Head Hunger: Coping with Your Triggers for Overeating
By Michelle May, M.D.
Why am I hungry all the time?
If you find yourself thinking, "Why am I hungry all the time?" you may be confusing “head hunger” with “body hunger.” If you're someone who's sensitive to food cues, weight management will be challenging until you are able to recognize the overeating triggers in your environment and break the associations that lead you to overeat simply out of habit.
Let's take a look at just a few of the common overeating triggers and strategies for coping more effectively with head hunger.
BY THE CLOCK: Society programs us to follow a schedule, so like Pavlov's dog, you may have learned to salivate when the bell rings. The reality is that it's more convenient to eat at certain times than others so it takes effort to listen to your hunger cues.
Strategy: Though it's challenging to change this routine, you can adapt it to fit your own needs. Learn to pace yourself by observing your natural hunger rhythms. You'll probably notice that you get hungry every 3-6 hours depending on what and how much you ate last. Keep a healthy snack handy to satisfy hunger that doesn't conform to mealtimes. If you're consistently tempted to snack right before a meal, move your mealtime up. And remember, if you're only a little bit hungry, you don't need to eat a whole plateful just because it is mealtime.
HIGH RISK TIMES: Many people have times of the day that are high risk for overeating. For example, you may experience a late afternoon energy slump or a tendency to munch when you come home from work to transition into your evening.
Strategy: Know when you're most at risk and develop an alternate strategy. For example, create a Recharge Ritual or Transition Time that helps you relax or unwind. Save a favorite magazine or book to read, call a friend or walk your dog instead.
You can also print a one-page handout, “101 Things To Do Besides Eat.” Just highlight the activities that appeal to you and add some of your own. Keep your list (and any necessary supplies) handy and make a commitment to try one before eating simply out of habit.
‘TIS THE SEASON: Be aware of your seasonal and weather related cues for eating. Holidays can be especially difficult because of all of the social ties to certain foods and even certain people. Many of the foods you eat during this time may seem “special” and therefore, harder to eat in sensible quantities.
Strategy: These occasions repeat themselves year after year so you can anticipate what typically occurs and create a plan for dealing with your triggers. Make it a point to really listen to your body instead of the external cues when making your food choices. Also keep in mind that special foods will be even more special when you eat them mindfully when you're hungry, focusing on the appearance and flavors of the food, the ambiance, the other people and the reason you are all together.
TEMPTING DISPLAYS: Seeing displays of food like candy or nuts in dishes and tempting foods when you open your cabinet or refrigerator can trigger you to want those foods.
Strategy: Out of sight, out of mind. Don't use food as decorations or leave appetizing foods laying in plain view. Try putting tempting foods behind other foods in your cabinets and refrigerator. If a co-worker keeps food out, ask them to put it in a drawer instead.
MEDIA: Food is everywhere in television and magazines (ironically often right next to the articles about the latest wonder diet!)
Strategy: Get yourself a glass of water during commercials, avoid watching programs that focus on food and skip quickly over the food ads and recipes. Break the habit of eating while watching television—usually a mindless, high calorie activity.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: If you eat in front of T.V., in bed, or standing in the kitchen, you may have an urge to eat just from being in those places.
Strategy: Try to eat only while sitting at a table. Make it a family rule to limit the eating to one or two rooms in the house. This will decrease triggers like T.V. and reading and help you focus on enjoying your food without distractions.
BIGGIE SIZE: Restaurants often serve overly large portions to make their customers feel that they're getting value.
Strategy: Be prepared to have extra food wrapped up to go as soon as you feel satisfied or estimate how much you think you'll need and wrap up the rest even before you start eating. If you leave the food sitting in front of you, you'll be more likely to keep nibbling. Remind yourself that you'll get to enjoy that food again when you are hungry. You can also share an entrée or order an appetizer-sized portion.
FORBIDDEN FOOD SYNDROME: Although it's a popular topic of conversation, the mere discussion of dieting can trigger feelings of deprivation and cravings. Just thinking about restrictive dieting has been shown to increase food intake.
Strategy: Decrease the amount of time you spend talking about food, weight and dieting. Depend on your physical hunger cues to let you know when it's time to eat.
FOOD AND FEELINGS: Emotions are common triggers for eating. Food you eat to deal with feelings comes with strings attached—namely weight gain and regret. Most importantly, eating does not adequately meet your emotional needs so those unmet needs will trigger overeating again and again. Boredom, anger, anxiety and other feelings are a natural part of our lives and eating won’t make them go away. In fact, eating to cope with your emotions disconnects you from your intuition and interferes with your ability to discover and satisfy your true needs.
Strategy: The way to break out of this pattern is to stop judging yourself when you overeat and instead try to figure out what you needed that drove you to eat when you weren’t physically hungry. Examining your current eating behavior can be a powerful source of information about your inner self and your true needs and wants. Once you have identified the emotions that triggered the urge to eat, you can find ways to comfort, nurture, calm and distract yourself without turning to food.
So if you've wondered, "Why am I hungry all the time?" it's time to develop new strategies. By learning to recognize and decrease your overeating triggers, distracting yourself and coping effectively with head hunger, you'll soon break free from old habits. You'll find yourself eating less, feeling more satisfied and more fulfilled.
Discover what you need to know to change your destructive patterns for good in these nine “easy-to-read over a cup of coffee” e-book chapters from I'm NOT Hungry - What Now?
Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yoyo dieter and the award winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle (download the first chapter free). She conducts corporate workshops and speaks throughout the country on mindful eating and vibrant living.