My job as a clinical dietitian specializing in eating disorder treatment involves a lot of education around what is considered “normal” eating. Understandably, many of us cannot identify what normal eating should look like in our daily lives. And that’s okay. It’s not a concept that is learned simply by reading a blog post, or reading a book – especially in a culture that normalizes disordered eating and encourages us to engage in behaviors that force us to ignore our internal signals. The very first step in learning to listen to our internal cues is simply bringing awareness to it. And you’re doing that right now by reading this blog post 🙂
Before I get started, I want to reinforce that feeling hunger is 100% normal and healthy. In fact, we start to worry when someone denies having hunger cues because that’s an indication that the body has stopped producing them. And while there may be multiple explanations as to why the body is not sending hunger signals, in the context of nutrition counseling, we look at two things: meal frequency/timing and meal composition. If we are not fueling our bodies consistently, or undernourishing our bodies through restrictive eating, then the body will compensate by ceasing to send hunger signals.
In layman’s terms, our hunger signals are hormones that send signals to the brain to let it know when we’re hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). Ghrelin is released by the stomach and travels up the vagus nerve to the hypothalamus of the brain. Leptin is produced by adipose (fat) cells and sends signals of fullness to the hypothalamus of the brain. (1) When we are young children, we rely 100% on these signals – and they serve us very well. It’s not until environmental stimuli start to interfere with these signals that we start to see eating behaviors that do not support the needs of our body.
How do you know if you’re listening to your hunger signals?
Great question – and my question back to you is: when is the last time you practiced mindful eating? Mindful eating is eating when you haven’t reached the point of, “NO ONE TALK TO ME! I’m so hungry I could eat an entire container of Oreos right now!”, AND you’re not sitting looking at your phone, computer, work, etc.
While the concept of mindful eating is straightforward, it’s very challenging to implement. Mindful eating takes intention – and trust – that our bodies know how to communicate and feed us. Even with what I know, I still have days when I don’t listen to my body. One perfect example of a time when we’re not listening to our hunger cues is when we eat wayyyyyyyy past fullness (we have ALL done this before). Like – “I feel as if I’m going to be sick” – fullness. It’s uncomfortable. We may feel nauseous, bloated, and really tired. This is a place where we strive not to be on a consistent basis. If it happens every once in awhile, totally fine! And most importantly, when it does happen, we don’t blame ourselves for our lack of “self-control.” Instead, we recognize that part of being human, and enjoying food, is eating past fullness at times.
Mindful eating is also paying attention to the types of foods – and the combinations of foods – that keep us full and satisfied. One of the best times of the day to experiment with our meal compositions is breakfast. Are you finding yourself hungry just an hour after eating breakfast? Are you skipping breakfast all together and feeling really hungry for everything at lunch? Even paying attention to how our body reacts (or doesn’t react) to meal timing and composition is component of mindful eating.
How to practice mindful eating
- Pay attention to the full eating experience – both external and internal (3)
- Look at texture, smell, color, flavor, and temperature
- Where in the body do we feel hunger?
- When do we feel 50% full? 75% full?
- Take note of the impulse to pull out a cell phone, book, or computer. Notice it, but choose to push it to the side for the meal
- Notice how we feel emotionally when we eat certain foods
- Does anxiety/stress influence our eating?
- Does sadness influence our eating?
Overall, mindful eating is simply starting to bring awareness to the entire experience and making small changes to support a more mindful approach to meal times. Don’t expect the experience to change overnight! It’s going to take consistent effort to turn new behaviors into habit.
What is normal eating?
Normal eating is…
- Going to the table hungry and eating until you’re satisfied
- Being able to choose food you like and eat it, and truly get enough of it – not just stopping because you think you should
- Being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food
- Giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad, bored, or just because it feels good
- Mostly three meals per day + some snacks
- Leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow or eating more today because they taste so good
- Overeating at times and feeling stuffed and uncomfortable
- At times, undereating and wishing you had more
- Trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating
- Takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life
Overall, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings. (2)
My challenge for you
- Twice this week, I want you to eat a meal without any distractions in front of you. No electronics, no work, and no study materials. Implement the mindful eating tips list above, and ask yourself how hungry you felt before and after eating. And that’s it: my challenge is for you to simply bring awareness to the language your body speaks.
- Reflect on the list of “normal eating” characteristics. Do any of these resonate or not sit well with you? Thinking through your own relationship with food, and what you consider “normal eating”, may also spark more self-reflection.
Coming up next
In part 2 of this series, we’ll talk more about how to tell if you’re NOT listening to your internal cues. Questions? Comments? Please let me know!
Other posts that might interest you
- Real Talk: 3 things you can try today to feel healthier
- How Intuitive Eating Can Change Your Life: Part 1
- Healthy snacking 101
- Living a life elevated: my journey to food freedom
- Klok, M. D., Jakobsdottir, S. and Drent, M. L. (2007), The role of leptin and ghrelin in the regulation of food intake and body weight in humans: a review. Obesity Reviews, 8: 21–34. doi:10.1111/j.1467-789X.2006.00270.x
- The essence of normal eating from Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family by E. Satter, 2008, Madison, WI: Kelcy Press.