Historically, food was fuel. In our hunter-gatherer days, we ate to survive….and that was the end of the story. Eating was primal; eating was functional. There was no debate about whether to go for the 85% lean deer, the 70% lean steer or the 30% lean grub. You ate what was available when it was available.
In modern times, variety and availability are no longer constraints for most people. In fact, in many places, we are in a state of overabundance of food. In this environment, food is no longer just a source of fuel. Food has taken on a different role.
In this new context, there are many different reasons why we reach for food. The desire to eat is stimulated by:
1. Biological triggers
You are thirsty, your stomach is rumbling, you start to feel light-headed. These are all signs that your body needs more fuel to keep going. Your blood sugar (the body’s preferred fuel source) has dropped and your body does not have enough to continue operating at full capacity.
Sometimes, we have cravings for specific foods. In those cases, cravings may actually highlight an underlying nutrient deficiency. Cravings for chocolate, for example, may signal an underlying need for magnesium; a desire for bananas, avocados or coconut water might indicate a need for more potassium; longing for red meat may indicate a need for more iron.
Sometimes, our cravings are driven by our microbiome. We have a variety of organisms in our gut, including bacteria and yeast. When our gut is in balance, everyone co-exists and lives happily ever after. However, when our gut is out of balance, certain bacteria or yeast (like candida albicans) overgrow and cause all sorts of ruckus. Sugar cravings, in particular, can be caused by an overgrowth of candida or small intestinal bacteria (SIBO). Specific testing can tell you whether either of these imbalances are at play for you.
2. Environmental triggers
You see it or smell it. Despite our best efforts, many of our triggers to eat begin this way. We are innocently working at our desk and then our neighbor brings in some homemade cupcakes for everyone to try. We are walking down the street when the overwhelming scent of freshly baked bread crosses our path. We are all content and full after finishing a lovely dinner...and then our eating companion orders dessert for the table.
3. Emotional triggers
This is a biggie. You eat for comfort, boredom or distraction. You eat when you are sad, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed and anything in between. You eat to celebrate; you eat to commiserate. Emotional eating is a thing; we are emotional beings and therefore, we are all emotional eaters, to some extent or another. The question is whether emotional eating comprises 20% of your eating occasions or 80%.
4. Social triggers
You are in a social setting and social pressure dictates that you fit in with your surroundings. Maybe everyone is drinking, so you drink too. Maybe everyone is ordering appetizers, so you order one too. Maybe everyone is going back for seconds at the buffet, so you do too.
Of all of the reasons above, biological triggers are the only ones that are driven by true physiological hunger. All of the other reasons are prompted by non-physical “hunger” cues; we are hungry for something, but it’s certainly not food.
Filling v. Filler Foods
When you are eating based on your physical hunger, you are most likely to choose foods that will satisfy that physical hunger. You are likely to reach for something nourishing and sustaining. A Hershey’s kiss or a sugar cookie are unlikely to do the trick. Real, “filling” foods will appeal to you. You are also likely to stop once you no longer feel hungry.
However, if you are reaching for food when you are not hungry, anything goes. You are more likely to reach for foods that feed your soul than feed your body. That could be a chocolate croissant, a root beer float or a grilled cheese sandwich. “Filling” foods take a back seat to “filler” foods. Since you start eating when you aren’t hungry, there isn’t a clear “stopping” point.
I’m making a distinction between “filling” and “filler” foods. Filling foods are whole, real, usually unprocessed and macronutrient-balanced. Fillings foods are nutrient dense and satiating. Filler foods, on the other hand, are highly palatable but nutritionally devoid. Filler foods are calorie dense and rarely satisfying; you always want more.
In most cases, when we eat for biological hunger, we reach for filling foods. We start when we are hungry and stop when we are full. When we eat for non-biological hunger, we reach for filler foods. We are not hungry when we are start and are likely to overeat.
Tune into your reasons for eating. What percentage of the time are you eating for reasons other than biological hunger?