Written by John Immel,
IntroductionHumans experience hunger in 4 different ways. With the fast pace and distractions of modern life, it's easy to detach from these biological messages and eat mindlessly. If you're stressed, overworked, and always on the run, you may be wolfing down your meal in record time without even noticing these important hunger and satisfaction cues.
Mindful eating is the art of slowing down and savoring your food with moment to moment awareness. While you may be familiar with the practice of mindful eating, you may not be aware of the biology behind your hunger and appetite.
By experiencing and tuning into each of the 4 ways your body uses to communicate hunger, you will develop intuition, awareness and greater self control regarding your appetite, food cravings, and hunger. You will learn how satisfy your body more efficiently, and give it the nutrients it needs. You will learn to eat more mindfully.
Your appetite is a determining factor in how much, how often, and how quickly you eat. Sometimes, it can feel like your appetite runs the show, particularly if it you have an intense or insatiable desire for food. Tuning into your appetite can be the tipping point that shifts you from eating mindlessly to eating mindfully.
This article, taken from the book, Explore Your Hunger, walks you through the 4 bodily cues of hunger, and explains the biology of hunger that will help you eat mindfully.
The Biology Of HungerYour appetite is largely controlled by 4 internal mechanisms. The first mechanism is the physical sensation of either emptiness and fullness. When your stomach is empty, it grumbles and you experience hunger. An empty stomach signals the production of the hormone ghrelin, more commonly known as the "hunger hormone." Ghrelin's main function is to stimulate appetite. As your stomach starts to fill up with food, ghrelin levels drop and your appetite will wane. Also, when there is food in your belly, the nerves that monitor pressure in your stomach wall send a signal to your brain that makes you feel full. Take a moment to notice whether your stomach is empty or full.
The second internal mechanism that affects your appetite is the amount of nutrients in your bloodstream. If you don't have enough glucose, fats, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, you will feel deprived and hungry, even after eating. When you are nutrient deficient, your appetite tells you to keep eating mindlessly until your body gets what it needs. If you have enough of these nutrients, you will feel satisfied and won't feel the desire to continue eating beyond your stomach's capacity. Take a moment to notice whether or not you feel satisfied by what you've eaten, even if your stomach is full.
Third, there are several hunger-abating hormones, including cholecystokinin (CCK), that tell your body when you are full. These hormones are released by the small intestine and pancreas. They act as an appetite suppressant and signal feelings of fullness. The release of hormones like CCK in your small intestine makes the thought of eating more food slightly nauseating. Take a moment to notice whether eating more food seems appealing or slightly nauseating.
Just like there is a hormone for hunger (ghrelin), there is a hormone that regulates satisfaction called leptin. Together, ghrelin and leptin function to balance your food consumption. Leptin, the fourth biological mechanism, is secreted by fat cells in your body and decreases your hunger. Every time you eat a meal, your leptin levels go up and you feel satisfied. When your body has stored too much fat, your fat cells release leptin too, and food seems to lose its appeal altogether for awhile. The idea of eating more food becomes entirely boring, and you may lose interest in eating altogether for several days. Many people, especially those who love food, become alarmed when this happens. Rest assured, within several days your appetite and enjoyment of eating will return.
Putting it into PracticeWith some practice, you will actually be able to feel the difference between the 4 internal mechanisms described above. When your stomach is empty, it growls. When your stomach is full but your blood is still deprived of nutrients, you feel pressure in the abdominal cavity, but no post meal satisfaction. When your blood is well nourished, on the other hand, you feel satisfied and can easily stop eating. When you have stored more fat than your body wants, eating seems boring. By paying attention to the many nuances of feeling hunger and satisfaction, you will be less likely to eat mindlessly.
With so many hormones and feedback mechanisms to help you feel your appetite, it should be easy and instinctive to eat mindfully. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Your appetite may be distorted by many factors including irregular lifestyle habits or the use of certain pharmaceuticals. Or, a hidden pain in the stomach can make you feel hungry when you aren't.
More frequently, your appetite becomes habituated to incorrect eating habits. Many people simply don't slow down and pay attention. They forget to notice, may be distracted by TV or eating in front of the computer. At times, people even suppress the full feeling in their belly. Ayurveda suggests that you heed your body's appetite when it tells you that you are at capacity.
By learning to observe the 4 biological mechanisms of your appetite and the secrets to eating slowly, you'll be able to take the time to notice when you need to eat more food or less, when you need nutrients or calories, or when you're not enjoying the taste of the food anymore, which is a sure sign that it's time to stop eating.
ConclusionThrough body awareness and understanding the signals your body is sending, you can learn to regulate your appetite and start to eat mindfully. Your body has the capacity to decide the proper quantity and quality of food for you, but sometimes, due to habit or poor food choices, your appetite becomes distorted.
Rather than rushing through your next meal out of habit, consider some of the ways in which you can tune into the biology behind eating mindfully. By slowing down and paying attention to these biological cues, you will be able to reconnect with your appetite and learn to eat more mindfully.
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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. 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.