Understanding Mindful Eating: The Seven Types of Hunger
Written by: Norine Khalil, MSc, RD
I think we’ve all been there, I know I sure have – grabbing a handful of potato chips just because they’re sitting on the coffee table, or catching a whiff of those crispy McDonald’s fries as you drive by and finding yourself in the drive-thru. We are constantly getting cues from our body that we’re hungry and ready to eat, but does that really mean we’re truly hungry?
Mindful eating has been getting a lot of buzz, and even in the nutrition world, many professionals are turning to the art of mindful eating as a strategy to improve health and eating patterns. As someone who can honestly say I struggle with this daily, I wanted to dive into the first step of mindful eating, which is identifying your hunger. Believe it or not, we experience hunger in seven different ways…that’s right. Seven. So before you sit down with a raisin or a chocolate chip to begin your mindful eating practice, it’s best we identify what those seven types of hunger really are so that you’re one step closer to being a master in mindful of eating.
Have you ever been told that “your eyes are bigger than your stomach”? Well, that’s a classic case of eye hunger. We are visual creatures – we are attracted to delicious looking, beautifully presented food. Even when our stomach is quite content with what it’s working on…our eyes can convince us that we have a little more room in there for that piece of chocolate cake, or that extra handful of popcorn. So why not use eye hunger to our advantage? Prior to diving into your next meal or snack, truly look at it. Appreciate the colours, layers and depth you have in front of you before you take that first bite.
It’s interesting how in Canada or the US, a burger and fries is, for the most part, a cultural favourite; but if we were presented with a delicacy from another part of the world, say, frog legs, a large percentage of us would politely turn it down. Our culture, surroundings and upbringing can have a large impact on what we find satisfying and delicious. You may notice you're more into salty and sweet flavour, versus others who may enjoy sour or spicy because that's what they're accustomed to. To satisfy mouth hunger, take note and become more curious in the flavours and textures you are experiencing with each bite, and you may notice that it takes less to establish that same sense of satisfaction that it took the last time you ate that same meal. Bringing your attention to the actual details of that meal can have a huge impact.
Did you know that much of what we think we taste in a particular food can actually be attributed to its smell? Think about the last time you had a cold and your nose was stuffed up…did you taste your meal? Probably not, right? We have an extremely sensitive sense of smell, so why not use that to make ourselves more present in the act of eating? Next time you sit down to eat, before taking your first bite, just take a moment to take in the aromas. You might find the taste is amplified with each forkful!
Our mind is a brilliant but dangerous thing. It can tell us what we think we need, and cause us to turn a blind eye to what we actually need. This type of hunger is becoming increasingly louder in today’s world of extremes. Keto, plant-based, paleo, the list of diet trends goes on…we’re being told everyday what we should eat, rather than eating what our body needs. Mindfulness can help us work on realizing that there is no “good” or “bad” food like our brain might be telling us in the moment, but rather foods that serve your body at a particular time and foods that may not at that particular time. Practicing mindfulness can help to quiet the noise around food and give you the calm you need to listen to your body... and yours alone.
This one is tough. Many, many people struggle with emotional eating. We tend to go for foods that perhaps were comforting to us in childhood, or remind us of a happier time. Or, we might eat whatever is available to us simply to fill a void in a challenging time. Emotional eating is often tied to a desire to feel protected, loved or cared for. Tackling heart hunger takes grace, self-compassion and support. Next time you do feel the urge to eat during a challenging time, mindfully try to determine if there is an underlying emotion or feeling that is driving that urge. If so, ask yourself if there is any other way that may help to satisfy or acknowledge that emotion – perhaps it’s calling a friend, cuddling with your pet, journaling, or drawing yourself a bath and sitting with that emotion for a little while longer.
Nobody likes the feeling of stomach hunger. Your stomach growling in the middle of your morning meeting is something you try to avoid at all costs. What if I told you that your rumbling stomach isn’t always hunger? As creatures of habit, we begin to get used to eating at certain times, and that means your body is expecting to be fed, whether or not it really needs to be fed. So when 10 o’clock rolls around and it's usually time for a snack, you may noticed your stomach remind you even if you had a satisfying breakfast. Now, don’t get me wrong - this could be hunger, but it also may not be. Identifying stomach hunger is not easy – it takes practice, and it takes time. It is often mistaken for our next type of hunger, so it’s important to practice listening. Listen to your body when your stomach signals you to eat and ask yourself on a scale from 1-10, how hungry are you? If you do choose to eat, ask yourself again halfway through the meal. If you fail to see a large difference in your hunger scale, you may begin to see that the cue you were given was not hunger, but perhaps the result of another emotion, like worry or anxiety.
Ahh, the O.G. of hunger. This, my friends, is the hunger cue we were born with. Babies and young children are masters in detecting cellular hunger because it’s the only hunger they have. They know intuitively when to eat, and they know what their body needs in a particular time. Even though this is the hunger we were born with, it’s the most difficult one to bring awareness to. The other types of hunger can easily cloud our ability to identify cellular hunger, so it takes a lot of patience to get back to identifying what the body needs at a certain time. Truly listening to your body in times of hunger can, over time, help you to determine if there are certain nutrients you are craving to satisfy your body given what it is going through. It’s remarkable how intuitive we can be if we take the time to listen.
Now that you’re familiar with the seven types of hunger, you’re on your way to becoming more mindful of where your hunger may be coming from the next time you eat. Stay present, take in your meal with all of your senses, and remember to listen – your body knows what it needs, and with time and effort, you can leave space for it to tell you what that is.