By Michelle May, M.D.
Many diets have rules about when you “should” eat, but in real life, hunger doesn’t follow a clock! Have you ever tried to follow rules like these?
Diet Rules About When to Eat:
- Eat within an hour of getting up.
- Eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two small snacks every day.
- Eat six small meals a day.
- Eat every three hours.
- Don’t let yourself get hungry!
- Don’t eat after 7 pm.
- Eating In Vivo
When I was in medical school, we learned about the important differences between in vitro studies performed in the lab, and in vivo studies performed on living subjects. Theoretically, telling people to eat on a schedule seems like it should work, but when they try to follow rules for very long, it breeds obsession, inflexibility, and distrust in one’s self. In real life, you may feel hungry frequently one day and rarely the next depending on the types of foods you eat, how much you eat, your activity levels, hormones, and other factors. When your hunger levels don’t match the rules of whatever diet you’re on, you end up “cheating” and feeling guilty—fueling the eat-repent-repeat cycle.
An Inside-Out Approach
How you’ll decide when to eat is another great example of the difference between diets, which are outside-in, and Am I Hungry? which is inside-out. Diets depend on your willpower and compliance to follow the rules for as long as you can. Mindful eating shows you how to use your awareness and curiosity to learn about your personal hunger rhythms so you can create a pattern of eating that works for you and so you can easily adapt to the ever-changing circumstances called life.
Let’s compare these two approaches. (The following is based on the Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat book series.)
Outside-In: Eat within an hour of getting up.
Inside-Out: While studies have shown that breakfast is an important meal to spark your internal thermostat, give you energy, and decrease overeating later in the day, not everyone is hungry first thing in the morning. If that’s you, could you experiment with cutting down on late night eating, getting up a little earlier so you can slow down to eat, or cutting back on caffeine? If you still aren’t hungry first thing in the morning, could you check in within a couple of hours after waking up and have some food available to eat? Read more: Should I eat breakfast if I’m not hungry?
Outside-In: Eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two small snacks daily.
Inside-Out: Your hunger patterns are affected by what and how much you eat. If you eat less or more than usual at one meal, notice how long it takes before you’re hungry again. For example, if you eat a larger than normal meal, notice whether you’re hungry for your usual snack.
Hunger is also affected by what you eat. Macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) are digested at different rates and cause the release of certain biochemicals that affect satiety. Protein-containing foods are said to lead to the greatest level of satiety; you can create an experiment to test this for yourself: What happens when you eat crackers compared to what happens when you eat crackers with peanut butter? Foods high in fiber are said to slow down digestion, but test it for yourself: Is there a difference when you eat processed cereal versus when you eat oatmeal?
Outside-In: Eat every three hours.
Inside-Out: Instead of automatically eating every three hours, check in every few hours. A Body-Mind-Heart Scan will allow you to notice when you’re becoming hungry and other needs, such as water, rest, or a break. (The Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Virtual Coach App has a timer you can set to remind you to do your scan.)
Outside-In: Eat six small meals a day.
Inside-Out: This rule is probably based on the observation that some people who eat instinctively eat small regular meals. However, they don’t do it by following a clock. Instead, let’s reverse engineer it to understand how they might do this.
People who eat instinctively are innately aware of their body’s hunger and satiety cues. Since the stomach is about the size of their fist, it takes a handful of food or two to fill it comfortably without overstretching. If they stop eating when they’re satisfied and not uncomfortably full, they’re likely to become hungry every few hours throughout the day. This instinctive small, frequent meal pattern keeps their blood sugar level and supplies a consistent fuel source so they experience fewer mood and energy swings.
Instead of using an arbitrary schedule designed by someone else, practice listening to your body and eating in response to your hunger and fullness signals to see what happens.
Outside-In: Don’t let yourself get hungry!
Inside-Out: This rule is based on the belief that people are incapable of managing their own eating and that if they get hungry, they’ll overeat. (Do you hear the distrust embedded in this message?)
In our experience, the opposite is true. Once we teach people ways to interpret their hunger and fullness signals to guide their eating (and how to tell the difference between physical hunger and all the other reasons we want to eat), they are quite capable of managing their eating without all these rigid rules. The inside-out approach cultivates trust and confidence, eliminating the need for chronic dieting.
Outside-In: Don’t eat after 7 pm.
Inside-Out: This rule is supposed to keep you from eating while watching TV or because you’re bored, lonely, or in need of a reward after working all day. If you’re simply following a rule, you may not realize the reasons you usually eat in the evenings. So, when you go off the diet (you know you will eventually), you’ll go back to eating in the evenings.
