HAES Eating: Eat When You’re Hungry
Trigger warning: Discussion of weight loss strategies formerly employed by the author.
The first leg in the three-legged stool called HAES-style eating is to eat when you’re hungry.
Eating when you’re hungry is one of the most basic, and trickiest, aspects of competent or intuitive eating within Health at Every Size® (HAES). If you’ve been dieting or watching what you eat (or otherwise restricting what you eat) for any amount of time, it’s entirely possible that you’ve lost the knack for even knowing when you’re hungry.
In the 30 or so years that I ate with the specific purpose of becoming smaller (or not getting bigger, depending), I picked up some bad habits that I think are pretty common to the diet mentality.
- I learned a whole bag of tricks for trying to convince my body that it wasn’t hungry — I drank a lot of water to keep my stomach full. I ate a lot of celery and rice cakes in an effort to stay full without calories. I put things in my body, from weird fiber-y products to diet pills, designed to suppress hunger.
- I binged — Instead of listening to my body when it suggested that a meal might be a good idea, I went as long as I could without eating, or without eating well, and then (when I couldn’t take it anymore), I binged. I forgot how to eat normally.
- I purged — I never physically purged, because puking scares me and makes me cry. But I was an athlete for a long time, and I became a master at counting calories in and calories out. I knew how much I had to swim or run to burn off a binge, and how hard I had to work to punish myself for being so weak. I got pretty good at being Machiavellian with myself and my hunger.
- I forgot how to enjoy food — Because food was responsible for my inability to be thin, and all I wanted was to be thin, there were whole years where hunger pissed me off. I wanted to be able to subside on my own body fat until it was all gone. I never stopped eating, anorexia was never my thing, but I stopped enjoying food. I would get hungry, and have no idea what I wanted to eat or how much I needed to be satisfied. I completely lost touch with my body’s intake system.
- I internalized the idea that I was eating wrong — Truthfully, I was eating in a way that wasn’t good for me physically or mentally, but not in the way that I believed I was. I thought that if I just learned how to Eat Right™, I would lose weight. That if I could just grow a pair and get some self-control already, I could be thin like my sisters. Nevermind that my thin sister were perfectly competent eaters who were just naturally thin people.
Eating when I was hungry was the first leg of HAES-style eating that I worked on. It wasn’t easy. It involved relearning my body’s hunger signals, then consciously responding to them over and over until I stopped wanting to ignore them or fight against them. Binging went away naturally (for me) when I got a handle on eating when I was hungry. Purging was more difficult, and I still have to stop myself sometimes from wanting to collect data on what I eat and how much I burn.
Learning to eat when I was hungry had some very concrete positive results for me. I have wonky, low blood sugar, and ignoring my body when it says EAT has some fairly devastating results. Take it from me: a blood sugar crash is no fun, at all. Eating regularly keeps my blood sugar stable. As I said, I stopped binging and stopped feeling like eating was something horrible I was doing to myself. And, for the first time in my adult life, when I started eating when I was hungry, my weight stabilized and stopped swinging all over the place. Even though I eat more now than I did before, my weight has not changed even a pound in three years.
Here are my tips for learning to eat when you’re hungry:
If you honestly can’t tell when you’re hungry, start eating something every three or four hours. Pay attention to how you feel before and after you eat, and even while you’re eating. I’ll talk more in another post about eating until you’re full, but I want to point out here that if you’ve lost touch with your hunger signals, it’s possible that you’ve gotten used to eating until you’re so full you can’t put another bite in. That’s okay, but for now just pay attention to the point where you feel satisfied, but not sick or uncomfortable.
Be aware of how your diet-mindset affects the way you respond to hunger. If your first thought is, maybe I’m just thirsty, or I can wait until dinner, acknowledge those thoughts, take a drink if you are thirsty, and then eat something. In the beginning, you might throw your three squares schedule off. That’s okay. Give yourself permission to eat when you are hungry and trust that once you get the hang of competent eating, things will balance out.
Think about how little kids eat. A two-year-old could care less that she had a big breakfast or that she’s going to go out to dinner later and will blow her calorie count for the day if she eats lunch. When a toddler is hungry, it’s Feed Me, Seymour, or else. I’m not suggesting that you throw a temper tantrum if you don’t get food immediately. I am suggesting that you remember that the human body is a delicate and incredible machine that has impeccable systems in place for regulating fuel intake. Heeding those systems is no more a moral problem for you now than it was for you when you were two.
If you’re in the habit of writing down what you eat or otherwise counting calories (or points or whatever), stop. This was the number one hardest part for me. I’ve had to recognize that keeping data on food intake and exercise is bad for me. Learning to trust my body to know when I’m hungry and when I’ve had enough to eat meant giving up writing down every calorie, fat gram, and morsel of carbohydrate that went into my mouth. Making myself write down every ounce of food that went into my mouth during a binge was maybe the worst way I punished myself back in the day. Start looking at food as food again, and not as a collection of good and bad numbers.
I’ll be talking about eating what you’re hungry for next. If you have any questions or topics about HAES eating you’d like me to address, leave a comment here or email me at shauntagrimes at gmail dot com.