Thursday, October 1, 2009
Free Yourself from the Feast or Famine Cycle, Step 1: Never Ignore Hunger
Hunger is a cue from our bodies that should never be ignored. It is an important sign that we are low on fuel and need to fill up with quality nutrition. When we disregard hunger, we activate the onset of the feast or famine cycle and subsequent adaptation response the body relies on for survival. These systems are hardwired into our physiology to ensure the continuing existence of the human species.
Our bodies have brilliant design. Before the industrialization of food, our bodies ability to adapt to limitation by slowing metabolism, switching into fat storage mode, and conserving existing fat stores to later be broken down and used as fuel during lean times, was what ensured our survival. Without this ability to adapt, humans would have perished during the hardship of winter when food was scarce.
The game has changed, but the 'rules' remain the same. We live in an atmosphere of plenty. We have the highest level of food availability than any time in history, yet there are plenty going hungry out of a desire to pursue thinness. There is a distortion that has been perpetuated by the diet industry that you have to eat less in order to release excess weight. This belief shows a complete lack of understanding of how the human body functions. Most who are overweight and obese need to eat more, not less. They need to learn how to consistently respond to their body's need for food when hunger calls. Many who are obese blame their love of food and their overeating for the condition of their bodies. The true culprit is a lack of nourishment.
True... some people do overeat, but even the urge to eat excessively or binge is provoked by not properly responding to hunger cues. Overeating and binging are biological events. It may seem that these behaviors are wrapped up in emotionality, but the truth is far more simple. You may feel emotional when you binge. You may be having a rough day when you overeat, but the basis of this behavior stems from an adaptation response. Your emotions are not provoking this imbalanced reaction. In fact, one of the first places this imbalance develops is in a lack of ability to consistently respond to hunger cues.
This should come as welcome relief because it means that there is a simple solution. For years plus-size people have had this idea embedded in their minds that they are dealing with an emotionally complex issue. Living a super-size existence does have its complexities, but this is far more attributable to social pressure, unrealistic expectations of what constitutes the 'ideal' body type, and in some cases, blatant discrimination. The reality is, diets are at the root of our obesity crisis.
Diet dogma has long preached that we should ignore our hunger if we want to be slim. In fact, you will even hear fame-motivated medical professionals exclaim on glitzy talk shows that it is necessary to experience a certain level of hunger when an individual is trying to lose weight... that this should be anticipated. Then you have that infamous commercial produced by the corporate giant that proclaims, 'Diets don't work, but they do'. Their infamous commercial represents hunger as somewhat of a spoiled child demanding attention. The day-glow orange muppet 'hunger' runs rampant, doing everything in its power to get noticed and fed as a pious dieter turns a deaf ear. We are told that we need to 'conquer hungry' in order to lose weight. This commercial does nothing short of make our natural signal of hunger the enemy. This type of diet propaganda is what is fueling the war people have with their bodies. It is this system of thought that is deepening the division between ourselves and our bodily wisdom. It is the basis of the obesity epidemic... a condition that has grown so prevalent in modern society that it is now deemed, 'globesity' for its worldwide impact.
In a very real way, the body of modern man is reacting as if there is a widespread famine when in reality we live in abundant times, full of plenty. We are inflicting this scarcity consciousness on our bodies and as a result, we are triggering an adaptation response. Our bodies are doing what they are designed to do... survive.
It's not your body's fault. Your body is accurately responding to the stimulus you are providing it. It is also not your fault. You have been subjected to misinformation. There is so much conflicting advice out there that it can be difficult to wade through the BS to arrive at the truth. We were never taught the proper way to care for our bodies. Quite frankly, it isn't in the diet industry's best interest to share this information with you. The truth doesn't make the big wigs the bucks. The truth will set you free but it requires you to step up to the plate and take full responsibility. This is your body. You only get one earth suit. No one else can care for your body, but you. Laying blame will not help you free yourself from the feast or famine merry-go-round. If you want to move forward toward health, you must take full ownership of your body. Your physical welfare is your responsibility.
I believe in keeping things simple. I'm 100% behind the idea of sharing knowledge for the sake of mutual empowerment. What I am going to present to you over the coming weeks is a body owner's manual of sorts. I am going to provide a clear and direct outline of how to care for your body so you can be freed from the feast or famine cycle once and for all. Once you are free, you never have to return to the place of your present imbalance. I can share this information with you, but it will be up to you to apply the knowledge. You are the caretaker of your body, no one else. Likewise, you can choose to take what I share and toss it out the window. All the choices you make about the care of your body are yours alone. The stimulus you provide your body with will determine whether you stay in your present state or move forward toward healing. Own the power of that choice. I think too often people feel helpless and play the victim role when it comes to their health. They falsely believe that they have no power to improve their circumstances. A common question obese individuals ask themselves is, "Why is my body working against me?" I think the more appropriate question is, "Why do we constantly work against our bodies?"
