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What is Real Hunger?

By Caryl Ehrlich

In order to identify hunger, you must first understand what it is. This is not as easy as it seems. Many of you may never have let yourself experience true hunger, only a feeling of discomfort. Not knowing exactly what it was, you may have been eating past hunger for such a long time you can no longer differentiate between hunger and the feeling of anxiety, stress, boredom, or any number of other emotional or circumstantial stimuli. You haven't allowed yourself to go without eating for a long enough period of time to have felt true hunger; you may not have experienced it since childhood.

Each of us is born with an innate sense of hunger. When you were a baby and felt this sensation, you cried. Your mother or caregiver pacified you with a bottle or breast, and when you were no longer hungry, you pushed the food away. Before you could speak, you made yourself understood.

As a toddler beginning to eat baby food, you were still in control of your food consumption. Your mother might have thought you had to finish everything she served, but you had other ideas. You might have clenched your little baby teeth and not permitted one extra spoonful of anything to enter your mouth. She might have pushed your chubby little cheeks together trying to force you to open your mouth, but you would not. If she did manage to insert some food, you spit it out, sometimes on your bib, sometimes on mom. The message was clear. No more food, Mommy.

As she persevered, you finally learned to please your mother by finishing everything on your plate. You may have been told that if you ate your vegetables, your reward would be dessert. You were bribed with a lollipop if you d stop crying. You learned to eat all your food because it gave pleasure to others. It didn't seem to matter anymore whether you were hungry or not. You were taught to ignore your feelings of hunger and satiation just to please someone else. And you learned well.

Years later, you're still keeping a friend company by sharing a meal when you're not hungry, or accepting an alcoholic beverage just to be part of the crowd, or to please a hostess.

The dictionary describes hunger as the painful sensation or state of weakness caused by need of food. Some people become irritable, shaky, or disoriented if they are not fed at their usual mealtime. Others experience hunger as feeling lightheaded, empty, low, headachy, or hollow. At times a growling stomach prompts an eating episode. Some eat when they get depressed. Others lose their appetite when they get depressed. External stimuli are abundant, as are emotional and physical ones, yet few of these are hunger, just some other strain on your nervous system.

Human beings have a built-in fight or flight mechanism that helps them to survive. When your ancestors roamed the earth and encountered a tiger who had leaped out of the bushes, they would mobilize themselves to either fight the tiger or flee from it. Years later, you still face the tigers. A death in the family, loss of a job, or an illness may certainly have the bite of a tiger. Your pulse quickens, your mouth feels dry, your palms sweat and you'revert to old behavior and try to quell the anxiety by putting something into your mouth. You also may be reacting to the fluctuations of daily life a waiter being inept, traffic inching along, a line at the bank that cause you to eat a box of cookies or ask for a second helping of food. You might be misidentifying a minor travail as a tiger when it is only a baby cub.

Have you had the experience of thinking you were hungry at noontime only to become absorbed in a project or in a book, and have several hours pass before you think about food again? True hunger cannot wait a few hours. It demands to be fed. You were not hungry at noon but were responding to a time of day stimulus, another reason you've given yourself to eat. If you distract yourself with some other activity, the urge usually passes within a few minutes. Try to differentiate between your hungers and your urges.

Food need not fill you up in order for you to feel satisfied. A few bites of foods you don't usually eat can be very satisfying while baskets of bread, mugs of coffee, or liter bottles of diet soda might leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied.

It is not okay to eat when you are physically or emotionally uncomfortable. Eat when you're hungry. Stop eating when you are no longer hungry, not when you are full or there is nothing remaining on your plate. As your clothes get looser, you'll start to enjoy leaving food on your plate. It is a process that takes time to achieve. Remember:

  • Volume of non-nutritious food merely stuffs and bloats but does not satisfy real hunger.
  • Variety and texture along with nutrition satiates hunger.

This article is an excerpt from the book Conquer Your Food Addiction authored by Caryl Ehrlich. Caryl also teaches The Caryl Ehrlich Program, a one-on-one behavioral approach to weight loss in her office in New York City, or if you're out of town or out of the country, by phone 212-986-7155 or email. Visit her blog to know more about weight loss and how to keep it off without diet, deprivation, props, or pills.
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