Written by John Immel,
There are many feelings that seem like hunger but aren't, which Ayurveda calls 'false hunger.' The hunger for comfort and satisfaction, for instance, feels like hunger for food, but it is in reality an emotional hunger. Like false prophets, false hungers masquerade as appetite, causing you to eat when you aren't truly hungry. They also distort your food cravings, triggering you to eat foods other than those that are healthiest for you. False hunger thus perverts the ultimate purpose of hunger itself: to refuel your body so you have the energy and nourishment you need for life. Instead, false hunger destroys your energy and vitality.
Recognizing false hunger is the best way to restore your natural appetite and food cravings. Through awareness and attention, you will gradually learn to recognize instantly when your hunger is true or not. This skill is essential to prevent overeating and poor food choices. Perhaps the greatest goal of Ayurveda is the perfection of hunger itself. As a connoisseur develops their palate, through attention your hunger itself will be developed and perfected. As you acquire this skill of recognition, false hunger will diminish in frequency and power, and your will to eat will be naturally ordered towards healthier, life-giving fare.
A potent false hunger is the desire for a full belly. Most likely, you discovered the significance of a full belly as a baby. You discovered that a full belly led to feelings of satisfaction. You enjoyed the energy and fuel that the food gave you. A full belly meant not having to worry about primal needs for a while. It meant safety and comfort. Over the years, a full belly may have become the knee-jerk solution to many discomforts. Anytime you were feeling empty or lacking, you could fill the emptiness with food. Through this process, feelings of dissatisfaction put on a mask of hunger.
For ancestral humans, the strategy of filling your belly whenever you were tired or depressed was a good one. Scarcity was the norm. There were no ice cream cones in the forest, nor any of the convenient fast food joints that we have nowadays. Fatigue and depression were signs of poverty and exhaustion, signs you needed to eat. Eating when tired and depressed may have been a good strategy, hard-coded in your DNA. In light of modern convenience and the abundance of food available in grocery stores, the scales have flipped. Now calories are cheap. These days fatigue is not a sign of exhaustion or poverty. Instead of food scarcity, fatigue more often comes from overworking, overstimulation, stress and from overeating itself. A candy bar might raise your blood sugar levels for a few minutes so that you feel energized. But as your blood sugar levels crash, you soon feel tired and depressed again. Rich, carbohydrate heavy meals cause your blood to thicken, which becomes hard to circulate. Such food brings more fatigue, sluggishness, and depression. Today, if you follow your ancestral impulses to eat when you are tired, you will feed your illness. Unless you are underweight, food will not be an authentic answer to depression or sadness. You can't rewrite your DNA, but you can take the time to notice whether you are really hungry and in need of more food energy, or whether you need, for example, the energy that comes from exercising regularly, or resting after a long day's work.
Emotional disturbances, boredom, sadness, and depression can feel like hunger because they also arise out of desire for comfort. The satisfaction you feel after eating offers temporary respite from your emotions. One of my clients would eat at night whenever she was away from her boyfriend. Their relationship was unstable, and her loneliness on these nights only reinforced her feelings of failure and worthlessness. Sometimes the false hunger was manageable - a small bite of chocolate relieved her anxiety. Other times, she sought richer meals including ice cream or cheesecake, which were problematic foods that created congestion and heaviness through the night. It was a downward spiral she struggled to break.
Pain can also masquerade as hunger. You may have abdominal discomfort, irritation, or inflammation but your brain thinks you're just hungry. Stomach pain feels remarkably similar to a hunger pang, in terms of discomfort. I had a client who ate every time her stomach was hurting. She thought the pain was hunger when really it was inflammation. When we modified her diet and introduced an herbal formula, her inflammation subsided, the pain was relieved, and her appetite reduced. Even just the realization that it was pain, not hunger, helped curb her appetite. When you become conscious of the false hunger, often you automatically start to take the steps you need for a more supportive relationship with food.
