In this article we explore the notion of ‘hunger’ as part of the natural process of weight loss. Please note that we are not advocating starving yourself or even embarking on a dramatically reduced calorific intake, as both can be unhealthy, even dangerous. We are discussing the normal feelings of hunger that occur between meals.
Is your slimming group obsessed with food? It’s ironic to think that people who want to lose weight may start going to a slimming group, only to talk incessantly about eating! Apart from the obvious problem that the more we think about food, the hungrier we feel, there is a deeper issue here which we believe is making it much harder for people to lose weight, and for those who do manage it, to keep that weight off permanently.
Slimming advice is rightfully concerned with what we eat, as we do indeed need to combine the right food groups in the correct proportions and quantities in order to lose weight. But in so doing, we can become overly focused on food, and forget about the important periods between our meals where we allow our bodies a break from eating.
Are the conversations you are having all about what you need to eat in order to lose weight? For example, which foods have fewer calories, so you can still eat sufficiently to feel ‘satisfied’? If so, this is what we believe is at the heart of the problem – we still expect to feel satisfied by our new eating plan. We think this is unrealistic. There follows just one paragraph with some numbers – please stick with it, as it makes our point…
When we embark on the process of losing weight we need to eat less than our bodies actually need. In that way, our bodies are forced to burn some of the ‘reserve’ energy we have stored as fat. Now imagine a woman who needs say 2000 calories per day in order to maintain her weight, but prior to her weight loss campaign, she has been eating too much, say 2500 calories per day. In order to lose weight at what is widely considered to be a ‘healthy’ rate (i.e. about 1 pound per week) we need to eat about 500 calories per day less than we actually need (trust us on that one). In the case of our example woman, that equates to about 1500 calories per day. That means she must go from eating 2500 to 1500 calories per day in order to lose weight healthily – and that’s a drop of 40%. She must start to eat about 40% less food than she was eating beforehand!
Now, in no realistic sense can anyone be expected to suddenly start eating 40% less food, every day, for weeks and weeks on end, without feeling hungry, at least some of the time.
Hunger – our friend and our foe
Hunger is a natural physiological reaction. Without the hunger reaction we might simply starve ourselves. Hunger, therefore, is not a bad thing by any means! But hunger is a powerful sensation, designed to encourage us very forcefully to eat something. We evolved this reaction because for much of our biological history, food was scarce, and even if we weren’t actually starving, hunger would encourage us to eat more in order to put on those essential layers of fat that would see us through the lean times.
But nowadays, and for almost everybody in the western world, there are no lean times. This creates a problem for us: our bodies tell us to store up fat for the lean times, but the lean times never arrive! Like it or not, hunger is a natural part of all our lives, and if you are trying to lose weight, you will sometimes need to be hungry for a while.
So, how do we cope with this? As we have discussed, we talk a lot about cunning ways to eke out that reduced calorific intake so we don’t have to be burdened with the unpleasant sensations of hunger. This is the 21st century, after all – why should we have to be subjected to anything unpleasant, even if it’s in our own best interests?! Well, that’s the myth, anyway.
At the Weight Control Café, we see things differently. Pardon the pun, but we won’t sugar coat it – if you want to lose weight, you need to embrace your hunger. It’s OK to be hungry sometimes!
Yes, hunger can be an unpleasant feeling; as we’ve just discussed, it’s meant to be. But you needn’t fear hunger. Your next meal will be there for you, and you are not going to starve – no matter how much your body tries to convince you otherwise!
So, first up, embrace your hunger. Psychologists tell us that the first step to overcoming anything is to accept it. If you take just one thing away from this article it’s this: accepting the feelings of hunger will immediately reduce their impact.
But we can go much further than this. Let’s challenge the notion that the feelings of hunger are actually unpleasant. We tell ourselves they are, but is this really so? And have we ever really remained still for a period of time and actually ‘explored’ the sensations of hunger? For most people, I doubt it. If I asked you now to describe in detail how hunger feels, it’s likely you would struggle.
