How do you know if you're really hungry?

Seems like a pretty basic question — how do you know if you're really hungry? — but no, this is not an overly complicated way to explain to my 3-year-old what it means to be hungry. I could do that. He wouldn't listen.

I think we all know that lots of people, myself included, eat for lots of reasons, hunger included. But is hunger really why we eat, most of the time? Think about it: You get up in the morning, shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, etc. In that list, I bet 99% of us would include "Eat breakfast." Without even giving it a second thought. But that's not hunger (unless it really is); that, in its truest form, is routine.

We get together for celebrations, and we eat. That's not hunger; that's fellowship. Follow the leader. Talk, drink, eat, repeat.

I'm sure I've mentioned before that I engage in "stress eating." Only once has a fight with my husband resulted in cleaning the shower rather than eating chocolate, ice cream, brownies or muffins with resentful gusto. Again: Not hunger. Really? Misdirected anger, frustration, sadness, whatever.

I've put my finger on this issue before — several years ago — but it appears I've yet to learn my lesson. Last time I actually saw myself writing out the answer "I never feel fulfilled" on some worksheet from Oprah's Best Life webcast, and I saw it within the words themselves: I never felt full. I was always hungry. I was eating and never feeling "full" because I wasn't feeling fulfilled in my life (this was before I had kids).

And now, I think I've hit the other end of the spectrum:

I never let myself get hungry. I'm afraid to feel that empty feeling.

I don't want to have to feel hungry or empty or any more needy than I already feel.

So of course at just the right time, I finished the book I was reading and went to grab a new one off the shelf. Why Weight, by Geneen Roth, to be exact; one I'd started and left behind when I was pregnant with my second child. At the exact chapter titled "Eating When You're Hungry." Funny how these things happen.

Geneen Roth, if you aren't familiar with her, is all about letting food become a source of pleasure rather than anxiety, tossing your scale and learning how to feel good in your body and in your clothes, recognizing the difference between physical and emotional hunger (ding ding ding!) and trusting your body's fullness and hunger signals. No foods are off limits (which is nice when we're so used to restricting because of sugar...or fat...or carbs...or pesticides even!), but her philosophy is such that your body will eventually guide you toward what you need for physical nourishment and the foods that bring you the greatest pleasure (no guilt).

I'm going through the exercises in this book while at the same time finishing up another tome of hers, When Food Is Love, and it's a good thing. I've been super stressed out lately, my TMJ symptoms have come back a couple times, I'm not sleeping well and food/eating has become the pink elephant: Someone told me not to think about the pink elephant, so now all I can think of is a pink elephant. The swirls of ideas of how I can eat less and the desperation of why did I cancel at the gym this morning and the neurotic It's not about my body it's about health messages were dizzying. I had to Google "quotes on rock bottom" to find this: “Sometimes God lets you hit rock bottom so that you will discover that He is the rock at the bottom.” WORD.

What I've learned is this: Logically speaking, there is only one way to know if you're hungry...and that's to not eat for a while. But also implied is that the last time you ate, you didn't stuff yourself so full that even though you "should" be hungry by now, you're not. I don't often have that problem (give me SOME credit!), but I'm definitely a grazer. I get up at 5am, so I'm not making a full breakfast...I'm picking at toast or something sweet with my coffee, and once the kids are up I may be doing a little more of the same. That's not my snack, though; that comes midmorning. Followed by a late-morning/early afternoon lunch, another snack midafternoon and — if I'm lucky — an early dinner so that I'm not forced to snack again before the final meal. Add dessert — even if it's just a square of dark chocolate — to lunch and dinner, and you can see why I'm struggling. It's tiring, all this eating and snacking and trying not to eat and trying not to snack. If I'm being honest, it's still largely about my body. I have a vacation coming up. I'm seeing people who've commented on my wait publicly before. It makes me mad. Bathing suits will be involved. But, you see, there is Geneen again, with her endless wisdom: "Wounds are never permanently erased. We are fragile beings, and some days we break all over again." I don't think there is a prettier way of saying in the English language that we all have good days and bad days.

Physiologically, I've heard it said that hunger is not actually a rumbling in the tummy. It's higher up, in the chest; that's a truer indicator of hunger for food. However, I've tried using that as my guide. I don't think it works for types like me.

Speaking from the heart, mentally and emotionally, I think the only way to recognize true hunger for food is to tune out the noise of stress, exhaustion, worry, fear and boredom and make sure you're eating for fuel and not any of those reasons. WHICH IS WHY IT SOUNDS SO IMPOSSIBLE TO ME. And, notably, why I didn't say "make sure you're not" any of those things before you eat. I don't like admitting it, but behind every smile and laugh and joke there is always some part of me that is worried, self conscious, afraid or stressed out. And tired, oh, so tired. I am probably only not tired after my morning cup of coffee or an afternoon nap.

Yet this is not me giving up. Since picking up Geneen's books again I've actually been tuning in a little more. Do you want the rest of my coffee? I'm full. I push the meat aside; it tastes funny anyways. What are these rules in my head about since there are two kinds of dark chocolate I can have one of each after lunch? Get over yourself. I'm recognizing the idiocy of my thoughts sometimes, which comes not just from reading her books but also through prayer and meditation. I'm in my body more and in my head less.

I'm not giving up, because "The purpose of healing is to be strong in the broken places." I know right well where my broken places are, so that's a good start, and I have a vision of the person I ultimately want to be — free, on most days, from all of this nonsense — which is another step in the right direction. The more you visualize what you want, the clearer that picture becomes and the closer it is to your reality.

So you can try not eating, and you can try waiting for an empty feeling in your chest rather than your belly, but if you're anything like me those suggestions are rather laughable. Instead, to know if you're hungry (and what you're hungry for — if it's an emotional emptiness you're feeling or if it's real physical hunger), simply put, you have to be in your body. Feel the feelings, deal with the crap, sit with it and then find another way to nourish yourself, a way besides food. I think I don't talk about it much here because I really don't engage in it much, but you truly do have to make time for recharging yourself rather than leaving it at the bottom of your to-do list. Read, enjoy some fresh air, talk with like-minded friends, feel gratitude. Those are just four ways in which you can find rest and relaxation that do not involve cheesecake.

We don't have to eat out of routine, or because of stress, or because what if I'm stuck in a meeting for 2 hours and I haven't had lunch yet. Fill up your other hungers first, and always, and constantly. They may never go away, or maybe they will. But they will certainly not be squelched at breakfast.


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