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This chapter is from the book

Respond to Hunger and Respect Natural Boundaries: Taming the Beast

One of the most concrete steps you can take to uncover your natural eater is also one of the most basic—respond to your unique body's signals that ask for nourishment. People who have ignored these signals for much of their adult lives often report that their appetites resemble insatiable beasts instead of the gifts that they truly are. This can be a direct result of past dieting or attempts at severe calorie restriction. In a classic study on the implications of starvation, Ancel Keys and his colleagues made intriguing observations of men who voluntarily restricted calorie intake to half their typical levels (Biology of Human Starvation, University of Minnesota Press, 1950). Among other disturbing characteristics, the subjects enrolled in the study displayed

  • Food obsession—These men spent most of their waking hours contemplating food, recipes, eating, meals, snacks, and calories. They talked about food, collected recipes, and fantasized about elaborate meals that included their favorite foods.

  • Compulsive eating behavior—They hoarded food, pushed food around on their plates to prolong meals, and binged when they were allowed free access to food during the "re-feeding" period of the study.

  • Depressed cognitive function—Subjects were apathetic, despondent, tired, and uninterested in sexual activity. They could no longer think creatively.

Does any of this sound eerily familiar? Normal, everyday people can exhibit the same characteristics when they consciously restrict calories to a level that is inadequate for daily activities and functions. Learn to work with, not against, your body's physiological hunger signals to optimize your health and quality of life. Many people find it useful, at least in the beginning, to think of their level of hunger or fullness on a scale similar to the one in Figure 3.2.

Figure 3.2Figure 3.2 The Hunger-Fullness Scale helps you clarify internal signals.

0—absolutely famished

6—just beginning to feel satisfied

1—extremely hungry

7—comfortably satisfied

2—very hungry

8—full

3—hungry

9—extremely full

4—just beginning to feel hungry

10—stuffed or nauseous

5—neither hungry nor satisfied

 


If this is the first time you've made an effort to identify your body's hunger signals, don't worry about doing it "correctly." Each person experiences hunger and fullness a little differently, and there are no rules about how often and how much you should eat. Some people prefer to allow themselves to get fairly hungry in between meal times; they tend toward the traditional "three squares" a day. Others don't like getting that hungry and would rather eat smaller amounts more frequently; they are often called grazers. Both styles of eaters are legitimately honoring their bodies' signals. It will be up to you to determine the best way to incorporate responding to your hunger in your particular lifestyle.

Chapters 4, "Balanced Nutrition," and 5, "Putting It Together—Real Food for Real People," address what to eat to honor your taste buds and your overall health. For now, just concentrate on making eating a priority when you become hungry.

If you're thinking "What kind of plan is this? Eat when I'm hungry?! What if I can't stop? I need concrete rules!" take a deep breath (or 10 or 20) and relax. It's taken a long time to get where you are today, and it may take a long time to become comfortable with the natural eating process. Expect it to be a learning experience, complete with mistakes, blunders, and a healthy dose of humility. As you're learning to respond to your body's hunger signals, you'll also want to start tuning in to your body's satiety, or fullness, signals, which are also illustrated in Figure 3.2. Varying levels of satiety correspond with numbers 6 through 10 on the Hunger-Fullness Scale. To respond to these signals, you will need to become more mindful during the eating process.

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