3 Steps to Get Back in Tune with your Body's Hunger Signals

Listen on the Go!

The other day as I was following an exercise video and doing some lunges and squats, I found myself completely out of it. I was doing all the motions and I suddenly realized I had been completely daydreaming, thinking about some things I had to do that day, and meanwhile my body was following the video to a tee. I went so outside of my body and into my head that when I came back because the trainer in the video was explaining the next move, I could not for the life of me remember what exercise I had just done. Squats? Tricep dips? Push ups? My body had done them, but I had been running down my list of to do's and had no recollection of any of it.

It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks how sometimes we are such mental and emotional beings that our bodies can be acting on complete auto-pilot (good thing they do or we'd all be dead come the first afternoon nap). If we can be completely unaware of actual deliberate physical movement while our mind is dancing around up there, what do you think happens with bodily functions such as breathing deeply? What about our physical feelings of hunger and fullness? Today we're going to discuss how our minds and our bodies are linked, yet they can also play tricks on each other, and I'm going to teach you 3 simple steps to help you get back in tune with your body's hunger signals. Why is this important? Because as we go on this journey of finding real balance and improving our relationship with food, actually feeling our bodies is the master key that will start unlocking all the other little doors to food and body freedom.

The tricksters

If my little "Kim come back to Earth" exercise moment taught me anything it's that we can completely and almost involuntarily leave our bodies and live up there in our minds, our memories, or in most cases, worry and problem solving mode. Our body is still going to continue doing its thing whether we're aware of this or not, but both our minds and our bodies love playing little tricks on each other. They're both pranksters at heart and keep fooling each other. They're like two little brothers constantly fighting for their mother's attention, tripping each other up.

Your mind (and insert here: anxiety, worry, sadness, anger, depression, excitement, nervousness), loves it when you have a sleepover up there. Like those distant relatives that just won't let you leave until you watch "just one more" old family video or album, which then turns into "you have to stay for dinner" and then it's "too late to drive back home now".

It loves to have us up there. Thought can be addicting, especially if these thoughts are of the negative kind.

The other little trickster, your body, loves having you come right back down too. It loves telling you "hey! don't forget about me! I'm right down here, right next door... where you left me last time". It gives you a dry mouth and throat when you've gone for a while without having a glass of water, it aches when you've tried a new form of exercise for the first time, or when you've hurt yourself. It feels heavy when it's past your bedtime and it rumbles when you need to refuel and eat something.

These two sides of you would be fine and dandy if we were just physical beings, but we're not. We're such complex social and emotional creatures that when I say "mind", I don't mean the physiological responses of the brain, I mean the thoughts, habits, emotions and stressors that invade you and disconnect you from the body.

These two little tricksters are fighting for your attention and want to keep you on their side of the fence no matter what. 

Picture this...

You've been worrying about a difficult meeting or presentation you have later this week. You've been nervous and anxious, but rather than calming and quieting the mind, it's done its thing and you're right up there overindulging in worry. What if I'm not prepared? What if the equipment malfunctions? What if people aren't interested? What if I didn't do enough research? Hang up there long enough and it's likely you'll eventually experience this:

- You'll dive yourself so deeply into overwhelm city that your body will become still and you'll be completely out of your body.

- The second little trickster, your body, will start creating these feelings to make you come back down to Earth. You feel butterflies in your stomach, your breathing will become more rapid, your heart starts beating faster.

- You're so in your mind, that it will recall a time in which you were feeling nervous and your mom took you out for ice cream or your favorite treat. 

- You then do a body scan and you feel your stomach is uneasy (remember you've got butterflies dancing around in there), you decide it's time to eat, and since you're still up in your head you probably won't even notice you've had the whole pint of ice cream until the spoon comes back out empty.

- Your body really has to get your attention now, and you start feeling so full you feel very uncomfortable or even sick.

The problem was you didn't get the chance to actually be in your body and check to see if you were hungry to begin with. Then you weren't in your body to check and see if you had already had enough. This little rundown happens to us almost every day under different mind-body circumstances, and it's the best way to ensure mindless eating and overeating.

Sound familiar? These two sides of the equation are fighting for your attention, and they're playing their little tricks on you. The mind can cause physical sensations that you can confuse with hunger, and you might also be so in your mind that you ignore the fact that your body told you it was time to eat 3 hours ago but you're still fine tuning that speech you have to give and you'll probably overeat later.

Getting back in touch with our body's signals is so important, and today I'm teaching you the 3 steps that have really helped me get centered and develop a real physical dialogue with my hunger signals.

Step 1: Understanding the different types of hunger and asking yourself the #1 question before, during and after meals.

Ann Caper, registered dietitian and an expert in the fields of nutrition, eating disorders, nutrition education and body image, has defined 6 types of "hunger" that you might be misinterpreting as actual hunger. This was so helpful in understanding that when I felt any type of discomfort in my stomach, nervousness, boredom, just to name a few, there could be other issues at play. She defines them as:

- "Teeth hunger": When we're feeling anxious or stressed and our bodies are crying out to help relieve that anxiety by getting us to chew something. Crunchy, crispy cravings, or just having something to chew on can make us feel momentary relief, and we might misinterpret this for real hunger.

- "Mouth hunger": When we see an advert on TV of something that looks incredibly delicious and our mouths start to water. We get an uncontrollable craving for a certain food, but we might not be feeling actual physical hunger.

- "Mind hunger": When we look at the time and see it's time to eat and, out of habit, eat the same portions as we've been eating for years, without actually tuning back in and seeing if we're hungry, or hungry for that usual amount of food.