Perhaps we are unwittingly working against the best interests of our bodies. We have been force fed this diet ideology and it is what we have come to know as 'the way things are'. We are going to shake things up a bit and take what you have learned up to this point and turn it upside down. We are instead going to discern, 'the way things are for you'. We are all individuals. Our needs are unique. There is no one size fits all program mapping the road to health. You have a personal health combination that once discovered, will unlock the doorway to vitality for you. The steps I will be outlining will reveal your personal combination. However, it will be up to you to walk through that doorway and claim your new reality. Your future health is entirely in your hands.
Again, many of you are probably thinking, "We already know this stuff. Honoring hunger is one of the primary tenets of intuitive eating. I have no problem eating when I am hungry." Don't be so sure. I mistakenly presumed that I was adept at honoring my hunger. Every time I have been hungry, I have eaten. I should be golden, right? Wrong. I've had this habit of getting distracted by my work. I'll be busily typing away at the computer and I will feel my first hunger call. I tell myself, "You're hungry. Go get something to eat as soon as you finish this writing piece." As I am working away, my hunger continues to build. Up to 20 minutes can pass as I am wrapping up my work. At that point I have set hunger, verging on ravenous. My hunger pangs are in full swing and I need to eat as of yesterday. I quickly prepare myself a meal and voila... hunger addressed... but far from adequately.
If you let your hunger build in this way, it's already too late. You have triggered an entire biochemical reaction in your body that flashes the red light of 'DANGER'. All of those survival adaptation responses go into effect. Once that process starts, it can't be undone. It's like a runaway train. It will have its own momentum that can't be interrupted.
If you frequently let your hunger build like this, you are in a feast or famine cycle. Likewise, if you experience low blood sugar symptoms such as, jitters, wooziness, headache, irritability, cold sweats, or faintness, you are also missing your first hunger cue. Then at the extreme end of the scale you have those who outright disregard hunger. They feel their hunger come on but rationalize that they shouldn't be needing food already. After all, they just ate a couple of hours ago. How could they possibly need more food? In response, they will down some coffee or a soda... something with caffeine to 'take the edge off'. Others go out to puff on a smoke. What they are really doing is blatantly ignoring their hunger.
Here's the deal. Eating is an affair of the body, not the mind. If you are hungry, you need to eat... period. It really doesn't matter what your thought process has to say about it. You can't rationalize to eat or not to eat. If your hunger signal is present, you need to eat, even if you had food a mere hour ago. It makes no difference. Your body does not punch a time-clock. It has needs that must be met. Your body does not speak to you in the language of words. It uses signals such as hunger to communicate its needs. Don't try to rationalize the experience or the communication will be lost in translation. To learn the language of your body you have to feel it out. You can try to think about it until your head explodes and you won't be any closer to understanding the intimate language of your body. Feeling must lead the way.
It's time we understand that what we are dealing with is not a food issue. It is also not a weight issue. What we have on our hands is a self-care issue. Many of us lack this coping skill and in order to heal, we are going to have to refine our ability to provide ourselves with quality care. Take food and the size of your body out of it. It really isn't about any of that. Imagine that you had self-care really dialed in. You would always eat at the first sign of hunger because you would know how important it is to care for your body in this way. You would eat meals that you enjoy but also provide you with vitality and radiant health. You wouldn't be compelled to fill up on play foods that rob you of your energy and sense of well-being. You would want to move your body not because you were trying to squeeze into those smaller jeans, but because it makes you feel good and improves the quality of your life. You would have strong stress-management skills. You would ensure that you get quality sleep every night. In essence, you would create a strong foundation of support for yourself in every area of your life. This is what you do when you care for someone. Don't you try to provide these same things for your loved ones? It's because you care about them. Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten that we are also worthy of care and this is the area we need to work on. This is what needs healing. The imbalanced relationship with food, the weight... these are just symptoms. The root cause is lack of self-care.
