The Smack down: Mouth Hunger vs. Stomach Hunger

Posted on August 21, 2010


Overeating seems to be such a common problem. Like the common cold, it also seems to be the toughest to beat. I’m still learning after decades of diets, that you just need to find your groove and resolve your attitude towards those things that are eating you emotionally…  I started this post in March, 2010 and I gave an update at the end.

So, I’ve admittedly spent most of my adult life dieting.  Why?  Because since college I’ve seen a fat person in the mirror.  Looking back I now realize that wasn’t true.  After all these decades of trying to control my weight through countless diets and numerous weight losses/gains, I have dumped the diet.  This whole time I’ve watched other people follow Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers and the Zone diet and lose lots of weight.  I’ve done them all and never was really successful at any of them.  Except for one time in my adult life, when I lost weight (mostly from stress and lack of money) I had a problem staying on the diet and then maintaining any loss.  I was beginning to feel like a total failure.  (And that doesn’t feel good at all.)

Then I found this book, “Overcoming Overeating.”  I read the reviews on the Barnes & Noble website and found some truth that felt familiar in my own life.  I know I’m an emotional eater, but what can I do about it?  This book helped me see that the important thing I need to do is train myself to eat when I’m actually hungry.  Not bored, or sad, or stressed.  That means listening to “stomach hunger.”  Mouth hunger is the bored, sad, stressed thing cured by a few bags of potato chips and three pounds of chocolate.  I’ve been trying to listen to stomach hunger for a few days now and it’s starting to work.  I’m actually feeling ok about leaving food on my plate or saving half my meal for later.  I no longer watch the clock thinking that it’s 6pm, I have to eat dinner.  You know what?  Sometimes I’m not hungry at 6pm.  I eat when I feel hungry.  It’s actually kind of liberating.

I have a lot more to learn, but this exercise is less about self control and more about getting back in touch with what I have in the mirror, not what I envision as I daydream about reaching some artificial ‘goal weight.’  I’ve had people tell me, “Ask yourself if you’re really hungry.” before but the message didn’t make sense. In the context of learning to pay attention to actual hunger rather than emotion, it makes lots of sense.  The best part of this book has been the notion to not obsess about what you can’t eat.  It’s more about taking care of yourself and being good to yourself.  If you want a bit of ice cream, then get it out-of-the-way.  Sometimes you need a taste of something sweet after dinner.  So have it.  I just remember, “It’s for your sweet tooth.  You’re not actually eating to fill yourself; it’s just for the taste.” That’s when the real smack down happens.  How do you tell when you’ve had enough to satisfy that “sweets” urge?

The smack down continues and for now, I do have to keep thinking about eating, but I think with this new way of looking at food, I’ll reach a point of freedom.  The freedom away from calorie counting and weighing to a new realization that my own body signals when it’s time to eat.  Sounds so basic, and yet I’ve lost touch with that ability.  I struggle with not going to  look at the scale for validation.  But I know that whatever the number is, it will change my mood.  If it’s down, I feel ok to overeat, if it’s up then I beat myself up.

UPDATE: I started this post back in March.  Now in August, I’m finally losing weight. It’s been very slow and I have yet to incorporate exercise into a routine. I am doing well with portion control and most importantly, I’m finally starting to realize that my mouth hunger isn’t in charge.  I’m really learning to listen to genuine hunger. It hasn’t been perfect and it took literally me falling off the wagon back in June and gaining weight after several binges. Still, every few days I do get the urge to snack late at night.  Sometimes I give in a have a small bag of chips and other times I remind myself that I’m not hungry.  Why am I sharing this rant about dieting, being hungry and emotional eating? Because I think there are so many more people like me who are emotional eaters.  We eat when we’re stressed, lonely, bored and dissatisfied.  The answer: Find the way to control your appetite.  Everyone needs something different. Some people find healthy and filling snacks help; some people need an appetite suppressant and some just find they can train themselves to distract their hunger with a hobby or exercising. Writing down what you eat helps you keep track and recognize exactly how much you put in your mouth.  I read “Shrink Yourself” and it reinforced what I discovered in Overcoming Overeating.  The good news is that Shrink Yourself gave me some real practical strategies and deeper personal insight.  I recommend you give it a read and see what you can get from it.  Some people have reported great success in a short amount of time.  I struggled, but I still learned a lot.  Whatever works is really a personal preference.

The bottom line for me is you have to try different tools till you find one that helps you slow down when you want to binge. The good news is that eventually you don’t need the help and you just lose the dependence on food for emotional satisfaction. If you can find out what’s eating you, you can forget about overeating.