Hunger Doesn’t Follow a Clock

By Michelle May, M.D.

Hunger-doesnt-follow-a-clockMany diets have rules about when you “should” eat, but in real life, hunger doesn’t follow a clock! Have you ever tried to follow rules like these?

Diet Rules About When to Eat

Eat within an hour of getting up.
Eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two small snacks every day.
Eat six small meals a day.
Eat every three hours.
Don’t let yourself get hungry!
Don’t eat after 7 pm.

Eating In Vivo

When I was in medical school, we learned about the important differences between in vitro studies performed in the lab, and in vivo studies performed on living subjects. Theoretically, telling people to eat on a schedule seems like it should work, but when they try to follow rules for very long, it breeds obsession, inflexibility, and distrust in one’s self. In real life, you may feel hungry frequently one day and rarely the next depending on the types of foods you eat, how much you eat, your activity levels, hormones, and other factors. When your hunger levels don’t match the rules of whatever diet you’re on, you end up “cheating” and feeling guilty—fueling the eat-repent-repeat cycle.

An Inside-Out Approach

How you’ll decide when to eat is another great example of the difference between diets, which are outside-in, and Am I Hungry? which is inside-out. Diets depend on your willpower and compliance to follow the rules for as long as you can. Mindful eating shows you how to use your awareness and curiosity to learn about your personal hunger rhythms so you can create a pattern of eating that works for you and so you can easily adapt to the ever-changing circumstances called life.

Let’s compare these two approaches. (The following is based on the Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat book series.)

Outside-In: Eat within an hour of getting up.

Inside-Out: While studies have shown that breakfast is an important meal to spark your internal thermostat, give you energy, and decrease overeating later in the day, not everyone is hungry first thing in the morning. If that’s you, could you experiment with cutting down on late night eating, getting up a little earlier so you can slow down to eat, or cutting back on caffeine? If you still aren’t hungry first thing in the morning, could you check in within a couple of hours after waking up and have some food available to eat? Read more: Should I eat breakfast if I’m not hungry?

Outside-In: Eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two small snacks daily.

Inside-Out: Your hunger patterns are affected by what and how much you eat. If you eat less or more than usual at one meal, notice how long it takes before you’re hungry again. For example, if you eat a larger than normal meal, notice whether you’re hungry for your usual snack.

Hunger is also affected by what you eat. Macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) are digested at different rates and cause the release of certain biochemicals that affect satiety. Protein-containing foods are said to lead to the greatest level of satiety; you can create an experiment to test this for yourself: What happens when you eat crackers compared to what happens when you eat crackers with peanut butter? Foods high in fiber are said to slow down digestion, but test it for yourself: Is there a difference when you eat processed cereal versus when you eat oatmeal?

Outside-In: Eat every three hours.

Inside-Out: Instead of automatically eating every three hours, check in every few hours. A Body-Mind-Heart Scan will allow you to notice when you’re becoming hungry and other needs, such as water, rest, or a break. (The Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Virtual Coach App has a timer you can set to remind you to do your scan.)

Outside-In: Eat six small meals a day.

Inside-Out: This rule is probably based on the observation that some people who eat instinctively eat small regular meals. However, they don’t do it by following a clock. Instead, let’s reverse engineer it to understand how they might do this.

People who eat instinctively are innately aware of their body’s hunger and satiety cues. Since the stomach is about the size of their fist, it takes a handful of food or two to fill it comfortably without overstretching. If they stop eating when they’re satisfied and not uncomfortably full, they’re likely to become hungry every few hours throughout the day. This instinctive small, frequent meal pattern keeps their blood sugar level and supplies a consistent fuel source so they experience fewer mood and energy swings.

Instead of using an arbitrary schedule designed by someone else, practice listening to your body and eating in response to your hunger and fullness signals to see what happens.

Outside-In: Don’t let yourself get hungry!

Inside-Out: This rule is based on the belief that people are incapable of managing their own eating and that if they get hungry, they’ll overeat. (Do you hear the distrust embedded in this message?)

In our experience, the opposite is true. Once we teach people ways to interpret their hunger and fullness signals to guide their eating (and how to tell the difference between physical hunger and all the other reasons we want to eat), they are quite capable of managing their eating without all these rigid rules. The inside-out approach cultivates trust and confidence, eliminating the need for chronic dieting.

Outside-In: Don’t eat after 7 pm.

Inside-Out: This rule is supposed to keep you from eating while watching TV or because you’re bored, lonely, or in need of a reward after working all day. If you’re simply following a rule, you may not realize the reasons you usually eat in the evenings. So, when you go off the diet (you know you will eventually), you’ll go back to eating in the evenings.

Try this. When you feel like eating in the evening, pause and ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” and look for physical signs that your body needs fuel. If you’re hungry but going to bed soon, decide what to eat that will leave you feeling comfortable so you’ll get a good night’s sleep. If you’re not hungry, your hard work begins! What other thoughts and feelings are you aware of that might be triggering the desire to eat? And what small step can you take to meet that need? (We do not take this part of the problem lightly! Solving this is one of the keys to lasting change.)

Inside-Out Problem Solving

Let’s say you notice that you just aren’t hungry at a particular mealtime. This is an opportunity to engage your curiosity and think about what and how much ate earlier that day and whether anything else may have affected your hunger. With that information, you can experiment with various solutions.

For example, let’s say you notice that you aren’t very hungry during your usual lunch hour. If you typically eat toast for breakfast and a protein bar for a snack mid-morning, you could experiment with adding protein (like an egg, peanut butter, or Greek yogurt) to your breakfast to see if it holds you longer so you can skip your mid-morning snack. Or, you could also experiment to see if eating a different snack, like a piece of fruit, would allow you to be hungry by lunch. Alternatively, you could try eating less at lunch and be prepared to have a mid-afternoon snack.

Similarly, if you want to be hungry (but not ravenous) for dinner with your family, you can experiment with different lunches and afternoon snacks to see what pattern works for you.

By listening to your body, you can adjust what and how much you eat to regulate your hunger patterns so they are convenient for you. Become your own expert by learning to understand and trust your body’s signals.


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