Hunger, Emotions and Food
For the last few weeks, I’ve been staying with my daughter and son-in-law and my two-week-old grandson, Finn. I couldn’t tell you much about what’s happening in the world right now, but I am fully aware of what everyone in this house is eating. We not only have frequent and ongoing discussions about the timing and length of Finn’s nursing sessions, which—not surprisingly—Kylie tracks with a timing app on her phone, but I also get to be in charge of making breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the exhausted parents. This scratches the momma and foodie itches in me with exponential results: I feed them while they feed Finn! Oh, joy! Joy! Joy! As a two-week-old, Finn already knows the love and attunement of his mom because she—with Anthony’s relentless support—feeds him around the clock according to his needs. To Finn: milk + momma’s close cuddles = love. He also receives constant verbal encouragement from his parents: “Good job, buddy!” “You can do it!” “It’s okayyyy.” I, in turn, express my love to Kylie and her husband by making sure they eat well (although I do try to avoid the temptation to verbally affirm Anthony with “Good job, buddy” when he eats the sliced apple I put on his plate.) This kind of love is built into our DNA.
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? (Isa 49:15)
Here’s what I want you to know: Feeding yourself (and others) well, is an act of love. The quote above is a good example of that. Although I’ve touched on this idea in previous posts, today we’ll go a bit deeper into one of the key aspects of how to feed yourself well: eat in response to your hunger. Finn feels loved and cared for by Kylie because she feeds him when his body needs food, i.e., when he’s hungry. It’s the act of meeting his need for nourishment that causes Finn to feel loved and cared for. (While there’s no doubt that he benefits from being held close to his momma, if she neglected to meet his need for food, he would not feel loved and cared for. ) This same principle applies to us as well. Good self-care involves attuning to your body to discern when you are physically hungry and then meeting that need for food in a timely manner. It’s so intuitive that even babies and new moms understand this. Unfortunately, after working with countless people for over forty years, I have found most people seem to have unlearned what was once innate: We’re supposed to eat when we’re hungry!
The problem with this simple principle is that many, if not most, people are dissociated from their bodies. They eat out of habit, or—according to the clock, or —in response to an emotional trigger, but to eat when they are hungry(?)—not so much. Why is this? I believe there are several reasons:
They no longer recognize the internal cues that signal a need for food. (I wish I had a dollar for every client who has told me they never feel hungry before lunchtime.) This is almost never because you don’t need food; it’s because your “low fuel light” is not working.
They may notice hunger but don’t eat because they are trying to lose weight or are “too busy” to eat. (Can you imagine Kylie telling Finn she’s too busy to feed him? How do you think he’d feel about that?)
They confuse emotional hunger for physical hunger. In other words, they eat because they feel like eating rather than because their body needs fuel.
They unconsciously want to punish themselves or exert control. Were you ever sent to bed without dinner as a child for being “bad?” Withholding food when your body needs to eat can be an unconscious way to punish yourself or exert control when you feel out of control.
I wonder how well you are connected to your body. Do you know the difference between a craving (which may not be associated with hunger) and a true need for fuel? This isn’t to say cravings are bad but it’s helpful to understand the difference between a craving/ desire for a certain food (which sometimes is caused by an emotional trigger) and a physiological need to eat. Are you able to discern how physically hungry you are on a scale of 1-10, or do you only notice extreme signals of hunger or fullness? I encourage you to pause right now to check in with your body. How hungry/full are you? Are you able to differentiate between a number 6 and 7 on the scale? What does that feel like in your body? Are you tuned in enough to notice when you are starting to feel a bit hungry, or is it only when you get full-on “hangry” that you feel prompted to eat? Are you able to leave a few bites of food on your plate or stop eating a dessert because you realize that you don’t need anymore (not because you feel guilty)? Why does it matter?
If you wait too long to eat (whether it’s because you don’t recognize your body’s signals or because you are ignoring them), several consequences could result:
Low energy, irritability, and/or lack of concentration. (Trying to drive a car without gas is not smart; nor is driving your body without food—just sayin’🙄)
Increased cravings for sugar and fat. Your body is smart. When you get really hungry, it goes into survival mode. It needs quick energy (sugar) and concentrated calories (fat). “I’m starving! I think I’ll have a salad,”—said no one ever.
You probably will eat quickly, increasing the likelihood that you’ll overeat. It’s very, very easy to go from a 6/7 to an 8/9 on the hunger scale if you eat fast.
You may be more likely to eat in response to emotional triggers (like loneliness, worry, and stress) because you aren’t tuned in physically.
So what should you do if you recognize that you are not in tune with your body? It’s simple: Start paying attention. I encourage you to pause before you eat and try to put a number on your hunger. Are you a 3? A 5? Not hungry at all? (If it’s been at least 5 hours and you didn’t overeat at your last meal, it’s likely you do not recognize your need for food. It may take some time to regain that ability.) Be patient with yourself as you practice, and remember, you once knew how to do this without even thinking about it! Watch a toddler eat and be encouraged! It’s really that simple 😄.
Author’s note: We will pick up this topic again next week, so stay tuned! Please share this with anyone who you think might benefit. Also, ask them to subscribe to my blog. Lastly, if you want help relearning how to feed your body, I offer professional counseling sessions, so do reach out. Contact