Eating From the Body
INTERRUPTING THE CYCLE: EATING FROM THE BODY
A reader from Dhaka, Bangladesh asked me about hunger signals and eating for the body. There’s a great article by Sheira Kahn on ‘Eating from the Body’- It’s amazing and tells you how to distinguish between fact and fiction – it enables you to judge your hunger signals based on the needs of your body and not your mind. Jane Nodder also highlighted this point in her workshop on how to distinguish between mouth hunger and stomach hunger. Once you master this skill, you are in sole charge of your eating.
One of the hallmarks of an eating disorder is that the person may not be able to tell whether she is hungry or full. A British study in the late nineties illustrated, for example, that signals from the stomach don’t reach the brain of a practicing bulimic. After years of using her mind to overcome the natural sensations of the body, a person’s recovery must therefore include learning how to listen to those sensations once more, making food choices in cooperation with her body. In this way, the eating disorder cycle of deprivation and punishment is interrupted.
INTERRUPTING THE CYCLE: EATING FROM THE BODY
The brain thinks it’s the best organ for making eating decisions, but it’s not. The brain holds a fount of other information so when you ask it what to eat, the brain reviews a host of thoughts such as what you had for breakfast, how many calories you burned off the night before, and the stupid thing you said in front of your boss today. It’s very confusing.
The stomach, on the other hand, is far from the brain. It knows when it’s empty, and gives very clear indications of hunger such as growling. It also will signal when it’s had enough by providing a sensation of being full. The stomach will never let you down if you listen to it. Letting the stomach say what and how much to eat is therefore an effective method for interrupting the physical part of the eating disorder cycle. This is what I teach.
Trying to decide what to eat for breakfast with the mind looks like this: The person asks, “Should I have cereal?” and the mind answers: “No, you can’t have cereal because you had too many carbs yesterday and you promised yourself no carbs today. Also, your upper arms jiggled this morning in front of the mirror. You could have cereal if you go to the gym, but you are already going to the gym to work off those chocolate chip cookies you ate before bed after you went running yesterday. You could have a glass of milk, but it has to be skim because of the butter in the chocolate chip cookies, and you said no fat today. You should skip breakfast altogether.” “BUT I’M HUNGRY!” screams the body. And they’re off, the mind and the body vying for top position, building tension until it snaps into compulsive eating or restricting.
Making an eating decision in cooperation with the stomach, on the other hand, looks like this: “What would I like to eat?” (Person places a hand on her stomach). “My stomach is empty. I have 45 minutes to eat. I’m hungry for… eggs and toast. The next time I’m hungry, I’ll eat again.” No tension builds in this example.
Sometimes people are afraid of their hunger signals. They think they can’t be trusted, that the stomach will tell them to eat and eat and they won’t be able to stop. That is only the case when a person has been deprived of food, or when she is trying to meet emotional needs with food. If a person is not deprived and emotions are sorted out from physical hunger, the hunger signals will even out and become reliable again. It is the very idea that one should not listen to the stomach that makes hunger signals go out of whack. On the other hand, giving oneself permission to eat when hungry – knowing one will stop when full – defuses the machinery that takes over and makes people either overeat or restrict. Instead of believing herself to be out of control and having to deprive herself, thereby increasing her chances of bingeing, applying this method allows a person to eat whatever she wants – as long as she really wants it. In this system, “wanting” food means the person is physically hungry when she starts eating, and comfortably full when she stops. It is eating outside of these parameters that leads beyond the realm of “wanting” and into the realm of compulsion.
With new behaviors around eating, different messages go to the brain. These fresh messages turn into alternative beliefs about the self, contributing to the formation of an identity outside of the eating disorder.