Are you trying to achieve and maintain a healthy weight or perhaps improve your health via your diet? Despite your best efforts, are you struggling with those sneaky snacks that creep into your diet?
Most of us (including this naturopath) have been there at some stage. Standing at the cupboard or the fridge, looking for something to eat even though we aren’t hungry.
How do you know when you are hungry?
Hunger is that gnawing feeling in the stomach or those embarrassing noises coming from your abdomen. You know, usually when you are in a meeting and you feel the need to apologise for a rumbling tummy. Or perhaps you feel a little faint or lightheaded as your blood sugar drops away.
Whatever is your clue to genuine hunger, if you are like me, when you are genuinely hungry is not the only time you find yourself reaching for something to eat. And sometimes (maybe often) you choose something to eat which, deep down, you know is not serving your health (or your waistline).
The question is…why? Why are you reaching for the chocolate, biscuit, lollies, ice cream, chips, cheese, cold chicken or other food of your choosing?
Of course, we need to eat. Our food provides us with the fuel (energy) and essential vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients for our bodies to work at their best (provided we are making smart food choices). Our hunger signals are reminders that it is time to refuel.
But if you are someone who finds yourself eating when you aren’t actually hungry, perhaps one (or more) of these reasons will resonate with you.
Awareness is the first step on the path to a new behaviour
Dehydration is mistaken for hunger
Are you mistaking thirst for hunger?
Many of us live in a state of semi-dehydration and have done so for so long that it has become “normal”. I see it with lots of my naturopathy clients. I ask them about their fluid intake and we realise that most of their daily fluids are coming from coffee, tea, soft drink or alcohol (all of which can dehydrate you further). So think about your hydration before you reach for food. Are you actually hungry or could it be that you are thirsty for water?
Try having a glass of water first, then wait a few minutes and see how you feel.
Fatigue or lack of sleep
Whether your fatigue is due to lack of “TIB” (time in bed), difficulties with your sleep or some other cause, feeling tired drives your cravings for foods high in energy (calories) and foods that are easily digested (to quickly convert that food to energy).
This is your body’s way of keeping you going for another hour or two. Generally, you’ll be drawn to foods high in refined carbohydrates (think sugar or flour) or perhaps, caffeine. You get a temporary lift in energy, then crash again causing the cravings to return. And so the cycle continues. Addressing the underlying cause of your fatigue is the answer to cravings in this case.
If you want to change your habits around eating, make sure you pay attention to your sleep habits or seek help if you suffer from fatigue.
Perhaps you have difficulty stepping away from the buffet/dinner table/fridge. If the food is there you tend to just keep eating until it is gone. There are many reasons why this might be happening such as some of these common reasons I see with my clients.
Perhaps as a child, you were taught to eat the food in front of you and that to leave food on the plate was wasteful. So you ate in order to keep your parents happy and were “taught” that leaving food behind was “bad”. Over the years, this becomes a habit so you eat because it’s there, not because you’re still hungry. You feel guilty if you leave food behind or throw it out.
Or maybe, a bountiful table was the way your parents showed love and so you ate everything on the table so as not to hurt their feelings. Again, this becomes a habit and you eat to please others and not offend.
The first step is to become aware of your habit and what’s behind it.
There is also a genetic/biochemical reason why you might be a feaster.
Some people have low levels of a chemical called GLP-1. As a consequence, among other effects of low GLP-1, their brain is slow to register fullness so they just keep eating.
These people do better when they actively practise eating slowly. Mindful eating, paying attention to each mouthful, gives their brain a chance to catch up to their stomach and register fullness. They also get better results on a high protein, low GI (glycaemic index) diet.
Practise putting your knife and fork down between each mouthful and consciously chew your food.
Some people are constant cravers for food generally (always feeling like they are hungry/unsatisfied). Others might crave specific foods. Again there are a few reasons why you might crave all food or certain foods.
