I Can’t Tell if I’m Hungry
By Michelle May, M.D.
Q – I am learning to eat mindfully but one issue has been a big struggle for me: I can’t tell if I’m hungry. I constantly ask myself, “Am I hungry?” and rate myself on the Hunger and Fullness scale but I am never hungry or I am missing the symptoms. The only cues I get are when my blood sugar level drops and I feel lightheaded and shaky. If I only eat when I get severe symptoms, I am only eating twice a day and I feel tired and sluggish all the time. I’ve spent the past 13 years eating on a schedule every 3-4 hours, never allowing myself to become hungry but that just wasn’t working for me either.
A – Thank you for your question. After years of ignoring hunger, it is not surprising that it is taking time for you to become attuned to the more subtle cues. Here are a few ideas for you to experiment with:
- Instead of asking “Am I hungry?” all the time, try doing a Body-Mind-Heart Scan (page 36-37 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat) every 2-3 hours just to see what you notice. After your scan, jot down whatever you notice in your Mindful Eating Program Awareness Journal – even if it seems unrelated. There may be a subtle symptom or two that you didn’t realize was hunger. (For me, I realized that I get irritable and my upper abdomen starts to feel hollow when I’m hungry.) Our Mindful Eating Virtual Coach app has a timer that you can set and it will remind you to do the scan and provides the instructions when the timer goes off.
- If you don’t think you are hungry but it has been four or more hours since you ate, you may want to check in more frequently so you can catch the symptoms before you are lightheaded and shaky.
- Notice how much you’re eating. If you are overly hungry by the time you eat, you may be more likely to overeat—and that may mean that you won’t get hungry as often. Similarly, notice what you are eating since some foods (like protein) lead to satiety for longer periods of time.
- If after trying the above ideas, you still aren’t noticing hunger, then use your “wise mind.” This is the wisdom that you have already discovered by noticing that you are tired and sluggish—also signs of hunger—probably because you aren’t eating often enough. Plan to eat at least three times a day; continue your regular Body-Mind-Heart Scans but if you still aren’t noticing hunger when it makes sense that you would (for example within an hour or two after waking up), then go ahead and have a small meal even if you are not hungry. Then wait to see when hunger comes – which will probably be at least 4 hours depending on what and how much you ate.
- While experimenting with these techniques, tune up your awareness by practicing nonjudgmental mindfulness in other situations at other times. For example, really feel the shower water on your skin; listen to the ceiling fan; notice the seeds on a strawberry, and so on. With practice, it will become more natural to notice the subtle cues in and around you!
Don’t worry that you can’t tell if you are hungry. With mindfulness and curiosity, awareness of hunger will soon feel natural again!
By Michelle May, M.D.
If you eat for emotional reasons—when you’re sad, mad, glad, stressed, or lonely—you probably eat in order to feel better. And eating works!
Unfortunately, you usually feel worse afterward—emotionally and physically. That may cause you to beat yourself up—quite literally adding insult to injury. The guilt and shame become yet another trigger for emotional eating, feeding the eat-repent-repeat cycle.
What if the first step to breaking this cycle is self-compassion instead of self-criticism? How might that help? And more important, where do you start?
How does self-compassion help with emotional eating?
As difficult as it may be to fathom, being understanding and forgiving of yourself for overeating will help you take the next step to finding other ways to meet your emotional needs.
After all, you don’t eat for emotional reasons because you are “weak-willed,” “stupid,” or “out of control.” You do it because it works!
Blaming, shaming, criticizing, and finding fault for attempting to care for yourself only backfires. Imagine you were teaching a young child something new… would blaming, shaming, criticizing, and finding fault help or hurt? The way you speak to yourself has just as much power! (You may be afraid that if you are “nice” to yourself, you won’t change, but the opposite is true! You care for yourself because you accept yourself, not so you’ll accept yourself. Read Fear of Self-Acceptance.)
So how can you begin to respond with self-compassion when you overeat?
Three Ways to Nurture Self-Compassion
Gently acknowledge that you were doing the best you could in that moment.
