What Are You Really Hungry For?

Practicing mindfulness may help curb poor eating choices.

Most Islanders are overweight and at increased risk for diabetes and other serious illnesses. North Americans gain on average one pound each holiday season and most of us only shed about half that before the next holiday season. In any one year, this weight gain seems small, however, over time this steady weight gain is significant and dangerous. The simple practice of mindfulness may be an important antidote to weight gain, while also serving to enhance one’s enjoyment of eating.

Why do we gain weight at Christmas? The common cause is stress. Frank MacAulay, social worker and instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on PEI, says “Any festive season is a lot of joy, but it is also acknowledging that there is a lot of stress as well.” We make poorer health decisions under stress. We substitute unhealthy choices for what we really want and need.

In her 2009 book Mindful Eating, Dr. Jan Chozen Bays explains how mindfulness, paying attention in the moment to what you are really feeling and needing, can help you make healthier food choices under stress. We use the term “hunger” to describe one need – the body’s need to be nourished by food. But what we commonly call “hunger” Chozen Bays says, is actually seven different needs we try to satisfy by eating. No matter how much we eat, however, these other hungers cannot be satisfied by food alone. By recognizing what those true needs are, you can choose other ways to satisfy them and avoiding eating when you aren’t in fact hungry.

MacAulay gives an example of “heart hunger” and “nose hunger” evoked by the enticing aroma of fresh baking. “If we are not aware that the smell of these cookies remind us of Grandmother’s place, it is an emotional need that we are missing. Being able to notice that smell and remembering Grandma’s kitchen and the woodstove going. You may feel sad. And you may eat a dozen cookies, or you may step back and say ‘Yeah, those were pleasant memories. I’m sad now.’ It’s noticing those triggers that can lead us to be mindless or mindful.”

Mindfulness is an approach to life. MacAulay suggests the eight week course he leads at UPEI for those interested in learning this art. For those with less time, consider trying this experiment:

Look at your plate before eating. Take a full minute without the distraction of phone, TV or even conversation.

Intentionally slow down.

Pay attention to the sight and smell of the food on the plate. Pause to ponder where the food came from.

This can be done individually or as a family. “If kids are in the home, they are great to experiment with” says MacAulay. “Make a game of it. Set the timer, quietly look, then have a conversation about what you each noticed.”

Repeating this simple exercise before you eat can be effective. “It forces you to slow down and notice – even to notice taste, because quite often we eat too fast even to taste our food.” When you are mindful about your eating, you are paying more attention to why you are eating, not just what you are eating.

Mindfulness: Deliberately paying attention, being fully aware of what is happening both inside yourself – in your body, heart, and mind – and outside yourself, in your environment. Mindfulness is awareness without judgment or criticism
(Mindful Eating, J. Chozen Bays. Shamabla, 2009)
Holiday weight gain is a global phenomenon. In the New England Journal of Medicine, Helander showed that people in Japan, Germany and USA all gained weight around Christmas, but people also gained during holidays unique to their own culture, like Golden Week in Japan. Holiday weight gain even occurs in the Southern Hemisphere, where their Christmas falls during the summer.