This trimester in school, I am taking my first elective: Mindful Eating and Nourishment. Mindfulness is a truly burgeoning area of focus in the health and wellness industry. Mindfulness training is being applied as part of the treatment plan for many psychological conditions including addiction and anxiety. The basic premise behind mindfulness is to observe the thoughts and the body WITHOUT JUDGEMENT. This means being open to whatever comes up, working to retrain the brain away from its ingrained reactions. Becoming more mindful can greatly improve many areas of your life.
While it is clear there is disorder in the food we as a society are eating, the method in which we are eating is an even bigger problem. Compared to other countries, we as Americans eat faster and with much less awareness and appreciation for what is in front of us. You will hear many people claim to absolutely love food, but if you watch them eat, they don’t actually take the time to savor and enjoy their food. We keep ourselves so busy that we eat and drink while reading, watching T.V., responding to emails, or driving. Instead of staying in its place of importance, the food on our plate takes a backseat to our other concerns. We realize halfway through a meal that we haven’t even tasted our last 10 bites of food.
Because we are eating so rapidly, our body does not have enough time to send us a signal that it is full. If we eat this way often enough, our mind starts to be unable to even understand the signals coming from the body. Eventually, our body might decide to stop sending the signals entirely.
Mindful eating is a huge area of research, so I will introduce just one of the core concepts in this post. According to Jan Chozen Bays, an expert in the mindfulness arena, there are seven hungers at work in our body: eye, nose, mouth, stomach, cell, mind, and heart hunger. For most of us, we have a narrower view of hunger. How would you describe hunger to someone else? Probably you would say something about your stomach feeling empty, or maybe feeling light-headed or cranky? There is actually a whole lot more that goes into it than that! If you have any interest in this topic, Bays’ book, Mindful Eating, is an approachable yet compelling read. It even includes a few brief meditations relating to mindfulness.
Eye Hunger: The first hunger comes from our ability to see our food. You have experienced this any time you finish a meal at a restaurant and feel so full you could burst. But then, the waiter comes by with a tray of meticulously arranged desserts and maybe you could have a little something more. This comes in to play in advertising in a huge way as well. In both cases, it is the beauty of food that is drawing your attention and desire. You can use this to your advantage. Take an extra few seconds to create a nice arrangement of your food when placing it on a plate. Before digging in to your food, spend a moment or two appreciating the visual appeal of what you have in front of you! Notice the different colors, textures, sizes, and shapes of your food. This will increase your enjoyment of your food, and perhaps help you to slow down while eating. If you tend to overeat, slowing down can help you eat less.
Nose Hunger: We have probably all heard how important your sense of smell is to the taste of your food. You’ve experienced this fact every time you have had any congestion from a cold or allergies. Food seems more bland and less enjoyable. Scents can also be tightly tied to memories from your past. Foods that we have enjoyed in the past will become associated with their smells. This is why the aroma of freshly baked cookies or bread, freshly brewed coffee, or sizzling bacon can draw you into a restaurant or kitchen even if you did not feel hungry before.
Mouth Hunger: Mouth hunger encompasses the taste, texture, and temperature of our foods. We each have different preferences: sweet or salty, spicy or mild, smooth or crunchy. The food industry definitely knows about this hunger, pumping foods full of salt, fat, and sugar to overload your taste buds with sensation and keep you coming back for more. These types of processed foods are also the ones you eat quickly, not even paying attention to the subtleties of each bite. To satisfy mouth hunger, slow it down! Actually chew your food, feel the variety of different textures present. Notice how the flavors change as you chew each bite. If you keep this up for the entire duration of your meal, the mouth will be satisfied. If you only stay mindful for the first bite, and wolf down the rest, the mouth will want more and more.
Stomach Hunger: Stomach hunger may feel like an emptiness, constriction, or a grinding and gnawing feeling. It can be hard to ignore! Interestingly enough, this sensation does not necessarily mean that our body needs food. Our stomach can become conditioned by the habits of our eating. If you eat every single day at the same time, your stomach will begin to react in this way out of expectations. You may also have stomach pangs due to anxiety or stress. Stress eating can lead to guilt, creating more stress, and more eating! Quite the vicious cycle. While your stomach can mislead you into eating when you don’t really need to, you also don’t want to completely ignore the messages it sends. This is where it becomes important to check in with the other hungers, to read the full message from the body.
Cell Hunger: I will admit, this is one of the more difficult hungers to access. It requires really looking deeply into the body, and is a skill we tend to lose as we fall into mindless eating. The cells may tell you they are hungry in many ways. Headaches, dizziness, sudden exhaustion, or irritability are common hints. If you are deficient in protein or fats, you might get intense cravings for a steak or a big spoon of peanut butter. A fun exercise to try out is a simple meditation on cellular hunger using a small item of food (a strawberry, a raisin, a small piece of dark chocolate, etc). Sit quietly, eyes closed, and see how the cells of the body feel in the moment. After scanning for a few breaths, place the small food in your mouth and chew slowly. Notice if your cells start to change their tune! Do you feel any sensations in the brain, stomach or skin?
Mind Hunger: Now this is a strong force! Our minds are often the force driving our behavior. With the plethora of information about nutrition, the ‘should’ and ‘should not’s’ flowing through our thoughts are abundant. Due to this, mind hunger is often made up of good vs. bad. The problem with this way of thinking is that research is always changing. What is good for you one day leads to disease the next day. What is good for one person is completely different from what is good for another! Jan Chozen Bays mentions the Buddhist idea of the middle way, suggesting that finding a path between the two extremes will help to maintain sanity. Once again, incorporating all of the hungers and truly listening to what your individual body is asking for can make a powerful improvement in your life.
Heart Hunger: Is there a food you always ate with family growing up, one that still brings back a wave of nostalgia? These ‘comfort foods’ are one basis for heart hunger. Heart hunger can also be a desire to fill some perceived hole in life. We eat to ease suffering in the form of loneliness, boredom, anxiety or grief. Our heart longs for intimacy, whether it is with another person, an animal, nature, or art. Notice when you are eating due to some perceived sense of lack. If the rest of your hungers are telling you food is not needed in the moment, see if you can find another way to nourish your heart. Call a friend, take a walk outside, draw a picture, listen to your favorite song. If you do decide to eat, do so slowly. Truly try to embrace love through the experience.
If you made it this far, kudos! I know this is a long post, but the seven hungers are incredible!! Try checking in with these different aspects of hunger, and let me know how it goes in the comments below! Since starting this class, I already feel like I have a vastly expanded appreciation for the many ways food fuels me, body and soul.