When we feel hungry we either go and get something to eat (even if we don’t really need it) or try and distract ourselves by doing something else. Distraction is a useful tool in many respects, but it is limited: we can only distract ourselves for so long before the thing we are trying to escape from comes back at us with even greater force. And, when we are tired and – yes – hungry – it’s all too easy to cave in.
Enter ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness is the process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. Mindfulness is a very powerful technique, and one that has only recently been embraced by western cultures in order to treat problems such as anxiety and addiction, as well as to simply enhance our everyday lives. There is nothing mystical or spiritual about mindfulness, it is simply the exercise of focusing completely on whatever is happening – internally or externally – in the present moment, and without judgement or trying to change anything.
Mindfulness, therefore, clearly has applications in weight management. By performing mindfulness exercises when you are feeling hungry, you have a means of exploring what the sensations of hunger really are, and you might be surprised by what you find out. Perhaps those feelings aren’t as bad as you have led yourself to believe? And even if they are, mindfulness provides you with the toolkit to deal with them – to accept these feelings rather than run away from them through distraction or overeating.
A mindfulness exercise for hunger management
Here is a short (five minute) mindfulness exercise which you might like to try the next time you feel hungry. Instead of trying to distract yourself or getting something to eat, try this. (Read the instructions all the way through before you begin, so you understand what you are trying to achieve.)
- Go somewhere where you will not be disturbed for five minutes. If there are other people around you, explain what you are doing, and ask them not to disturb you during this period.
- Sit upright on something comfortable such as the edge of a bed or chair. Do not lean back against anything. It is important to understand that mindfulness is not relaxation – you are trying to cultivate at feeling of passive awareness and alertness.
- Place your hands on your lap and close your eyes.
- The easiest way to cultivate mindfulness is to focus on your breathing, so this is how we shall begin. Just breathe normally. Don’t breathe any more deeply or slowly than normal. Remember, you are not trying to ‘achieve’ anything, just to explore what is happening right now.
- Turn your attention to your breath. What can you feel? Perhaps the air moving in and out of your mouth and nose? Perhaps your rib cage gently expanding and contracting? Perhaps your breath generates sensations in other parts of your body? Explore each and every sensation. Don’t judge them, and don’t let this awareness change alter you are doing. Just – watch. Continue this for a minute or so.
- Now, turn your attention to your feelings of hunger. Where exactly in the body are these feelings to be found? These feelings may be obvious to you, or they may be more subtle, and take more time to discover, but it really doesn’t matter. They may be in obvious places like the pit of your stomach, or they may be found elsewhere in the body. And what do they feel like? Perhaps like vibrations? Perhaps like pressure? Perhaps they defy specific words to describe them? Wherever and whatever they are, gently explore with your mind each and every one of them. Give them your full and complete attention. Continue this for a few minutes.
A word about our minds: minds tend to wander, and as you begin to practice mindfulness, from time to time you will realise that your mind has started thinking about something other than what you were trying to focus on. This will surely happen to you sometimes. When it does, don’t see it as a failure, just gently guide your attention back to whatever it is you were meant to be concentrating on. Don’t be critical of yourself, just return to the moment and carry on.
- In this exercise, if your mind starts to wander and you find yourself thinking about other things, go back temporarily to your breath, and focus on the air going in and out of your lungs. When your full attention has returned, turn your attention again to your feelings of hunger.
- Complete this exercise by focussing once more on your breath for a minute or so.
Sometimes, the process of mindfulness can arouse strong emotions, and you may even feel tearful or upset. This is not a bad thing. It is understandable really, given that you are finally giving your feelings and emotions the attention they deserve. If this happens, just return to your breath until you feel like continuing again. If you feel like stopping, this is also OK – you can always start again another time.
Let’s recap: hunger is a normal and natural feeling, and it is unrealistic to expect never to feel hungry when you are embarking on a process of weight loss. By learning to accept one’s hunger rather than retreat from those feelings, you may find it easier to resist the temptation to eat between meals. Mindfulness is an excellent technique for exploring and learning to live with one’s feelings.