Try this. When you feel like eating in the evening, pause and ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” and look for physical signs that your body needs fuel. If you’re hungry but going to bed soon, decide what to eat that will leave you feeling comfortable so you’ll get a good night’s sleep. If you’re not hungry, your hard work begins! What other thoughts and feelings are you aware of that might be triggering the desire to eat? And what small step can you take to meet that need? (We do not take this part of the problem lightly! Solving this is one of the keys to lasting change.)
Inside-Out Problem Solving
Let’s say you notice that you just aren’t hungry at a particular mealtime. This is an opportunity to engage your curiosity and think about what and how much ate earlier that day and whether anything else may have affected your hunger. With that information, you can experiment with various solutions.
For example, let’s say you notice that you aren’t very hungry during your usual lunch hour. If you typically eat toast for breakfast and a protein bar for a snack mid-morning, you could experiment with adding protein (like an egg, peanut butter, or Greek yogurt) to your breakfast to see if it holds you longer so you can skip your mid-morning snack. Or, you could also experiment to see if eating a different snack, like a piece of fruit, would allow you to be hungry by lunch. Alternatively, you could try eating less at lunch and be prepared to have a mid-afternoon snack.
Similarly, if you want to be hungry (but not ravenous) for dinner with your family, you can experiment with different lunches and afternoon snacks to see what pattern works for you.
By listening to your body, you can adjust what and how much you eat to regulate your hunger patterns so they are convenient for you. Become your own expert by learning to understand and trust your body’s signals.
By Michelle May, M.D.
Before I answer the question, “What is the difference between Am I Hungry? and intuitive eating, HAES®, or other mindful eating programs?”, let me say that although I can’t speak for the others, I believe there are more similarities than differences between us. Most important, we are all doing the essential work of “cracking the cultural veneer” (as Am I Hungry? facilitator Julie Goyette MS RDN described it recently).
We are all champions of the same cause
If you’re reading this, you’re already aware that there’s an incredible shift happening in the way many health and wellness professionals approach nutrition, physical activity, and self-care. This grassroots “anti-diet” movement (for lack of a better word) has emerged from the growing awareness that decades of dieting have seriously disrupted our instinctive relationship with food and our bodies.
This movement is not new but the internet has made it possible for it to flourish in recent years. Many individuals who previously felt alone in their confusion and frustration now realize that their experiences with dieting are the norm, not the exception. Many health professionals who independently came to the same conclusions now have a voice and a tribe.
The wild, wild web…
Unfortunately, at the same time, there has been an explosion of bloggers dolling out suspect health, nutrition and fitness advice, social media feeds full of fitspo and thigh gap images, targeted internet ads promoting weight loss scams, and a culture steeped in the myth that thinness equals health, beauty, and happiness.
Some individuals and organizations have co-opted mindful eating, intuitive eating, and even the body positive movements to promote their diets, rigid food rules, and weight loss programs, whether from a fundamental misunderstanding of these concepts or a recognition of the threat they pose to the billions of dollars generated from the pursuit of thinness. (Let’s call them wolves in sheep’s clothing.)
The anti-diet movement is still relatively small compared to the forces that tell us we cannot trust ourselves to manage our own eating. The anti-diet movement needs to grow quickly and effectively or the next generation of yo-yo dieting, disordered eating, orthorexia, and shame-based decision-making is likely to engulf more lives than ever before. That’s why I don’t think of my colleagues who are doing similar work as competitors, but as champions of the same cause.
But that begs the question, how is Am I Hungry? different?
Am I Hungry? offers non-diet, weight-neutral, mindfulness-based programs and training that overlap with the published principles of Intuitive Eating, Mindful Eating, and Health at Every Size.
I’ll come back to our “non-diet, weight-neutral, mindfulness-based” principles in a moment, but it’s not really about how Am I Hungry? is different but about what we bring to the table: The Mindful Eating Cycle.
- The Mindful Eating Cycle is built on the mindfulness principles of awareness, non-judgment, curiosity, and acceptance.
- The Mindful Eating Cycle provides the structure for recognizing patterns in our beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as they relate to food, physical activity, body image, and self-care.
- The Mindful Eating Cycle enables wellness professionals and individuals to recognize and resolve problematic eating behaviors by focusing on the root causes.
- Using the foundation of the Mindful Eating Cycle as a guide, participants learn specific processes to systematically replace their ineffective patterns with new beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that support the vibrant life they crave.
- The Mindful Eating Cycle progressively builds awareness of why, when, what, how, and how much you eat, and where you invest your energy.
- The Mindful Eating Cycle provides a practical decision-making framework that is simple to learn and internalize.