Validate your thoughts, feelings, and actions as being normal and understandable given the circumstances. As Dr. Kari Anderson, my co-author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, says, “Of course!” It’s like saying, “I totally get why you thought, felt, or did that!”
Of course you ate! Who wouldn’t want to feel better when you’re sad, mad, stressed, or lonely—or magnify the pleasure when you’re glad? This validation and unconditional acceptance creates a safe environment for experimenting with new thoughts, feelings, and actions.
When you overeat, validate the choice as being rational at the time: “Of course you __________________!” This gentle, understanding self-talk will open the door to exploring how you might do it differently next time if you don’t like how it turned out.
Bring nonjudgmental awareness to the situation.
Mindful eating is all about bringing nonjudgmental awareness to your choices and experiences with eating. Nonjudgment is essential because it provides a more objective understanding of what happened and why.
Dr. Camerin Ross, one of the two therapists at our upcoming Mindful Eating for Emotional Eating and Binge Eating Retreat, suggests writing about an overeating or binge eating episode and identifying the “voices” that show up. Nonjudgmentally recognizing how your Restrictive Eating, Overeating, and Binge Eating voices drive the cycle affords you the opportunity to cultivate your Self-Care Voice. (Read through this sample script to see how this works.)
Cultivate Your Self-Care Voice
Your Self-Care Voice wants the best for you. It is unconditionally compassionate, affirming, and accepting. Your Self-Care voice is the voice of kindness and wisdom. It is like a loving parent who guides you to learn from your mistakes, face your challenges, and loves you unconditionally, faults and all.
By Michelle May, M.D.
I overheard someone tell her friend, “I gain five pounds every time we go on vacation so I’m on a diet until we leave.” This is yet another great example of why diets are so ineffective; you are either on one or off one. On the other hand, you never need to take a vacation from mindful eating! So how do you enjoy a vacation without counting everything you eat or “blowing it”? The solution is to shift your thinking from a Vacation Mindset to a Mindful Eating on Vacation mindset. Let’s compare the difference.
Vacation Mindset: I’m on vacation so I’m going to eat as much as I want.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I’m on vacation so I’m going to eat as much as I want, but not more than I need because I still want to feel good.
Vacation Mindset: I dieted before vacation and I’ll go back on my diet when I get home to lose what I gain. I better enjoy eating while I can.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I eat what I love and love what I eat every day.
Vacation Mindset: Food is everywhere all the time so I can eat constantly.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: Food is everywhere all the time so I can wait to eat until I’m actually hungry.
Vacation Mindset: There are so many great restaurants and foods to try! I’m going to try everything.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: There are so many great restaurants and foods to try! I can afford to be selective about what I use my hunger for.
Vacation Mindset: The food is amazing!
Mindful Eating on Vacation: Some of the food is amazing. When it isn’t, I don’t bother with more than a bite.
Vacation Mindset: I don’t want to miss out on anything.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: Opportunities to eat just keep showing up so there’s no need to worry about missing out on anything.
Vacation Mindset: I’m not going to worry about what I eat this week.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I eat to meet my needs for nourishment and enjoyment no matter where I am.
Vacation Mindset: I have to get my money’s worth.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I get my money’s worth when I eat exactly what I need. More than that is a waste of food and makes me feel uncomfortable.
Vacation Mindset: I’m on vacation so I’m going to splurge.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I’m on vacation so I going to enjoy some new foods and new activities.
Vacation Mindset: I’m going to eat until I’m unconscious.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I’m going to eat until I feel content then I’m going to relax with a good book and maybe enjoy a nap.
Vacation Mindset: I’ll eat until I’m stuffed tonight but I’ll hit the gym to make up for it tomorrow.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I’ll eat until I’m comfortable tonight. Maybe I’ll check out the gym tomorrow.
Vacation Mindset: I’m on vacation! Why exercise?
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I’m on vacation! Why exercise when I can swim, walk on the beach, dance, hike, go sightseeing, kayak, play golf or tennis…
Vacation Mindset: I know I’ll gain five pounds.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I know I’ll enjoy an abundance of wonderful food and come home feeling great!
Of course, even when you aren’t on vacation, mindful eating helps in any situation where there’s an abundance of food—in other words, every other day of your life!