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RE-ESTABLISHING THE HUNGER-FOOD CONNECTION

by Carol Coven Grannick and Judith Matz

We were born knowing how to eat. Yet, many of us have lost the connection between hunger and eating—a connection we made naturally as infants. Years of dieting and/or years of using food as an antidote to anxiety have obscured our hunger signals. The demand feeding approach involves accumulating experiences of eating in response to stomach hunger. To do this, you listen for the internal signals which indicate that your body is in need of nourishment. "Am I hungry?" is the basic question to ask yourself day in and day out.

Eating when you are hungry feels very satisfying physically… and psychologically. As you collect stomach hunger experiences, your relationship to food will change dramatically. As you nourish yourself in this important way, you will find that your mouth hunger diminishes naturally and that this care you are providing for yourself creates a greater sense of well-being. Identifying stomach hunger, however, takes some doing. Let's review some of the difficulties people encounter re-establishing the hunger-food connection.

"I'm not sure what hunger feels like."

For many years now, you have been eating in response to external cues—such as the time of day, the rules imposed by diet programs—or to emotional upsets. It is not surprising that your physiological signals are either dim or gone. Your goal now is to rediscover your internal hunger signal.

Physical hunger is located in the stomach between your ribs and your waist and is accompanied by a variety of sensations such as an emptiness or gnawing. Other physical sensations can include lightheadedness, a headache, lack of energy, nausea and irritability. However, these symptoms may signal that you have gone beyond hungry to "starved." At this point, hunger will be uncomfortable; you are likely to have a difficult time making a good match and knowing when to stop because your body is screaming that it needs something… and fast. Some people have a hard time differentiating hunger from a feeling they describe as a tightness above their rib cage, in the chest area. The latter is often a sign of anxiety rather than hunger.

Stomach hunger sensations can range from "a little hungry" to "definitely hungry" to "very hungry." The point at which you respond to these signals is up to you. What feels comfortable? Try to fine-tune your awareness of various hunger states and respond accordingly.

"I never get hungry."

The reason you never seem to get hungry is because you still have a need to reach for food in response to mouth hunger. There are several ways to handle this situation.

Remind yourself that your need to eat in response to mouth hunger is perfectly fine. You have needed to turn to food as a self-help measure for a long time; you will continue to do this until you build up another system—not overnight, but slowly. It is hard to believe that just beneath your mouth hunger eating is a hunger signal waiting to be rediscovered. Many of you will have to take it on faith that such a signal is really there. In the meantime, it is very important not to chastise yourself for your mouth-hunger eating.

For many people, hunger is associated with deprivation—either the deprivation of diets or the deprivation of unfulfilled needs in childhood. They feel anxious about experiencing hunger and/or confused about whether or not to feed themselves. Women on diets feel virtuous, albeit extremely uncomfortable, when they are able to ignore their hunger cues; neglected children make it a virtue not to allow themselves to feel in need. Nadine found that in order to calm herself down when she felt stomach hunger, she had to keep reminding herself that she would always make sure she was "comfortably fed." The firm conviction that you will never deprive yourself makes it safe for your hunger signal to make an appearance.

To convince yourself that you are a good provider, you must have plenty of food available—at home, at work, in the car and in your food bag. Getting hungry and having no supplies within reach creates a sense of discomfort and abandonment. If you feel neglected in this way, you will grab whatever is available as soon as you get near food. A trustworthy caretaker carries food and responds to hunger as quickly as possible.

"I'm afraid that if I let myself get hungry, I'll devour the world."

It is not uncommon to think that if you allow yourself to feel hungry, you will be insatiable. You have been trained to believe that you are uncontrollable around food and must keep certain foods off-limits. This training has convinced you that your eating should be controlled by someone more responsible than you—enter the diet industry. No wonder you think that if you got in touch with your own hunger cues, you would be out of control. Remember that it is the deprivation of dieting that created your exaggerated yearning for food in the first place. Your hunger cues will put you back in control.

You may also fear that tapping into your physical sensations of hunger will reawaken other "hungers" or longings in your life which have gone unnoticed or unmet. Perhaps the emptiness in your stomach alerts you to some other emptiness you are experiencing in your life. Remind yourself that your physical need for food can be satisfied by your own attuned caretaking and that this attunement will serve as a model for addressing some of your other needs as well.

"How many times a day will I get hungry?"

Hunger is like your signature—it's unique. Because no one stomach is like any other, this question is a difficult one to answer. In our experience, suggesting a specific number of times per day to eat too easily becomes another set of "shoulds" and thus a "stomach hunger diet." People who eat in response to stomach hunger report that they eat often throughout the day and find that on some days they need more food than on other days. How often you eat will also depend on how much you eat at a given time. Taking the edge off your hunger means that you will get hungry again soon; eating past fullness means it will take longer for you to get hungry again. Remember to drop all notions of meals and mealtimes and let your hunger be your guide.

Here is a general principle to apply: The more often you eat out of stomach hunger, the less need you will have to go to food for caretaking. Why? Each time that you feed yourself from stomach hunger you are demonstrating to yourself that you can be an attuned caretaker and reliable provider. In other words, you are showing yourself that you can take over the role food used to perform—caretaking.

The act of eating on demand is psychologically transforming. Eating in response to stomach hunger makes you less anxious about food and more able to think about your problems rather than eat about them. Each time you eat in response to stomach hunger you have taken one more step towards ending your preoccupation with food. Make a big deal of this with yourself. "Gee, this is terrific! I'm hungry! It's time to eat!" Generally it feels wonderful to respond to yourself in this attuned and caring way and you will want to repeat the experience. Eventually, as you accrue more and more experiences with stomach hunger, it will not occur to you to eat unless you are actually hungry. How satisfying!!

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