The 7 Hungers - rethinking our eating habits
Thursday, April 30, 2015
As creatures of the natural world, we have evolved under conditions of danger and scarcity. Humans are by instinct reward-seeking animals that discount the future in favour of immediate reward. This was vitally important to our survival millennia ago when fruit trees were few and far between, and dinner had a habit of running or flying away.
But as a species, we are ill equipped for the seductive prosperity and abundance that exists in the Western World today. Modern science has clearly established that “overloading” the brain's reward circuits with excessive stimulation, for example (as supermarkets do) through unlimited choice, triggers craving and insatiable desire. Our nature has no built-in braking system. Now that we live in abundance and that our appetites are no longer constrained by limited resources, our cravings for immediate reward have become a liability and a hunger that has no bounds. We don't know when we have enough.
As a result, we have developed a very unbalanced relationship with food: Few people grow their own food, virtually no one kills their own animals for meat, and an epidemic of microwave ready, industrially food means that many people don't even know how to prepare a meal from raw ingredients straight from the garden.
But the most obvious aspect of this imbalance is how we eat and how much we eat. Furthermore, in the Western world, food serves many purposes. We use it to sooth, distract, reward, numb or entertain ourselves. The relationship between hunger and eating becomes tangled into many thoughts and emotions. Being mindful of the reasons why we feel like eating can free up this relationship and allow us to eat as much as we need, without giving into cravings. In her book Mindful Eating, Jan Chozen Bays list seven reasons why we might want to eat, which she calls the seven hungers.
Cellular hunger is the expression of our body's need for fuel. Our bodies need food to keep warm, keep moving, and to constantly grow, rejuvenate or repair themselves. Cellular hunger is common to all living beings, because animals and plants alike need food of some kind. In the western world, we rarely if ever experience cellular hunger in its crudest form, because we keep in at bay through a mindless schedule of regular meals and snacking. However, it sometimes shows up as a craving for a specific type of food which we (unconsciously) need because it contains some particular nutrient that our regular diet lacks. Because we often misunderstand the messages that our bodies send us, we sometimes mistake cellular thirst for cellular hunger, and snack when we should be drinking water. Learning to listen to cellular hunger is the most important skill of mindful eating.
Mind hunger is based upon thoughts. Thoughts of what we should, or shouldn't eat, and when. Thoughts like “I need a good breakfast before going to work”. Those of us who have learned to choose their food by numbers (calories, RDAs, price, etc.) have actually elevated mind hunger above all others kind of hungers. The numerous dieting fads that have swept over the Western world in recent decades are all produce of mind hunger. Mind hunger also shows in social eating, when we feel we have to eat, not because our bodies need food, but for social reasons. When mind hunger and body hunger disagree, we have to remember that our mind rarely tell us the truth and to listen to the wisdom of our body.
This is the desire for food that we naturally experience when we smell delicious food.
More often than not, it overrides the bodies satiety signals with a desire for “comfort food”, because smell has such a powerful and primitive effect upon the subconscious mind. Bakeries, coffee shops and fast food outlets are well aware of this and put it to good use to keep in business.
Research shows that people often decide how much of a given food they will eat based on information from the eyes. This is eye hunger. It can easily override stomach hunger. This is why people who are given large plates will always eat more than people who are given small plates. Eye hunger is most useful to newsagents, petrol stations and other shops whose main business is selling snacks.
Because the mouth is an organ of pleasure, mouth hunger is first and foremost about rediscovering the pleasure of eating. Unfortunately, the mouth is easily bored and the food industry has played up to mouth hunger with Mono Sodium Glutamate or with over-sweetened food. To fully satisfy mouth hunger, what we need are not the stronger or more exotic tastes that are increasingly presented to us by supermarkets and restaurants, but a better awareness of the taste of what we are eating. Eating slowly and in silence, paying full attention to the taste of our food, is the best way to satisfy mouth hunger.
From an evolutionary point of view, “hunger pangs” are a good thing. If an empty stomach was a pleasant feeling, and a full one was uncomfortable, we might all have starved to death. But the notion that the stomach tells us when to eat is flawed. Rather, through our eating habits, we condition our stomachs to expect food at certain times, and it sends “hunger” signals at these scheduled times. If you fast for a few days, the hunger pangs disappear and you discover that an empty stomach is actually comfortable. Unlike other kinds of hunger, stomach hunger is very definitely finite. Once the stomach is comfortably full, stomach hunger subsides. However, many people can't really tell when their stomach is full. Yoga and mindfulness practices that helps us reconnect with our bodies are very useful for deal wisely with stomach hunger.
Many people are aware that they eat in an attempt to fill a void, not in their stomach, but in their heart. In her book The Language of Emotions, Karla McLaren remarks that “... we taught ourselves to eat over the top of our feelings. As such nearly every modern person can be considered to have an eating disorder.” It's no mystery that many comfort foods are the ones we particularly enjoyed in our childhood. But ultimately, we cannot depend on food to fill the empty place in our heart. What feeds heart hunger is love, companionship and the intimacy with the present moment that we develop through regular mindfulness practice.
Practical mindful eating
Our purpose in eating mindfully is to explore our relationship with pleasure and clarify the difference between enjoyment and indulgence.
Here's a little reflection I like to use before eating:
I eat this food, not to indulge sensual pleasure or to seek comfort, but to sustain and nourish my body. I will allay hunger without overeating, so that I can continue to live with ease. Being mindful of every mouthful, I shall undermine unhealthy eating habits and develop appreciative joy. This food brings me health, strength and happiness. May it also support the health, strength and happiness of all those who kindly provided it.
About the author:
Christophe was born in France and moved to Ireland over 20 years ago. He has lived a very varied life and worked in many different areas, including tourism, IT, teaching yoga and farming. For more info on workshops and retreats see
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