Hunger and cravings out of check? Constant hunger, overeating, eating frequently, and insatiable cravings may have an emotional root cause.

A simple shift in how you eat may improve high levels of hunger and cravings. In fact, it’s so simple you may think “there’s no way that’ll work”. Luckily, super simple and super effective is possible in this case.

Eating slowly (and mindfully).

There’s strong evidence that when we slow down and experience our food in a more present state, we tend to feel more satiated – a sense of fullness that lasts from one meal to the next. This is because of the impact of our nervous system (brain + spinal cord) on digestion, which integrates our senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste) with different hormones and digestive processes. It’s really profound, and it can be “practiced” in a variety of ways.

How to eat slowly and mindfully, without distractions.

Start simple with the practice of slow eating. Give yourself the time to get the hang of that. Then add the step of eating without distractions (mindfully eating).

Of course, you don’t have to clear the kitchen table and sit alone with a sad bowl of plain rice. Unless you like plain rice. In which case, it isn’t sad.

Most people would agree that sharing food with loved ones while enjoying good conversation and company is an important part of life. For some, it’s the best part of living!

Here are some basic changes to support your new practice:

  1. Put mobile devices away while eating
  2. Sit at a table to eat (rather than eating while doing other activities or multi-tasking)
  3. Eat without other electronic distractions (TV and computer are the main ones)

Be prepared for some internal resistance and distress. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s simply uncomfortable to change our behavior and go against the grain. Our brains like to repeat certain behaviors because it’s efficient and easy. In other words, your brain is trying to make things easier on you! That’s nice. Thanks, brain!

This is also how we establish habits – the helpful ones and the not-so-helpful ones. So anytime we intentionally choose a different path, the brain alerts us with a mixed bowl of uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. A dash of unease, a sprinkle of fear. Maybe even a dollop of anxiousness or restlessness.

All completely normal and to be expected. Now that you know that, let’s get clear on the underlying reasons for the discomfort that may arise. And more importantly, what to do when that happens.

The practice of slow eating often brings up other issues for many of us because food is comforting. Many of us regulate our emotions with food and eating. You know what I mean if you’ve ever felt the physical and mental-emotional relief that comes from scarfing down a giant bowl of sugar crisp before an exam. Hello, sugar rush (followed by an immediate crash and burn). More on that topic another time.

For most of us, fast eating (and eating in general) is a coping mechanism. Therefore, slowing down and tuning in may suddenly bring awareness to other problems (ie work or relationship issues). Instead of using food to push these problems away, we are now in a state where certain thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations are more acute. Yikes!

We are now choosing to eat in a way that allows discomfort and unresolved feelings to surface. That doesn’t sound conducive to digestion. It also doesn’t sound like a good way to get hunger and cravings in check. Yet, it works. But it’s also a process.

Regulating our eating behaviors.

Eating slowly is a practice that can improve eating behaviors that lead to overeating or eating when we’re not hungry. Here’s the reason. By slowing down, we give ourselves the opportunity to learn our internal cues of hunger vs fullness, and how food makes us feel (physically, mentally, and emotionally). With time and practice, we can integrate this information to gauge when we are truly full and satisfied.

Tips for noticing hunger cues. Look for internal body cues such as a growling stomach or a sense of stomach emptiness (gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach); lightheadedness, headache, irritability, and shakiness are physical signs that you may have waited too long to eat!

From regulating our eating behaviors to regulating our emotions without eating.

Regulating our emotions without food or eating requires slow eating, as well as mindfulness. Picture eating mindfully as a progression of eating slowing.

To separate urges (the strong desire or impulse to eat) from behaviors (eating to soothe our emotions), we must first bring awareness to what’s truly causing those urges. If it’s hunger, then please eat! If it’s not, and food is a coping mechanism, then please read on.

Start by identifying your triggers – physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts – and their connections to your eating habits. This is like calling someone out on their behavior. For example, let’s say you notice yourself reaching for a bag of chips every time you are frustrated. Label it. Call it out. Something like “hey, you. You’re frustrated about work. I notice that you’re eating chips again”. Capture any sensations that you notice throughout the day, especially after eating. The more you practice observing your internal body cues (and differentiating them from just wanting to eat), the better you will get.

Once you have the data, you can take action. You can’t change what you don’t track. Most of us simply don’t know we’re using food to self-soothe our emotions. And we usually don’t know our triggers either. We’re on autopilot, thanks to our nifty brain circuits.

Eating behaviors that are aligned with our health goals.

Changing our eating behaviors starts with slow eating and creating a space to tune in and listen to our bodies. Listen with curiosity rather than judgment. Get a pulse on what those emotions are and what they might mean. Then slowly work through any resistance and distress using self-compassion. What do you truly need? Food? A hug? Social connection? If this was your best friend, your partner, or another loved one, what supportive advice would you offer? Start there.

Photo by Tamas Pap on Unsplash