By Julie Levin, MA, MFT
395 Taylor Blvd. Ste 115
Pleasant Hill, CA 94523
If you are a compulsive eater, hunger can mean many things.
Mindfulness is the key to regaining awareness of physical hunger and fullness. It is also the key to recognizing when you are eating compulsively. If you choose to practice this technique, it is very important that you also practice letting go of judgment. For now, let go of the idea that it’s “bad” to eat when you’re not hungry. Instead, think of yourself as a scientist, objectively watching to learn what makes you eat when you’re not hungry.
To begin, pick a day when you know your stresses and demands are low. A weekend or holiday might be good. When you wake up, notice any signs of hunger. These might include stomach sensations like grumbling, a slight ache or pang, or a feeling of emptiness. Some people notice hunger when they get a slight headache or feel light headed. If you are not hungry, wait a little while. Go about your day. Try to do something enjoyable. Check in every half-hour or so and notice if you are hungry yet.
When you feel hungry, see if you can identify what you would like to eat. Again, try to suspend judgment. You may find you want ice cream. Or you might want broccoli. For this experiment, there are no “good” or “bad” foods. You are just noticing what you would like to eat. If at all possible, feed yourself exactly what you are craving.
Notice what happens to your body as you buy and/or prepare the food. What thoughts go through your head? What emotions are present? Don’t be surprised if you discover something unexpected. Some people feel a sense of relief to feed themselves exactly what they want. Others feel guilt or shame. There is no right or wrong. It is all just information you can use to understand yourself better.
Eat slowly. Notice the smell of the food. Notice the mouth feel with the first bite. Is this a food that dissipates quickly? Or does it take time to chew and swallow. Notice the texture, temperature, and flavors. Is it sweet? Salty? Savory? Spicy? Notice how your body responds after the first bite or two. Does it make you want more? Do you start to feel relief from hunger yet?
As you eat slowly, see if you can identify the point where the hunger is relieved. This can be harder to identify, so go slow and gently, it may take several meals to get good at this part. As you become aware of feeling satisfied, ask yourself if you would like to stop now or keep eating. If you stop now, tell yourself you will be able to eat again the moment you feel hungry again. If you choose to eat beyond satisfied, or even past fullness, don’t judge. This is not a bad thing. Notice how long it takes to get hungry after you eat to different levels of fullness. Notice what it’s like to feel satisfied, full, and stuffed. And notice the thoughts and feelings that come up as you experiment with hunger and fullness.
See if you can spend an entire date feeding yourself whenever you get hungry and feeding yourself exactly what you are hungry for. Notice during this day if you have the desire to eat when you are NOT hungry. If this desire appears, use mindfulness to learn more about it. Is there a feeling or a thought that goes with the desire?
Often we want to eat when we have thoughts or feelings that are “illegal.” In some cases, it may not be “nice” to be angry. But anger is part of being human. You may find you use food to calm your anger. In other cases, you may find yourself worrying about something, or feeling another strong emotion. A lot of people eat when they are worried about getting fat! Again, don’t be surprised. I have had people tell me they thought they ate when they felt sad, but discovered they ate when they were excited. It is fascinating to discover the things we “eat over” when we overeat.
As you learn more about your compulsion to eat, you may want to learn skills to soothe the thoughts and feelings you are eating over. In this way, you can gradually reduce the frequency and intensity of your compulsive eating. Soothing skills include meditation, distraction, suspending self-judgment, talking with an understanding person, setting limits or being assertive with someone who is being rude or thoughtless.
As you learn to “eavesdrop” on your thoughts, you will know what is bothering you. And with that information, you will have the option to choose how you want to take care of yourself. Sometimes you may want to take care of yourself with food. But it’s nice to have the choice!