“Am I actually hungry?”
I know what you’re thinking: “Duh, Matt. That’s why I’m eating, see?” Why, if you’re staring down at a steaming plate of goat cheese and zucchini pasta, would you ever stop to check the state of your stomach?
Inherent silliness aside, I think it’s a question worth asking. I’d even call it The Great Big Point of this article, a gentle enquiry about one of the most basic — and yet, when our brains get involved, complex — human needs. Let’s call it an opportunity, too, to impact a serious change on the way you eat, with consequences that carry all the way down to where it counts: the inches you can poke and prod around your waist.
My Favorite Russian
We all have that friend, don’t we? You know the one. The slim and trim companion (jerk) who can eat practically anything without gaining so much a pound, downing entire bags of macadamia nuts as a casual dessert. A great friend of mine back in California epitomizes this special power, a realization which never ceased to impress me whenever he sat down to do his damage at the dinner table.
I’m not gifted with the man’s metabolism, sad to say. I am gifted with an intense love for food, however, a factor which contributed in full to the extra pounds I carried all throughout college. And while I’d love to chalk up my progress since then to some supernatural quality of the Paleo diet, I have to give partial credit to where it’s due: a new approach to food that comes back to one simple question.
Whenever I find myself reaching for food, now, I always stop, breathe for a second, and ask the one question I previously never thought to ask.
“Am I actually hungry right now?”
I’ve done this for a few months, now, and come to an interesting conclusion.
I never need to snack. I never need fruit between meals or a few squares of chocolate after dinner. My meals are sized appropriately enough to keep me full for hours at a time, meaning any other food I decide to chow down on doesn’t normally have an appetite to match it.
Whenever I reach for a handful of nuts or piece of fruit, the blame comes down to three:
1. I’m bored. I come home from work, step through the kitchen, and see a jar of almonds on the counter, nabbing a handful from the jar in a kind of mindless routine.
2. I’m stressed. The latest crisis at the office has me reaching for sweet mints — something to chew on while I think, and a pleasant enough flavor to give me some small happiness while I do.
3. I’m daydreaming. About food, yes, and bags of macadamia nuts in particular, my mind swirling with happy thoughts about how delicious they taste.
Hunger, it turns out, is rarely a prerequisite for snacking.
The Emotions of Eating
That’s the nature of eating, like it or not. It’s a complicated need, arguably one of the most complex we ever deal with, and always with influences that reach far beyond just what’s on your plate. In the interest of treating the subject properly, I’ll just say this: I’m by no means an expert in how the mind and stomach interact, and I’d hate to misrepresent something that so many people struggle with on a daily basis.
In the interest of simplicity, though, I’d like to ask just one thing: be aware of this. Realize, now, how your eating habits are very much in the pocket of how you feel, and start paying attention to your mental state whenever you start rummaging through the cabinet for a late-night snack.
You might find, as I did, that snacking has nothing to do with your stomach. You might realize that dark chocolate is tempting because it’s chocolate, and then take steps to stop, breathe, and seriously ask whether you’re hungry enough to dive in on half a bar every night after dinner.
As a self-proclaimed foodie, I know this isn’t some easy switch. So many things I eat offer pleasure beyond the norm, and the satisfaction I derive from a special — or comforting — dish alone can often put me at the top of my game. It’s not much of a stretch to call this a kind of disadvantage, however, when you consider just how much I enjoy eating — and subsequently how I rarely want to stop.
Again: be aware. Give your dietary routine a little more thought than usual, and try and make changes if you realize that the adage of “eat when you’re hungry, don’t when you’re not” applies far less often than you like.
One Simple Question (With Great Results!)
I’ve since cut way down on mindless snacking. That’s not an easy thing to do, sure, but you might be surprised at how a simple question can make all the difference in what — and when — you eat.
If nothing else, don’t be afraid to apply a little more scrutiny to your meals. If you’re still full from dinner and later find yourself seated in a restaurant with friends, what do you do? Eat? If so, why? Peer pressure is always a factor, sure, but not the lone force that makes you pick up a menu and order food you don’t need.
I’m not advocating, of course, that you become that person at the table. I’m suggesting, instead, that we all practice mindfulness about what’s on our plate, understanding the myriad emotions that feed into it and then making several small changes from there.
And the best part? You don’t have to do anything complicated. Try these on for size:
1. Skip a meal. If you’re not hungry, don’t feel obligated to eat. I’m as familiar with the whole “well, it’s dinner time, so I guess I should just eat a little something” as anyone, so trust me when I say that there is absolutely no reason to eat out of dedication to social traditions.
2. Push away from the table. If you feel absolutely stuffed, why would you then try and clean your plate? Take the food home! And don’t feel guilty for doing it.
3. Go to the bathroom. This is a trick I use whenever I’m working on the massive portions you find at restaurants. Halfway through the meal, I excuse myself to go to the bathroom for a few minutes. I might not need to go, sure, but there’s another perk: halting my food intake for five minutes helps my mind catch up with my body and fire the signals I need to know that I’ve had enough food.
4. Cut back on snacks. Get out of the kitchen, if you need to, but just be aware of why you’re munching throughout the day. An after-dinner snack is a common routine, but I’d say that’s all the more reason to take another look at it.
The other best part? All of this can be achieved by asking a single, simple question.
“Am I actually hungry?”
Ask it before every meal, now, and don’t be too surprised when you realize that the body needs far less food than we normally give it.