Three questions that will help you decide if you want to eat
Making decisions about when to eat can be complicated with the noise of diet culture. It shouldn’t be, but we constantly receive confusing messages about how to handle hunger such as drink water when you are hungry or to avoid eating delicious things at parties: FYI, parties are for eating delicious things.
Food and hunger are something we constantly think about; I read somewhere recently that we make more than 200 decisions about food every single day. Just seeing a picture of food can be a trigger for our inner food thoughts to kick in. And unfortunately, we have been conditioned to create shame inducing stories for ourselves about wanting food!
Here are some examples of shame stories created about food:
-->You experience a pang of hunger and think, “I shouldn’t be feeling hungry yet; I just ate an hour ago!”
-->Maybe it’s been 3-5 hours since you've last eaten and you feel ravenous; dinner is in a hour and you tell yourself you should be able to wait until dinner.
-->“I don’t deserve to eat this food, I just had X treat earlier”
Sometimes our shame stories come from other people.
Scenario goes as follows: you’re at work. Your coworker brings in delicious homemade cookies. Someone in office who has likely been chronically dieting their whole life makes a comment like “OOH I shouldn't eat this, its not my cheat day. But they look so good!” Your coworker is relying on external messages to make a decision about when and what to eat. And in turn, is making you and others around question whether they should be eating or not.
These “shoulds” and rules we make up for ourselves (and hear from others!) about when we to eat lead us astray from the very thing that we can rely on to tell us when to eat: our hunger and intuition. If you are presented with food and are unsure whether to eat or not, turn inward and ask yourself these three questions:
Am I hungry?
Check in with yourself- when is the last time you had something to eat? Maybe it’s been an hour since breakfast and it left you unsatisfied, or it’s been a while since your last meal and you’re ready for a snack. Time to eat! This hunger feeling is due to the hormone, ghrelin. Ghrelin is released into the stomach as a cue from your body that it’s time to eat- it doesn’t matter if it's only been an hour since breakfast. Your body knows when it's ready for food, kind of how it regulates your heartbeat, when to go to the bathroom, how to breathe, (insert favorite physiological process here).
Do I want this food?
Let’s pretend you have a cookie in front of you. The thought I shouldn't eat that might float into your brain, but lets try to reframe that mindset. Look at the cookie again. You may try some mindful exercises such as describing the cookie. Maybe it looks so delicious, crunchy but soft, dotted with chocolate chips just as you like(aka me describing my ideal cookie). Then ask yourself, do I want this? If the answer is yes, eat the cookie. Now, think about the same cookie. You just had a really satisfying lunch and feel pretty full. You know if you eat the cookie you may feel stuffed, or sickly. This should not be a judgement, but rather information to keep in mind. Again, ask yourself, do I want this? The answer may be yes, it’s worth feeling a little more full than usual. Or the answer might be no, I will save it for later as a snack because it will be more satisfying at that time. There is no right or wrong answer-what wouldn’t be helpful is feeling shame about eating a cookie. Because hey, it's a food; there is no moral value with eating.
Will I feel restricted if I don’t have this food, and inevitably binge on it later?
If you are working on your relationship with food, this last question is vital. It’s likely you will come across a food that you previously demonized (thanks, diet culture!) and want to make peace with again. And sometimes this means eating this food for your mental health, not because you were hungry for it. If you come across a food that you know will drive you crazy if you don’t have it, give yourself permission to have it. You will find over time it will be easier to tease out whether you actually want to eat it or not. There have been countless times where I eat a cookie because I know I will think about it too much later on if I don’t. Eat the cookie and move on with your day; your body knows what to do with food :)
There’s not a right or wrong answer to these 3 questions. And every time you have an eating experience, you will find your answers to be different. With time and practice, you will feel more confident about relying on your hunger and intuition about food.