- Thirst: You've heard this one before right? We very often confuse thirst for hunger, when what we need is hydration.

- Fatigue: When you're feeling tired, sluggish or low in energy, your mind might tell you that eating something will give you a boost even if you've just eaten or aren't hungry. If you've been cutting back on sleep, are overworked and overstressed, what your body might be really crying out for is adequate rest.

- "Heart or emotional hunger": This one to me is the trickiest since emotional distress can actually appear as an uncomfortable feeling in your gut, and can easily be confused with hunger. We find great momentary relief from food when we're going through emotional turmoil, when in fact the only thing that will give us peace and resolution is being able to dive into our feelings head on, and heal whatever is going on. If you've read my personal story here, you know that I have a long past of heart and emotional hunger masquerading as physical hunger.

Actual physical hunger is different from these, it's felt in the stomach, just below your rib cage, and it usually comes on little by little, getting stronger as time passes. Not as one immediate feeling that takes over like when you get a strong craving for a certain food.

Simply being aware of these different types of "hunger" is the first step to getting you back in your body and beginning to recognize actual hunger. For the next week I want you to start asking yourself three questions when you sit down to eat: 

  • Am I really hungry? - Before meals and especially snacks.
  • How are my hunger levels now? Am I satisfied with what I've eaten? - During your meal or snack.
  • Do I feel content with what I've had? Do I feel satisfied? - After meals or snacks.

This last one will help you fine tune your food choices, and realize where you can tweak things and really find happiness and satisfaction from your meals. This is especially important if you've been a long time dieter and are eating too restrictively.

Remember, none of these tips will help if you don't slow down to eat and let your body have enough time to send its fullness signals to the brain. Take a minimum of 20 minutes to eat and practice mindful eating.

Step 2: Study your patterns like a Jessica Jones ninja

Remember we're creatures of habit, and habits can be wonderful and health supporting, or they may not be serving you. Understanding your habits or patterns when it comes to food is very important. I want you to Jessica Jones the truth right out of them and get real with yourself.

  • Do you always overeat when it's exam time at school, or a deadline is coming up at work?
  • Do you always skip breakfast because you're rushing out the door and tell yourself you'll eat healthier later, but then overeat?
  • Do you have a harder time being mindful of your hunger and fullness signals when you eat out, or when family comes to visit?
  • Do you have a certain time of day (like that 4 o'clock chocolate hour) in which your hand gets a life of its own and goes straight for the cookie jar and doesn't stop 'til they're all gone?
  • Are you ignoring when you're really hungry and in need of fuel?
  • Are you over dieting and restricting, and then bingeing when your energy gets too low?

Keeping a food journal or journaling in general can help you become the best detective, and when you find these little automatic habits, what I like to call "your automatic pilot eating trap", swap these for healthier habits that will make you feel better, and then make food choices with a clearer mind and while being really in touch with your body.

Step 3: Start practicing mind/body meditations

Any type of breathing, centering, grounding or mind/body meditation will really help you get back down into your body. So will stopping yourself when you're in rush mode, taking a few deep breaths and then returning to your activities at a slower pace. 

Activities like yoga, stretching, exercise, grounding visualizations and meditation will all help you get back in tune with your hunger signals. 

To get you started, here's my favorite mind-body meditation which you can do anywhere (you can play the audio player to follow it through with your eyes closed):

  • Lay back or sit with your back supported and relaxed.
  • If possible, find some instrumental relaxing music to help you wind down. Close your eyes.
  • Start contracting and releasing every single part of your body, from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.
  • Start with your tippy toes. Flex and contract them, then release.
  • Flex your ankles. Release.
  • Breathe. Take deep breaths after every part of the body you're contracting and releasing.
  • Contract your calves. Release.
  • Contract your thighs. Release.
  • Imagine you're contracting your hips, along with your lower abs. Release.
  • Squeeze your glutes and inner thighs. Release.
  • Remember to breathe. Take your time with this.
  • Focus on your abdominal muscles. Contract them and release them several times. Tummy in, tummy hangs out. Let it out.
  • Visualize your stomach, right below the rib cage. Slightly higher than where we usually imagine it is. How does it feel to you right now. Take a few deep breaths and see how it feels. Is it rumbling, growling, too full, or at a happy balanced place? Get familiar with it. Imagine you're contracting and releasing it.
  • Contract your chest by lifting your shoulders lightly. As if someone was punching you in the chest. Release and lower the shoulders.
  • Move down to the biceps. Contract them, then release.
  • Make fists with your hands and contract your forearms. Release.
  • Contract your fingers, as if you were making claws with your hands. Release.
  • Go back up to the neck. Contract it. Imagine it's expanding outward. Release. Rock it from side to side, front to back. Slowly. Time this movement with your breath. Return the head back to center.
  • Scrunch your face up as if you had just eaten a lemon. Hold it here. It's ok to laugh a little. Then release.
  • Raise your eyebrows. Release.
  • Visualize yourself contracting your head from the inside, like when you have a tension headache. Release.
  • Take 5 very deep breaths. Stay here, for as long as you feel like it.

I hope these steps really help you start getting back in tune with your body. Our minds are cool, awesome, crazy fun places to hang out in, but don't forget to always invite your body to the party.

Before you go, I'd love to ask you: What are some of your automatic habits when it comes to food? Do you feel that you experience any of the other types of non-physical hunger often? What do you do to get back into your body and in touch with your hunger signals?

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