If weight loss is the goal, monitoring food is essential. That’s not easy. It can be harder than you’d think. If you have tried to lose weight in the past, monitoring food doesn’t get easier with subsequent diets, indeed, many find that it gets progressively harder.
Theories abound about why it’s so hard to manage the intake of food. There are emotional reasons, genetic reasons, and reasons linked to diet rebounding. If you’re the person who wants to lose weight by eating less, you won’t care about reasons. You just want to find what works for you. Finding what works for you, however, is easier when you understand what drives you to eat.
Food is fuel. You body recognizes when it’s running low. Your blood sugar drops and your mind and your stomach say “It’s time for food.” You respond to the call to action by eating. Eating raises your blood sugar level, hormones detect satisfaction, the need for food is shut off, and brain and stomach say, “enough!”
Homeostatic hunger is considered real hunger because you’re responding to a physical or “real” need for food. It’s been several hours since you ate last and your hunger is coming from your body’s need to be refueled. It can be related to filling your gas tank on your car, driving 500 miles, and needing to put in more fuel if you intend to keep driving.
Bodies aren’t cars. The need for food isn’t only driven by the need for fuel. Hunger and eating are more complex than that for most of us. If it were than simple, nobody would be overweight because we’d all regulate our food for fuel with absolute perfection.
Hedonic hunger explains the urge to eat that feels every bit as real as homeostatic hunger, but the urge comes from wanting food for a reason different than needing fuel. The name “hedonic” suggests eating for pleasure but for those of us who overeat, we know there is nothing pleasant about an intense urge to eat all the time. We know that giving into non stop eating gives us more of what causes us pain – excess body weight!
Hedonic hunger is what makes us “make room for dessert” when we just ate more calories for our meal than were necessary to refuel our bodies. Hedonic hunger is what makes the need for food feel real when we smell or even think of highly palatable food. Hedonic is a hunger that happens regardless of how long it was since our last meal. It’s not linked to a physical need for food even though it feels like it is. It seems like the more guilty we feel about enjoying certain foods, the stronger the hedonic hunger drive becomes.
In other words, “Jane” might love sardines but she doesn’t crave them. That is because Jane doesn’t feel guilty about eating sardines. When she wants them, she eats them and after she’s finished she is satisfied – wanted sardines – ate sardines – sardine episode closed. It’s not the same when “Jane” wants a sundae. She feels guilty about enjoying a sundae – all that fat and sugar and calories – she shouldn’t eat sundaes. She tries not to think about sundaes, but she can’t. She craves sundaes and when she breaks down and eats them it makes her feel extremely guilty and weak - wanted a sundae – tried not to eat a sundae – wanting became craving – ate a sundae – sundae episode open and painful.
So should Jane eat a sundae every time she wants one? Yes, if the circumstances are right, she should have a sundae if she wants one. The key is in the “right circumstances.”
Before we talk about the right circumstances, it’s important to understand that it’s okay to eat in response to both homeostatic and hedonistic hungers. It’s important to realize that hundreds of years ago these separate urges to eat served the human race well. Back in the days when we didn’t store food for easy access – we had to go out to find or kill our food – we needed strong drives to eat to ensure the human race continued to exist.
We needed to eat to refuel and it was equally important to eat when food was available irrespective to whether we needed fuel or not. Extra calories were stored as body fat. In times when food is not available, the body fat ensured the survival of the species. Cave man would not have made it to modern times were it not for hedonic hunger. Now modern man needs to control the inner cave man urges to maintain a healthy weight.
The Right Circumstances
You can decide when the circumstances are right to enjoy any food you want. It helps to approach every food choice from a position of power. That means you eat without guilt, acknowledge that “I am the boss of me” by taking control of your food and eating behaviors. Planning and tracking gives you enormous power over your eating behaviors and any guilt you might feel. It’s okay to eat what you love and it’s great to eat it in a plan that balances calories and nutrients! Remind yourself often that you’re balancing calories in and out and ensuring your eating a nutritious diet and you deserve to feel very good about that!
Sometimes the circumstances aren’t right. If the desire to have a sundae is detected soon after a large meal and there’s no way you need those calories at the moment or even later the same day, your can ask yourself, “what do I really want?” You might want the sundae, but you want to eat it when you can enjoy it the most, and that’s another day when you have planned your meals around a sundae. So the message is not the negative, “I can’t have a sundae.” It’s a positive, “I want to wait to eat my sundae for when I’ve planned it!”
Waiting for the right circumstance and planning and tracking are skills. Like learning most skills they can feel awkward, difficult and overwhelmingly impossible at first. The more you practice the skill the easier and more natural it becomes until you master the skill and then it feels like second-nature. With practice you can get to the point where you just do it – no thought or effort is needed.
HOW TO CONTROL YOUR INNER CAVEMAN
1) Cavemen don’t respond to guilt. Labeling food “healthy” or “junk food” is ineffective. Cavemen respond better to balance and moderation. A nutritious, calorie-controlled diet has room for treats. Enjoying foods that are full or fat and sugar and not highly nutritious -a treat – is okay.
2) Cavemen don’t track their food, but you can control your caveman by keeping a food diary. Whether you use pen and paper or an electronic means of recording your food, keeping a record is the most effective means of managing food and eating behaviors.
3) Change your language. Replace the can’ts, shouldn’ts, and won’ts with can, should, will, and most important, wants! Instead of “I shouldn’t have this cookie,” say, “I will have a cookie and I want to eat it tomorrow because I’ll plan for it.” Instead of saying, “I can’t have potato chips because I can’t stop once I start,” say, “I want potato chips and I want a single one-ounce serving because that’s all I need to be happy. It makes me happy because I get what I want and I support my weight goal!”
4) If your caveman gets the upper hand and you eat more than planned it’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up. Your caveman has genetics in his favor but you have the superior brain! Instead of beating yourself up, use your superior brain to analyze how the caveman prevailed and create a new plan to regain control.
5) BELIEVE you can do this! Fake it until you make it. The hardest part about getting your eating behaviors to support your weight-related goals is believing that it’s possible. Remind yourself often, if necessary, that it is possible and people do it and keep doing it all the time. Inspire yourself by reading success stories.