Honoring your hunger is a very simple, but powerful step toward self-care. It is essential. Deepen your listening skills. Pay attention to that first sign of hunger. It will usually begin with your thoughts turning to food. You will start to think about what sounds good to eat. You may notice your mouth watering ever so slightly as your salivary glands gear up for digestion. If you tune in to your stomach you will feel an empty sensation. This is when you should start to prepare your meal. Don't wait until your hunger pangs are growling like a rabid dog. Don't put off your hunger by tying up one more loose end before you address the true need. You deserve this quality care. The work will be there. It's not going anywhere. Whatever is pressing can wait. Take a timeout to fuel your body. The more consistently you properly address the first sign of hunger, the more safety you create for your body. You lessen the stress and release yourself from the feast or famine cycle.
There will be times that your hunger surfaces at inopportune moments. Maybe you can't take your lunch break at that time. Perhaps you are on the road and the nearest eatery is miles away. This is where your responsibility comes into play. Be prepared. Always have a snack on you, wherever you go. Make it something nourishing that has some staying power. Candy bars are a poor salve for hunger. Don't set yourself up so you are relying on the nearest vending machine. A simple zip-lock bag filled with a handful of nuts and some raisins would do nicely, as would trail mix, cheese and whole grain crackers, or peanut butter and grahams. This is a wiser way to 'take the edge off'. Let the snack tide you over, but as soon as possible, make sure you take the time to nourish yourself with a substantial meal. The snack will abate your appetite but the need for proper fuel is still there. Use your common sense.
This is the way some people can get stuck on the guidelines of intuitive eating. They follow the prescription rigidly thinking that they should only eat when their stomach is grumbling. Not so! A healthy dose of common sense comes in handy when making food decisions. If it has been hours since your last meal and your hunger calls at a time when you only can stop for a quick snack, that doesn't mean the need for a substantial meal has vanished simply because you slapped a band aid on your hunger. That bodily need for true nourishment remains present. Break for that meal as soon as possible. Since you already have a little snack in your system, you will likely only have room for a smaller meal. Your body will tell you when you have had enough. Tune in to your fullness.
While on the subject of fullness I would like to mention that there is no 'right' level of fullness to reach. Many advocate eating to satiation, just shy of fullness. I think that is fine, if that is what works for you. Understand however, that if you are someone who routinely eats to satiation you need to be even more prepared with convenient handy snacks, especially when away from home. Quite simply, you are going to be hungry more often and will likely find that your eating falls in a pattern of consuming a little something 5-6 times a day.
Some people need to experience a higher level of fullness than this. That is perfectly fine and natural too. You have to defer to your body. If you only feel satisfied when very full, so be it! Your appetite will be tided over for a longer period of time than those who tend toward a pattern of eating to satiation. Your natural eating style may more closely resemble the typical three squares a day with the occasional snack. There is nothing in error with this. Every body is different. Some people are grazers and others need more hearty meals.
Additionally, don't work yourself up in a tizzy if you happen to overeat at a meal, or even if you binge. The bodily discomfort is enough drama to deal with. You don't need to pile additional guilt and upset on top of what is already a frustrating situation. Is it really such a big deal anyway? Think about it. If your stomach is stretched to maximum capacity and is over-full, your appetite is going to be held over for a long time. Your body will likely be processing that food for quite awhile. Whereas normally you may burn through a meal in 2-3 hours, a meal overeaten, or a full-blown binge, can take 5-6 hours for your body to process. Maybe even longer in some extreme cases! Your body will balance it out. It is designed to do so. Let yourself off the hook. It isn't the end of the world. In fact, if you retrace the steps of your day leading up to the binge episode you will likely find that at some point, you didn't address that first hunger call. You may have found yourself with your pants down so to speak, unprepared, without a handy snack. There is always a biological basis for overeating. It is a physiologic reaction from bodily needs not being met. You can leave the morality and guilt out of it. Put it behind you and simply wait to eat until your hunger comes calling again. As you become more efficient at providing yourself with quality care by addressing that first sign of hunger you will see binging behavior fall away naturally. Additionally, the more that you can adopt a relaxed attitude about your overeating episodes by letting your body balance it out, the more you will find the need to engage in this behavior diminishing.
From this moment forward, up your self-care by eating at your first sign of hunger. Don't wait until your stomach is growling at you or you trigger a blood sugar episode. Don't try to placate your hunger with coffee, soda, or ciggies. Put whatever you are doing aside for a moment and address your bodily need for nourishment. Be prepared for those times when your hunger may catch you off-guard by carrying a nurturing snack with you. Take this first step toward self-care and you will be making powerful progress in freeing yourself from the feast or famine cycle.