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HAES Eating: Eat When You’re Hungry

March 27, 2013

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Duckie permalink
    March 27, 2013 1:16 pm

    I work as a mental health crisis counselor. So many people I talk to are having problems thinking logically and regulating their emotions in the moment of crisis, and when I ask, it turns out they haven’t eaten for too many hours, or sometimes days. I used to be the same way before I figured out how important eating and nutrition is. My own mental health and happiness has been much improved by eating regular healthy meals and paying attention to when I am hungry and how hungry I am. My husband always knows when it’s time for me to eat because I get emotionally dysregulated way before I recognize my body cues sometimes. We can’t expect our brains to function properly if we don’t give it the fuel it needs.

  2. JennyRose permalink
    March 27, 2013 1:34 pm

    Congrats and thanks for the help. I have been working on this for years. I still do not love my body but I am coming to terms with my true appetite. I have either tried to control it, ignore it or binged because of it. I have not binged in years but I still have problem knowing hunger and fullness. On a positive note, I will try to see not bingeing as a sign that I am not depriving my body and that I am getting some results from my new approach.

  3. Elizabeth permalink
    March 27, 2013 2:30 pm

    I’m with Duckie. I actually heard some not-very-bright person on TV saying that people who eat regular meals at regular times are somehow dysfunctional. I found eating at regular times, something I often did not do, very helpful in learning how to eat “normally” again. Skipping meals, going too long without eating, is so common, and even now my husband will go too long without eating and become very unpleasant! Those of us prone to low blood sugar absolutely need to be attentive to our bodies and moods.

    • March 27, 2013 2:34 pm

      Elizabeth, I wonder if they meant that eating on a schedule, hunger or not, is dysfunctional? I don’t know if I’d use that word, but making yourself eat when you’re not hungry (like eating dinner because it’s 6 p.m., even if you ate at 3 and you’re not hungry again yet) could be seen as not intuitive, I think. That being said, I do think that eating by the clock instead of trying to figure out if you’re hungry can help you learn hunger signals at first.

      • Elizabeth permalink
        March 27, 2013 4:06 pm

        I confess it was on a Dr Oz show and the point seemed to be that every form of eating is dysfunctional. (Except what?) Eating when you’re hungry is a problem, as is eating regular meals at regular times. Basically, it was an encouragement of disordered eating, telling women that eating is in itself a problem. Ever think that what’s desired is that we just disappear?

  4. Kerasi permalink
    March 28, 2013 10:38 am

    I am still learning this system as well. Mostly because I have diabetes and I go from not hungry to ravenously hungry (and nauseated) within a short period of time. I am supposed to eat all the time…snack on healthy foods all day to keep it stable. I’ve never been someone that can just sit there and eat all day. I’ve always been more of a binger…not because of any desire not to eat in order to stay thin, but because I’ve always been so busy with something or another that I haven’t taken the time out to say, “Okay, it’s time to stop and take care of your body, it’s hungry.” I’ve been like this since I was a teenager, at least. I worked two jobs in high school in addition to maintaining a high GPA, so I have always been uber busy. College was no different, and life isn’t any different now. I adore the HAES lifestyle and teaching methods and am learning to incorporate them into my life everyday in order to control my diabetes because, as it is incredibly hereditary within my family, it isn’t going away, whether I’m fat or thin.

  5. queenie permalink
    March 29, 2013 3:52 pm

    The flip side of that coin, of course, is to not eat when you’re not hungry. It does take a while to learn if you’ve gotten out of the habit, this eating when your body needs it thing.

  6. March 30, 2013 3:31 am

    I can’t wait till the next post! Eating was always a “problem,” whether it was too much or too little. I’m working on eating (or shopping for) what I need and want. Thanks for the series!

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