If you crave a particular food, it could indicate a nutritional deficiency or a particular metabolic need. For example, salt craving might be a sign of adrenal dysfunction. Craving chocolate might be a clue to a need for more magnesium in your diet. Craving a steak could be a sign of your body wanting iron. These are not hard and fast rules but they are something to consider if you feel you are drawn to a particular food. Is it your body’s way of telling you that you need a particular nutrient?
Sometimes the craving is driven by your body’s desire for quick fuel, perhaps in response to low blood sugar. Again this will often see you reaching for the sugary snacks. As soon as your blood sugar drops too low, an “alarm” goes off in your brain that says “get me fuel now”. Avoid the blood sugar dips by having (healthy) snacks on hand.
It might be a relief to know that cravings can also be due to genetics in some people.
Sometimes, it’s your genetics. Some people are low in a hormone called leptin which helps to regulate satiety. This makes it hard to stick to a diet day after day. In this case, these people may find intermittent fasting (for example the 5:2 diet or the 16:8 diet) to be an easier way of managing their weight. A protein-rich breakfast is also very helpful for these people.
Often cravings feel like an addiction and they’re tough to resist. Start by removing the problem foods from the house. Don’t have them around. Out of sight, out of mind is a good starting point.
Cravers have also been shown to be more influenced by food advertising. So don’t blame yourself for the urges, or label yourself as weak or lacking in willpower, blame those pesky advertisers….seriously, get angry at them instead of yourself!
Emotional or comfort eating
Emotional eaters eat to feel better emotionally. These are the people who reach for food whenever they are stressed, anxious, worried, fearful, depressed or bored. They often choose carbohydrate or sugar-rich foods, giving them a temporary lift in the “feel-good” hormone, serotonin. They feel a bit better but not for long.
Eating also serves to distract them from their thoughts but often emotional eaters are not even really aware of the feelings they are trying to suppress. Rather they are drawn to these foods at a subconscious level. Perhaps eating something is used as a distraction or a way of procrastinating about the next thing you need to do.
The first challenge for emotional eaters is to identify that they are eating to “feel better” emotionally. Then we work on tackling the underlying emotion or root cause of their habit. It is important to try to eat with awareness of how you are feeling before you reach for the food. We also need to identify how you feel after you eat and then work out alternative ways to achieve the positive outcomes you seek without always resorting to food.
Emotional eaters are particularly vulnerable to the effects of exhaustion so they need good sleep patterns. I also find that keeping a diet/mood diary helps to identify what is underlying their habits.
Having the support of your naturopath or others is very beneficial to helping you establish new eating habits. It’s really tough to go it alone.
Fear of missing out
Perhaps you suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out).
Perhaps you are tempted to try everything on the table because it just looks so good and you might not get another chance to try it. Maybe you start with more than you really need “just in case” it’s all gone later (when you are actually hungry).
This is often the case when you don’t have control over when you eat. You eat according to someone else’s schedule (regardless of whether you are hungry) otherwise you miss out.
Maybe you grew up in a family where you had to eat quickly before the food was taken out from under you by another family member.
Sometimes, it’s fear of being hungry later and being unsure if you will have access to food when you are hungry. For example, you aren’t hungry but you know you have appointments later and you may not be able to eat then. So you eat now or grab whatever is convenient rather than risk going without.
FOMO can be a big factor in eating when we aren’t really hungry.
So what does this all mean for you?
Have you resonated with one or more of these reasons for your eating?
There is often a genetic/metabolic reason why you are drawn to particular foods. And almost inevitably, there is habit. Habits instilled in you since childhood or perhaps they’ve developed over time as part of your way of life or as a coping mechanism to avoid “rocking the boat”.
The term for all of these reasons is “non-hungry eating”. In other words, eating for a reason other than actual hunger.
The first step is to recognise which of these reasons apply to you and start with the changes I have suggested. If you are struggling to make changes, these things could be getting in your way.
If you are one of my naturopathy clients trying to lose weight (or simply maintain a healthy weight), part of our time together will be spent identifying which of the reasons above apply to you. Then together, we tailor our treatments and strategies accordingly. There is no one-size-fits-all.