When you’re attempting to decide how much food you need to eat, but don’t want to count calories, you need to rely on your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. That’s tricky business, for most of us, once we get past childhood.
I’ve been spending some good quality time with Jan Chozen Bays’ Mindful Eating, and while the discussions of eye hunger (when you’re stuffed but suddenly have room for dessert as soon as you see the dessert cart) certainly resonated, what’s really grabbed me is the discussion of stomach hunger vs. cellular hunger. I used to think it was important to learn to recognize true stomach hunger cues, but now I understand that your stomach is not very reliable! Basically, we train our stomachs when to be hungry. If you have a snack every day at 10:30 a.m., then guess what? Your stomach will start growling around that time. If you move to a radically new time zone, guess what? Your stomach will adapt and start growling around your “new” meal and snack times.
Cellular hunger, on the other hand, is more deep seated. Some cravings are related to cellular hunger, in cases where your body is severely depleted of certain nutrients. Cellular hunger is what makes you shaky, headachy or fatigued if you’ve truly gone too long without a meal. I notice cellular hunger the most when I’ve been on vacation or spending the holidays with family and end up eating more rich food and less veggies than usual. After a few days, I am craving fresh vegetables like you would not believe! Give me a salad, or give me death!
In deciding how I should eat, I vaccilate between three square meals a day, three meals plus two snacks, or five “mini meals.” Each way is valid (research has shown that, generally speaking, meal timing and spacing doesn’t matter for most people), which is why I have a hard time deciding which way is my way!
For a while now, I’ve been in a breakfast-snack-lunch-snack-dinner routine. Last week, I started experimenting with cutting out my mid-morning snack. Why? One, because I need to cut my daily calories (I’ll go into why tomorrow). Two, because it seemed less “painful” to cut out one eating opportunity each day, rather than try to trim down calories across all meals and snacks. I had two epiphanies last week that really confirmed this whole stomach-vs-cellular-hunger idea, and convinced me that I was on the right track.
First, on Tuesday and Thursday I was running to appointments midmorning (aka snack time). I noticed some stomach hunger, yes, but because I was engaged in physical (the running around) and mental activities, those hunger pangs barely even signified. They were just faint background noise, if you will. When I got home around lunchtime, I wasn’t any hungrier than usual.
Second, this weekend, for the first time in forever, I had time to spend hours sewing. I had my steamer trunk full of fabric open (“Hi, my name is Carrie, and I’m a fabric store junkie.”), I poured through my collection of patterns, stuff was strewn everywhere…it was glorious. Anyhoo, suffice to say that I was not only completely and totally engaged in an activity, I was actually in the zone. Hunger? What hunger? I felt some pangs, yes, but they came and went, and I barely noticed. When I stopped around dinnertime, you guessed it, I wasn’t any hungrier than usual.
So, yeah, I’m convinced that snack time is arbitrary, for me. I’m not feeling driven to eat any more than usual at  breakfast or lunch, which is significant. Some people do need between meal snacks, otherwise they are so hungry at the next meal that they inhale everything that’s not nailed down.
The moral of this story is twofold: Just because you’ve always done something a certain way, don’t assume that you have to keep doing it that way, but if you’ve always done something a certain way and you’re pretty darn sure that it’s working really well for you, don’t assume that you need to do something different just because someone else says so!