I hear it all the time. People reach out to me who have been trying desperately to eat healthier or lose weight, lamenting their lack of willpower.
“I try to eat only when I’m hungry, but I just can’t seem to keep my hands out of the snack bowl at work.”
It isn’t always the snack bowl. Sometimes it’s the cracker box before dinner or the peanut butter at night. Whatever the source of the downfall it is always laden with a side of guilt and self-loathing.
On the surface the idea makes sense. If you only eat when you’re hungry then you should be providing yourself just enough fuel to be healthy without overdoing it on calories.
The problem is that you aren’t a car (or a Nutricon), and fuel isn’t the only reason you eat. And the longer you pretend that’s an achievable goal, the longer you will suffer.
Humans eat for many reasons. Hunger is obviously a big one, but there are several others.
Here’s a shortlist:
Pleasure – Food is delicious and can be deeply rewarding on a sensual level. Sometimes we eat because we straight up like a particular food. This is a feature, not a bug.
Emotions – The experience of eating can be both distracting (from painful thoughts or feelings) and comforting. It isn’t uncommon for some people to get strong urges to eat in response to stress, anxiety, shame, and other negative emotions. On the flip side, food can also be part of joy and celebration.
Habit – I’m not always hungry when I first wake up in the morning, but I almost always eat breakfast at home before I leave the house so that I don’t eat something I regret later. One benefit of having strong and consistent healthy eating habits is that your brain learns to moderate your hunger levels according to the rhythms you set. This can also work against you if you develop unhealthy eating habits.
Socializing – Sometimes we eat because we are supposed to. Culture (our collective habits) plays a large role in determining what, when, where and why we eat. For most of history this helped us make healthy food choices, but it has broken down in the era of industrial and convenience foods.
Nutrient deficiency – Your belly may be full, but if you are not getting adequate nutrition from the food you’re eating you may still experience cravings to eat.
Many of these may seem like bad reasons to eat, because they often result in poor food choices and/or overeating. However, the underlying needs behind all these motivations are perfectly valid.
It’s okay to eat something because it tastes good or enjoy a meal with your friends. These are a normal and wonderful part of the human experience, no matter your size. It is even okay to comfort yourself from distress with a familiar meal now and then.
More important, even if you put morality aside (since eating isn’t inherently good or bad, okay or not okay) you can’t simply will these needs away. Try as you might salty, sugary and fatty foods will probably still taste good, and eating with your friends will still be fun. And you’ve probably noticed that your brain does not allow you to neglect these needs indefinitely.
In fact, repressing or ignoring your urges to eat for any reason is far more likely to result in bingeing than in better food choices long-term.
So a strategy that requires you to “only eat when hungry” is innately impractical, as it is at odds with your biology and undermines your ultimate goal of better health. It doesn’t work and nobody actually does it (yes, even skinny people eat because food tastes good).
It is also distracting you from a strategy that actually helps you make better choices.
Imagine trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole day after day, year after year, decade after decade. Even if you believed it were possible, would you have the same motivation on Day 2,347 as you did on Day 1? Or would you start to doubt yourself, feel like a failure, and find it harder and harder to muster the effort to keep trying?
When you try so hard at something and don’t succeed it feels like you are personally failing at the task–that if you weren’t so weak you could triumph. But if you’ve been trying to do something that’s impossible it isn’t you that’s failing, it’s the strategy.
Once you see that the task is futile, you can drop the notion that the problem is you, put down the hammer, and start to look for a real solution.
Are you ready?
To come up with a better strategy to reach your health goals you must first accept that there is a valid reason behind all of your urges to eat. That doesn’t mean that following your every impulse is the best course of action, but it does mean that the underlying needs shouldn’t be ignored and must be handled in some way. Wishing for them to just disappear won’t work.
If you can accept that you need a break from work–even if there’s still much work to be done–then you can find an activity that rejuvenates your energy rather than procrastinating on Facebook with a bag of pretzels.
If you can accept that your mom’s amazing spaghetti might be the only thing that can lift your spirits after a bad breakup–even if you vowed to avoid pasta until you’ve reached your goal weight–then you might be able to sit and enjoy it mindfully and actually feel better, rather than overeating something less rewarding and feeling even worse afterward.
If you can accept that it’s okay to eat something because it tastes good–even if you still have a weight loss goal–it’ll be much easier for you to recognize when your curiosity is satisfied and you’ve had enough. You might even find that whatever it was you wanted to eat isn’t as good as you hoped and walk away after one bite.
That may be hard to believe if you’ve never experienced it, but ask yourself what happens when you deny yourself anything that you consider “unhealthy” or “fattening.” What are the odds that you’ll binge on something you know for certain isn’t worth it when your willpower is weakened?
In the first case you may eat a few calories more than you had planned for, but in the second case you’ll eat astronomically more and almost certainly won’t enjoy it as much. If you’d like the first case to be your new normal, it requires accepting that pleasure is a valid reason to eat.
Healthy eating is a fantastic personal value and when life is humming along normally it is wonderful to strive for habits that meet your hunger needs with Real Food and avoid impulsively eating processed foods. But connecting with loved ones, taking care of your emotional needs, and even enjoying life’s pleasures are also important values that I’m guessing matter to you as well.
Food is such a significant part of life that it is relevant to all of your values, not just health. Once you accept this, it is much easier to get the balance right.
Have you tried to limit your eating to only when you’re hungry? How did it go?