Sometimes the false hunger is due to "taboo temptation." This is especially true for people fasting from wheat, sugar, or other foods. After several days of abstinence you may be preoccupied by your struggle to resist your cravings, and paradoxically, preoccupied with the forbidden food. If you are fasting from wheat, you may be nearly mesmerized by the sight of a cookie. Taboo temptation can masquerade as powerful hunger, and is one of the main reasons we suggest you avoid crash diets. The temptation to eat forbidden foods is especially difficult to resist in the long term, no matter how sincere your intentions. Inevitably, you will give into temptation occasionally and create a cycle of feast and famine that is difficult to break. This can lead you to waffle between abstinence and binging, which ultimately causes you to gain more weight in the end. That's why crash diets and quick weight loss schemes ultimately fail. Instead of struggling for abstinence, simply paying closer attention to impulses of hunger and discerning their source, true or false, will lead you to a healthier relationship with food. In the game of weight loss, the tortoise always beats the hare.
Many people think hypoglycemia is a sign of true hunger. Hypoglycemia is when your blood sugar levels drop to a point where your body feels alarmed. Although you feel ravenous when hypoglycemic, hypoglycemia is not true hunger either. More often, hypoglycemia is a result of other imbalances such as frequent snacking or indulging in refined sugar. If you eat regular meals with minimal snacking and whole foods with minimal sugar, your blood sugar levels will remain stable unless it has been at least 6 hours since your last morsel.
A headache is not a sign of true hunger either. People get a headache when they are hungry because lower blood sugar levels force your body to metabolizes stored fats, releasing toxins stored in fat tissue. These toxins cause the headache, not the hunger itself.
As we mentioned, your body associates many discomforts with hunger. Unless you bring your conscious awareness to them, these discomforts will become impulses to eat. In many ways, instincts are imprecise - they generalize problems and solve them bluntly. You might even hear a voice in your head, "eating felt good last time, let's try that again!" Whether inflammation in the gut or emotional pain, eating can alleviate discomfort temporarily, and so, over time, you associate certain discomforts as hunger when they are not truly hunger. Your body simply wants something to make it feel good, even if it doesn't solve the problem. Food becomes a panacea to your brain. Fortunately, you can reduce overeating quickly by noticing the difference between these false hungers and true hungers. It's easy to recognize false hunger once you know how. Just remember, hunger is never painful. It is not an emotion, and it doesn't change with stress. Whatever you might be feeling in these circumstances, it is not hunger. Instead, these false hungers must be identified and dealt with if you are ever to discover a healthy relationship with food.
Ayurveda says to never eat unless you're truly hungry. What does true hunger feel like? In order to know what distinguishes true hunger from false hunger cues, you must first remember the origin and essence of hunger is your body's hunger for energy. Satisfying hunger is not the same as the "comfortable, sedated, full belly" that you may have grown to know and love. True hunger feels more like a craving for restoration, strength and vitality. If you are truly hungry, food will not sedate you; it will energize you. Healthy food choices leave you feeling light, energized, and refreshed. You will feel strong, your stamina will be great, and your confidence will not waver. When you feel true hunger, food brings joy and fulfillment. Satisfying true hunger ends in happiness, not heaviness.
True hunger, in theory, should arise only when there are inadequate resources to nourish your cells. The biology of hunger should conform to this rule but often doesn't. Frequently, people feel hunger even when they have ample reserves. An empty stomach, for example, has nothing to do with true hunger when you are otherwise adequately nourished. Any feeling you associate with hunger that does not come from this state of deficiency is not true hunger, even if you feel very hungry. These feelings simply mean you hunger apparatus needs tuning.
The biological signs of true hunger include a growling stomach, a feeling of lightness, a slight weakness, and coolness of the skin. If your stomach is not growling, if you feel heavy and lethargic, or if your mind is cloudy and thinking seems arduous, then maybe you aren't hungry. It could be emotional hunger instead. Maybe it's simply dissatisfaction.
