Are you hungry, or is it just lunch o’clock?

Most people assume that because it’s lunch time, that they should have something to eat. They crack open a sandwich and start eating, with no regard to hunger or whether they are ready to eat.

Maybe you think I’m crazy to even mention it – of course they should eat! It’s lunch time!

In reality, meal times have varied greatly over history. Our rules about when we eat are relatively new. Breakfast is a modern invention, arriving sometime in the 17th century. Before then, people didn’t eat in the morning. From Roman times to Middle Ages, everyone ate in the middle of the day and often it was the only meal. This is still the case for Buddhist monks, who eat a single meal at noon. The evening meal, by comparison, has long been a more sociable one, and this has become later and later with the advent of electric light. In Spain, dinner isn’t served until 10pm which is agonisingly overdue for many of us.

If meal times are arbitrary and culturally determined, perhaps you can set your own?

You may also find that your body naturally gets hungry at certain times of day. I don’t feel hungry first thing in the morning, and find eating breakfast makes me feel sluggish and sleepy. I get hungry at around 9.30 or 10am. There is no reason that I can’t breakfast at that time. When I’ve worked in offices, I’ve packed something and taken it in. Other days I don’t feel hungry until late morning, so I skip breakfast and have an early lunch.

It might suit you to have a late lunch at 2pm – when you’re hungry and when it will see you through until dinner. It’s hard to know unless you’ve been brave enough to break some of the rules and find out.

There is also no evidence that skipping a meal does you any harm whatsoever. In fact, sometimes, giving your digestive system a break, allows your body to work on healing itself, and getting itself back into balance.

It can be quite scary to miss a meal. You may find yourself checking in every few minutes to see whether you are hungry, or worrying that you will run out of energy. It can be a nice surprise to find that your body will work without a constant drip feed of food, that you can survive a few hours on your own. You may find that discovery empowering.

Part of trusting yourself, and learning when to eat when hungry, is giving yourself permission to explore these ideas. Some of them may seem confronting, especially if they go against cultural and social norms. Not eating lunch until 3pm, when everyone around you is eating it at 1pm can be challenging. You may find, however, that this works for you and allows you to remain energised until dinner. You won’t find out until you try.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

You saw it, so you want it…

Pavlov is well known for his experiments regarding dogs. When he fed them, he rang a little bell. Eventually, he only needed to ring the bell and the dogs salivated, even when there was no food.

I know we’d like to think that we’re superior to dogs. But there are lots of things in our lives that act like this trigger. Events that induce salivation due to habit. It might be turning on the television, if you usually eat in front of it. Or driving past a garage if you buy snacks when you fill up. Or walking past a certain bakery if you often buy cakes there.

You weren’t thinking of eating a cinnamon roll, were you, until you walked past the bakery and that delicious sweet, spicy smell engulfed you? All at once, your tongue tingles with the anticipation of the sugary coating, the warm, yeasty bread beneath. You find yourself in the shop. A moment earlier you weren’t even hungry.

Or maybe you’re watching television and there is Nigella, dipping her finger into an oozing mass of chocolatey sauce. All at once, the idea of chocolate, or Nutella or a hot pudding fills your mind. The next thing you know, you’re on the hunt for it.

What in your life, acts like that bell, and has you salivating for food whether you’re hungry or not? Can you retrain the dog?

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

Neuroscience is proving what food manufacturers have known for years…

Until recently, research focused on physical hunger, and assumed that being obese meant you were just incredibly hungry and therefore had to eat loads. I suspect a number of us could have told them that eating dessert has nothing to do with feeling hungry or full. And at last, research is catching up.

Michael Lowe, a clinical psychologist at Drexel University coined the term “hedonic hunger” in 2007. He says: “A lot of overeating, maybe all of the eating people do beyond their energy needs, is based on consuming some of our most palatable foods.” No kidding! Please don’t tell me it took years of scientific research to work that out. Who gets fat on cucumber?

Research shows that extremely sweet or fatty foods light up the brain’s reward circuit in the same way that cocaine, drugs, gambling and other ‘addictive’ behaviours do. The brain begins to react to fatty and sugary foods even before they enter our mouth: just seeing them excites the reward circuit. As soon as such it touches the tongue, taste buds send signals to the brain, which ramps up dopamine. The result is an intense feeling of pleasure.

Over time, the brain gets desensitised, so to get the same ‘high’ or pleasurable feeling, we need to eat more. It’s the same with any addiction. We need a bigger and bigger hit. The brain needs a lot more sugar and fat to reach the same level of pleasure that it once felt with smaller amounts of the foods.

