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Mindful Eating: Understand Your Hunger, Strengthen Your Relationship with Food [VIDEOS]

By Michelle Darian, MS, MPH, RD, January 11, 2021

mindful eating womanThe start of a new year often comes with reflections and goal-setting, and this year, we’re challenging ourselves to reflect on our individual relationships with food. Mindful eating, a trendy approach to food rooted in ancient practices, relies on explicit attention to hunger and satiety cues and applying a set of habits to mealtime. Acknowledging sources of hunger, whether they be physiological or emotional, and paying singular attention when eating are healthy ways to modulate food intake without taking a restrictive approach. This article explores the various components of hunger, and how to honor them when making food choices.

ultimate nutrition ebook form headerMindful eating is an approach to food that places explicit attention on hunger and satiety cues

Mindful eating is simple in principle: Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Of course, perfecting this practice requires careful attention and healthy habit building—it relies on honoring hunger and satiety (AKA fullness) cues by harnessing techniques rooted in traditional mindfulness practices. When applied successfully, mindful eating can help to modulate food intake to more closely satisfy biological need rather than emotional desire or for comfort.

Before we jump in, we want to acknowledge that eating mindfully can be challenging because our relationship with food isn’t solely based physiological need—along with being life-sustaining, food can be both emotional and personal. The purpose of this article is to help you strengthen an honest relationship with food, not to promote restrictive practices.

 

 

To understand hunger, get to know the multiple factors that can influence and modulate it

As mentioned above, mindful eating practices rely on one's ability to recognize the many facets of hunger and consciously acknowledging the source(s) of feelings of hunger, whether they be physiological or emotional. Here are some factors that can influence hunger.

Hormones and related symptoms

Food provides energy to the body so that it can perform vital functions, and in return, the body can control food intake by modulating hunger signals. When we need more fuel, due to physical activity, for example, we get hungry. This is in part due to the release of the hunger hormone ghrelin from the stomach. Conversely, the hormone leptin is released to stem hunger when the body is properly fed. Some factors are associated with a change in these two hormones: age (as we age, leptin levels decrease), sex (females have higher levels of leptin compared to males), and exercise (increased physical activity may reduce leptin levels). [1]

Hunger isn't just hormonal, though—it often manifests as secondary symptoms like stomach pains, and even bloating, headaches, or shakiness. These are typically due to elongated periods of time without food. The onset of hunger is gradual and is associated with small fluctuations in hunger hormones. The longer you go without food, the more your hunger hormones fluctuate in an effort to signal that your body needs nourishment, resulting in these symptoms.

Lack of sleep

That being said, other factors like sleep (or lack thereof) can impact what you perceive as hunger. Interestingly, the area of the hypothalamus that controls appetite also controls thirst and sleep. Therefore, sleep-restricted individuals may have reduced leptin and increased ghrelin levels, making them hungrier than when they are well-rested. [2

Stress and emotions

High levels of stress can also impact the foods you choose. Foods that contain high fat and sugar levels trigger a dopamine release, a component of the brain's rewards center, and can make eating these foods feel particularly pleasing. [5] Increased stress levels can lead us to inadvertently choose foods with these characteristics to achieve that feel-good feedback.

Higher levels of serum cortisol (the "stress hormone") are also associated with higher ghrelin levels, resulting in fluctuations in appetite. [6] It's important to identify stress when it comes around, as this can help you differentiate between your hunger cues driven by stress and emotions and those from real hunger. Practicing mindful eating can help you in this process.

Vitamin D levels

Interestingly, low vitamin D levels are associated with higher leptin levels. [3] Leptin may be a mediator that increases parathyroid hormone levels, and higher parathyroid levels decrease vitamin D levels. [4] This relationship's clinical significance remains unclear, but vitamin D may play a role in hunger hormone fluctuations.  

 

Getting started with mindful eating

Honor your hunger cues 

Quick Tip - Adding Foods-2At this point, we've touched on why it’s important to think about the context of your hunger. It could be purely hormonal, or it could be stimulated by stress. But there are explicit questions you can ask yourself to parse differences like these and understand your hunger more clearly. For example, did you have enough to eat at your last meal? Did you complete a particularly intense workout? Did you hydrate throughout the day? Was your night’s sleep different than usual? Keeping these questions in mind during the onset of hunger can help you differentiate between hunger and what you may simply perceive as hunger. There are no incorrect answers to these questions, but asking them can help you to bring awareness to what your body is communicating.  

It’s essential to tune in to these cues and fuel your body with nourishing food. Eating when you’re hungry, instead of skipping meals, can also help you make healthier and more self-controlled food choices than what you may select if you allow hunger to persist. [7,8

Limit distractions during meal time

Occasionally, meal-time can morph into multitasking time—from catching up on emails to watching TV or cleaning the house. A key strategy of mindful eating is to limit distractions during meal-time. Aim to carve out at least 15-20 minutes of the day to enjoy your meal, sans TV, computers, and social media scrolling. A meta-analysis of 24 studies found that attentively eating helped control food intake during and after meals. [9] In other words, limited distractions can help you to get more in touch with your hunger and, perhaps more importantly, your fullness.

Take small bites and chew slowly

Devouring a meal quickly has been associated with a delayed satiety response and increased food intake. A study conducted on 30 healthy women found that a slower eating rate was associated with increased satiety. [10] Taking small bites of food and chewing your food slowly can help your hunger and satiety hormones keep up and respond appropriately as you eat a meal. 

Use all five senses while you eat 

Mindful eating incorporates all of your senses in your dining experience. How does your meal look? Is it colorful? What can you smell? How does it sound when you take a bite? How does the texture of the food feel in your mouth? How does the meal taste? Do certain flavors stand out to you more than others? Bringing your awareness to the meal can increase your sensory response and lead to greater satisfaction as you eat while simultaneously mitigating stress. [11

Understand your fullness

When you feel satisfied and satiated, put down your fork. Don’t feel pressured to clear your plate. If you feel hungry again later, you can pick up right where you left off. 

mindful eating checklist

In summary:

  • Mindful eating promotes eating when you’re hungry, and stopping when you're full—best achieved by applying traditional mindfulness practices to hunger cues and mealtime habits.
  • Principles of mindful eating can help to strengthen your relationship with food.
  • Hunger hormones signal to the body that it needs food: ghrelin signals hunger, and leptin signals satiety. 
  • Emotional eating can occur during times of stress, and mindful eating can help to differentiate between feelings of stress and feelings of hunger.
  • To get started with mindful eating, honor your hunger, limit distractions during meals, eat and chew slowly, use all five senses as you eat, and understand your fullness.




Michelle Darian photo
Michelle Darian, MS, MPH, RD
Michelle is a Nutrition Specialist at InsideTracker. As a Registered Dietitian, you’ll find Michelle analyzing the research behind recent nutrition trends, bringing actionable food and supplement recommendations to the platform. When she's not myth-busting, Michelle can be found exploring new restaurants and getting creative in her kitchen.


References: 

[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17212793/ 

[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18929315/

[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28374624/

[4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19235038/

[5] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24126546/

[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29038331/

[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27808529/ 

[8] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32678712/ 

[9] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23446890/

[10] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18589027/ 

[11] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26024495/

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