True hunger feels like clarity and spaciousness in your mind. The mind wakes up when you are truly hungry and you feel motivated. If your mind feels cloudy and sluggish, you probably aren't hungry. Hunger is, by its very nature, motivating. A lion doesn't hunt on a full belly; he sleeps. True hunger is a drive, a force to be reckoned with. It is not an, "I might as well have another cookie" feeling. Sustained hunger, as experienced on a crash diet or in a prolonged fast, releases endorphins that make you feel high and even powerful, as individuals with anorexia can attest too. Many writers and artists have intentionally chosen a path of poverty because they believed they could not live out their full creative potential on a full stomach.
Hunger activates Vata dosha (the body type of movement). It gets you up off the couch. Studies show that hunger increases movement in many animals, including humans. Hunger gets you moving. It breaks through obstacles such as sluggishness like no other remedy can. Every time you are hungry, you have to make a choice: should I eat? If you are overweight and tend to be sluggish, we suggest that you harness this spark of energy rather than stuff it down with food. Mild hunger can be a gift to be admired, celebrated, and enjoyed, like the coming of a sunrise.
In Bangladesh, many people are food insecure. These undernourished souls are experts of hunger. They have a saying, "hunger is the best sauce," which captures the joy of a meal when you have true hunger. Water tastes like heaven to the thirsty. Unlike the starvation experienced in extreme poverty, hunger is not a disease. Starvation is when you cannot get the nutrients your body needs, and you start to break down body tissues due to malnourishment. It takes a lot of hunger to get to starvation. Most people can fast for a month or more before they are truly malnourished. Medically, mild hunger has been shown to increase longevity. Suppression of true hunger, however, is a disease that can lead to eating disorders.
Between healthy hunger and starvation is the feeling of being famished. If you wait too long to eat and skip meals, you may feel like you are starving. If you are too hungry, or not used to abstaining, your blood sugar levels will crash. The lightness and spaciousness of your mind in this case will change to irritability and anger. While allowing yourself to feel hungry between meals can be healthy and motivating, skipping meals is not advised in Ayurveda. Waiting until the point where you are angry and irritable is unhealthy, unless you are habituated to frequent snacking and need to retrain your body. If you wait until you are famished, you risk becoming indiscriminate about what you eat.
Figuring out how your hunger feels is an exercise that could take hours, months, or even years. As you delve into your hunger, you will find all kinds of insights into its nature and how it affects your behavior, lifestyle, and emotions. What are some of the ways your body tells you it is hungry? How does your body feel when you are hungry? Take a moment to start your exploration of hunger by going through each of these questions, one by one, once a day for a month:
This excerpt was taken from "Explore You Hunger", published by John & Natalie Immel in 2014.
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About the AuthorJohn Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda. His approach to Ayurveda exudes a certain ease, which many find enjoyable and insightful. His online course Balance Your Ayurvedic Diet in a Week provides tools for gracefully healing with Ayurveda to thousands. John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda , which specializes in digestive tract pathology & Ayurvedic nutrition. John and his wife Natalie recently published Explore Your Hunger: A Guide to Hunger, Appetite & Food.
John's interest in Ayurveda and digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, including his public service work in South Asia. John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion. John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing. In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.
John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots, and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church. Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick. That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well.
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the first good eating habit "Wait for signs of true hunger" seems like a conflict with the second good eating habit- "eat at the same time every day". Is one of these habits a higher priority than the other one?
Ideally, you combine the two! It's not good to eat food if you are not hungry, but your stomach also likes to have a schedule. At the beginning, if you are used to erratic eating, getting on a schedule may feel weird to your stomach. But if you can train yourself to eat on a routine, the signs of true hunger should come right on time each day. :)
As someone who tends toward emotional eating, this is the most powerful article I have read on the subject. I revisit it almost daily. Thank you!