives for children to eat more or less (“no dessert until you finish your asparagus” or “children in Africa are starving!”), this ability is compromised. In contrast, older adults have weaker hunger and satiety cues, as well as weaker thirst responses, than younger populations.
As we grow older, we learn to rely less on our physical sensations for deciding how much and when we eat and shift the focus to more external cues, like how much is on our plate, how much our spouse put on their plate, what time the kids are hungry for dinner, when we are able to take our lunch at work, and so forth.
Eating more mindfully allows us to shift that focus back to physical cues of hunger instead of psychological cues. This can help us eat more appropriate portions when our body actually needs the energy.
Sometimes people have trouble distinguishing between appetite and hunger, even when they are trying to listen to their body’s messages. Listing definitions is typically not my favorite way to capture an audience’s attention, but I have to share the following definitions from Webster’s New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts by Labensky, Ingram, and Labensky (2001) – I’ve bolded the phrases I think are most worth of your attention:
· Appetite: The psychologically compelling desire to eat; it is usually experienced as a pleasant sensation associated with seeing, smelling or thinking of food.
· Hunger: The sensation resulting from a lack of food and the compelling need to eat; generally experienced as weakness and an unpleasant sensation or even pain in the lower part of the chest.
· Satiety: The feeling of being full or satisfied after eating; consuming fats provides a greater degree of satiety than does consuming carbohydrates or protein.
· External cue theory: The theory that some people eat in response to external factors such as the time of the day or the aroma or sight of food rather than in response to the internal sensation of hunger.
Notice appetite is pleasing; hunger is not. You physically experience hunger. Appetite is more of a thought or feeling of desire for a food based on physical sensations.
Additionally, “satiety” does not necessitate “fullness,” just feeling satisfied. The spectrum of hunger varies, from feeling extremely hungry to feeling extremely full. Notice this says extremely full, not extremely satisfied. Feeling very full is typically perceived as an uncomfortable physical sensation. Sometimes, this is still perceived psychologically as a good thing – for example, on Thanksgiving, many people enjoy the tradition of eating so much it hurts. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt.
The graphic below describes this spectrum of “hunger” to “fullness” to better explain the physical sensations of hunger.
By being more mindful of where our hunger level falls on this spectrum, we are able to eat more mindfully. This, in turn, enables us to better control the amount of food we put into our bodies. Many experts suggest remaining between a 3 and an 8 on this scale to avoid getting to hungry (resulting in a possible binge) or too full (resulting from excess calorie intake.) This not only allows us to have a happier relationship with food and our bodies, but can also have a positive effect on our weight status and overall health as well.
You know that feeling that you ate so much you’re stretching out your stomach? You’re not terribly far from the truth. The stomach is an expansible muscular sac – this means it stretches when you put food in it. When the stomach is practically empty, it is about the size of an adult fist. However, it is capable of holding up to 1 to 1.5 liters of food and liquid; some human stomachs can hold even more.
However, do you really want to fill it to the brim? An old Japanese phrase is “Hara hachi bunme,” which advises people to stop eating when they are 80% full. This is in sharp contrast to the American traditions of all-you-can-eat buffets, supersized value meals, and clean-your-plate mentality.
Next time you sit down to eat a large meal, visualize the size of your stomach before eating, and consider how the food will stretch and fill your stomach. Think about why you are eating – are you physically hungry, or are you experiencing external cues that are affecting your appetite? And as you slowly eat your meal, continually consider not how much room you have left in your stomach, but instead how much room you have already filled – are you satisfied yet? If so, put your leftovers in the fridge and enjoy them at another meal. You will soon find yourself appreciating your meal more as you become a more mindful eater.
Enjoy! Thanks for reading!