Stomach Hunger

Stomach hunger is the 4th type of hunger Jan Chozen Bays, MD identifies in her book, “Mindful Eating” and it is very complex to explain but I will try using quotes from her book and my commentary at the end.

Dr. Bays writes:

“Often hunger is described as gnawing, as if an animal were eating at our insides.  It growls and complains until we throw food down the tunnel to placate it.  However, the notion that the stomach tells us when we must feed it is not correct.  We actually tell the stomach when to be hungry.  This occurs through our eating habits.”

“If you fast for over three days, the hunger pangs and growling disappear.  The abdomen feels flat, quiet and comfortable.  This tells us that stomach hunger is not a permanent, solid feature of our lives, one whose urging we must obey.  It’s our body hunger that is more fundamental and important to learn to feel.”

“On the other hand, if we ignore sensations of hunger, we’ll get in trouble too.  We have to walk the middle way with hunger.  This means to be aware of signs of hunger in the whole body, not just the hunger signals from a stomach that demands food at the same time every day.  It means not to be upset if our stomach is growling but we can’t eat right away or we need to eat less.  It also means not ignoring our body when it tells us it needs quality fuel.

Sometimes we mistake hunger for acid reflux or feelings of anxiety.  We eat more thinking that will “fill” us up to relieve the symptoms but that makes the discomfort worse because we are exacerbating the reflux or anxiety.  “The cure is to sit down and take care of myself in the proper way.  I assess hunger in the eyes, mouth, and stomach.  I acknowledge that my stomach is helping me by signaling my anxiety.  I thank it for its message and promise to attend to my real needs.”

“In our workshops on mindful eating we have found that many people are completely unaware of stomach hunger.  They are mystified about how to go about assessing the experience of their stomach and cannot get a read on whether their stomachs are full, half full, or empty.  It is a revelation for many people to find that they can begin to “listen” to the stomach and act upon its intelligence.  When we are able to do this, very often we find that we are about to put food into a stomach that actually is not hungry, a stomach that asks us to wait for a while and reassess for hunger in a few hours.  It is a good feeling to begin to live in harmony with our body, to learn from its wisdom.”

Confusing, right?  It can be, especially for those of us who binge because we rarely check in to see if we’re hungry before eating (some of us do, most of us don’t).  I know many people who don’t know what hunger feels like and only a pattern of normalized eating and embodiment helps us uncover that body wisdom.  It is very important to have the ability to identify stomach hunger in staving off the urge to binge.  I work on this with my coaching clients because it forms a foundation for a strategy I use for binge avoidance.

Dr. Bays suggests the following exercise to get in touch with stomach hunger, “When you sit down to eat, take a few seconds to assess stomach hunger on a scale from zero to ten, zero being not hungry and ten being “starving.”  After you’ve eaten half your food, stop eating and take a few seconds to assess stomach hunger again.  At the end of the meal, assess stomach hunger again.  To satisfy stomach hunger we need to feed the stomach just enough food, let it do its work, and then let it rest.  As we eat we need to pause periodically to check in with the stomach to discern when it is becoming comfortably full.”

This is why slow eating is so important, it not only allows body wisdom to guide how much you eat but it also eliminates a stress response to eating that shuts down calorie burning and metabolic function (this is a topic for another blog and it will blow your mind!).

Hit the comments and let me know how this exercise worked for you!


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