This isn’t a sign of us being weak. It’s us being in thrall to an addictive circuit in our brain. When dopamine levels drop, we feel down. So no wonder we turn to fat and sugar. They are literally acting as an anti-depressant. Food is acting like a drug.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

How food porn arouses us

I love the introduction to the scientific paper called Eating with our Eyes: “One of the brain’s key roles is to facilitate foraging and feeding. It is presumably no coincidence, then, that the mouth is situated close to the brain in most animal species.”

The mouth is close to the brain, indeed! This same paper talks of ‘food porn’. We are currently obsessed with images of food. Instagram feeds are crammed with photographs of meals and snacks. Cookery channels dominate television with depictions of luscious ingredients whisked into appetising meals. Food has become more forbidden than sex. We are ogling pictures of it in the same way that men used to sneak glances at 1970’s centrefolds.

In America, digital media influences more than 70 percent of the food eaten by households. Research show that “external food cues, such as the sight of appetizing food can evoke a desire to eat, even in the absence of hunger.” Again – no kidding… these scientists seem to spend years researching things that you and I knew to be true from a relatively young age.

What’s really interesting is that physical things occur within us, just from seeing a picture. We salivate (we all know that). But more worryingly, we produce insulin. Our bodies shoot out the hormone required to deal with the sugar even when we haven’t eaten it. And of course, when our insulin goes up, we crave sugar even more to balance it out. Even our heart beats faster in anticipation of the food.

This is where we need to track back to hunger. Food manufacturers know that seductive images of delicious food will draw us in, hungry or not. And our brains will take the trigger and act on it, without even consulting our conscious selves.

If we can stay in touch with our natural appetite, and eat when we are hungry, it reduces the impact of these external stimuli, and allows us to remain in control of what we eat and when.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

How did the packet end up empty? Part 2

Not only is this embarrassing. It’s extraordinary. It seems that our left hand literally doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

The first thing to do, is not to add to your woes with a large helping of guilt. These are well worn paths that you are travelling. Part of your being is just doing what it thinks you want.

David Kessler, the former head of the US government’s most powerful food agency, the FDA, talks of ‘priming’. Sometimes just one taste of a food, a single bite, is enough to trigger conditioned ‘hyper-eating’. Priming involves stimulating areas of your brain. The use of the word ‘conditioned’ means it’s already a habit. Your body recognises the primer, or taste, as the beginning of a conditioned or habituated pattern of behaviour.

The problem is that it’s hard to shut those habits off. Once primed, they stay activated and you may continue to eat until all the food is gone. That’s what the food industry knows when it tells us “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

The good news is that priming only holds power for a short time. If you eat one piece of candy and there’s a bowl of them in front of you, chances are you will keep eating more. But if no more are available or you have to search for them, the priming response may be undermined.

If you travel these paths less, or stop doing the behaviour, the priming will fade and it will stop being automatic, and you will not feel so compelled. But how to get there?

It’s easiest to stop the habit in the earliest stages. If you know there are times when you eat unconsciously, and they are usually in a certain place, or preceded by a certain thing, then try to address the first step.

What do you need to do to arrest the behaviour? To wake yourself up before your subconscious takes over?

How did the packet end up empty?

Have you ever driven home from work, pulled into your driveway, and realised that you have absolutely no memory whatsoever of the journey? Perhaps you commute to work, and you find yourself at your desk, with minimal or no recollection of the various trains or buses you took.

When behaviours become habitual, or regular, our brains relegate them to the subconscious. We don’t need to focus on them, so the brain allows our consciousness to focus on something else: our phone, our worries, our plans.

Unfortunately, this same mechanism can come into play when we have regular eating habits or addictions.

The brain is used to us thinking: “Hmm, that was a stressful day. I really could use some … (insert ‘comfort food of choice’)…” And it knows exactly how to get us to the shop to buy some, and get the food into our bags and then into our mouths.

Many people have told me that they have believed that they were sticking rigorously to their diet, only to find themselves sitting on their couch with an empty food packet on their lap, and no idea of how it happened.

One of my first clients was a Mum called Maureen. She would insist that she ate without realising it. “I opened the packet, it was a packet of granola. I buy it for my kids, I don’t eat it, it’s too fattening. But I just wanted one of those banana chips, so I opened it to find one of those. There was one at the top, and I ate it. I recall delving back into the bag for a particularly large clump with a sultana in it. And the next thing I knew, fifteen minutes or more had passed, and the bag was half empty. I honestly don’t remember doing it!”

The brain has well-worn paths. It is used to a flood of sugar at certain points in the day, and can turn off your consciousness while your preprogrammed behaviour runs, acquiring the substance, and then ingesting it, all without realising it.

I have, in the past, sworn off sugar, only to have a friend point out the chocolate I was shovelling into my mouth from the bowl on her table. It was in front of me, and my hand reached for it, bypassing all my declarations that I was never going to eat it again. A tad embarrassing.

In my next post, we’ll talk about how to deal with this.

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