- The Mindful Eating Cycle can be easily applied to myriad populations and conditions (diabetes self-management, binge eating disorder and emotional eating, those struggling after bariatric surgery, students, athletes, families) and in different formats including workshops and webinars, coaching and clinical encounters, retreats, therapy, campuses, and organizational wellness.
Am I Hungry? Principles
While I was not aware of intuitive eating, mindful eating, or HAES when I began this work in 1999, somehow this journey brought Am I Hungry? to a similar place. Now we describe our programs and mindful eating trainings as non-diet, mindfulness-based, and weight-neutral.
Non-diet: Whether you call it intuitive eating, mindful eating, or the non-diet approach, Am I Hungry? utilizes a non-restrictive methodology that promotes the fearless enjoyment of all food without restriction, deprivation, or guilt. As people heal their relationship with food, they begin to make choices that support the balanced, vibrant life they crave.
Mindfulness-based: As we become more aware of our physical state, thoughts, feelings, and actions in the here and now, we are able to choose our actions (response-ability) rather than continue to react out of habit (re-act out the past). With mindful eating, instead of trying to stay in control then subsequently feeling out of control, individuals learn to be in charge of their decisions.
Weight-neutral: Am I Hungry? is consistent with a Health at Every Size paradigm and respects the diversity of body shapes and sizes. While we acknowledge the individual’s right to make decisions based on their own values, we do not encourage people to participate in our programs with the goal of weight loss since that is counterproductive and interferes with their ability to listen to and trust themselves.
People tell us that we are really good at what we do!
The mission of Am I Hungry? is to change the way the world thinks about eating. To that end, we work really hard to provide top-notch programs and training to effectively create that shift. People who participate in our training programs give us an average rating of 4.7 out of 5! (Read what they say too!)
One of our strengths is that we utilize a variety of adult-learning methods to keep participants curious, engaged, and evolving. Each session is designed to be highly interactive and experiential and employ auditory, visual, and kinesthetic techniques that compliment a range of learning styles. The flow of each program is intentional, logical, and progressive. Our programs promote autonomous decision-making that’s respectful of individuals’ preferences, lifestyle, and experiences.
But ultimately, it is our mission that makes the difference!
By Michelle May, M.D.
I signed up for yoga classes on the four days we were at sea during a recent cruise to celebrate our 30th anniversary. During the first class, I discovered that the yoga room had an open doorway from the ship’s gym so we heard the whirr of treadmills and clanging of weights in the background. After noting my distraction, I settled into my practice and took no further notice.
During the second class, I was in a downward facing dog looking at the ocean through the floor-to-ceiling windows when a guy strolled in, headphones on, and began a solo boxing workout at the back of the room, smack in the middle of my view. He watched our yoga class while hopping from one foot to the other, grunting and jabbing the air like Rocky. The teacher seemed puzzled too but continued the class.
During his 30-minute (!) workout, I experienced thoughts and emotions ranging from curious and amused to incredulous and irritated. Mindfulness has taught me to be just as curious about my own responses as I was about his apparent mindlessness. Eventually, I made this distraction part of my yoga practice and kept bringing my attention back to my breath and postures.
Have you felt a little distracted?
During all the recent New Year’s diet-hype, it occurred to me that mindful eating in a diet-obsessed culture is very much like practicing yoga while someone boxes in the back of the room. Whether we are simply aware of the constant murmur of diet-talk all around us, or frequently distracted by it, we can choose to ignore it and settle back into our practice. However, since restrictive eating messages are particularly heightened this time of year, it becomes increasingly difficult to cultivate your attention and maintain your intention to make healing your relationship with food the priority over temporarily losing a few pounds.
Whether it’s your girlfriend’s latest fad diet, your doctor’s admonishment to lose weight, or even our beloved Oprah touting Weight Watchers (as though it’s not really a diet since you can eat whatever you want as long as you don’t exceed your allotted points), the pull toward the familiar, though ineffective, old approach is alluring.
Tips for staying focused on mindful eating:
Take a few deep breaths. This simple grounding strategy will help calm your nervous system and bring you back to the present moment so you can decide where to focus your attention.
Use self-compassion. It is understandable that you would initially feel drawn toward something that sounds easy, fast, new, ground-breaking, or miraculous; these are the types of words that marketers use to attract customers.
Be compassionate toward others. Oprah’s enthusiasm about Weight Watchers reminds me of my own each time I experienced initial “success” (though it never lasted). I truly wish her well and I hope this is the answer for her. However, I know that weighing, measuring, counting, and logging is not the answer for me.
Do a reality check. There are two questions to ask yourself:
1. Does this sound too good to be true? If so, then it probably is!*
2. Can I do this every day for the rest of my life? If not, then don’t bother doing it for a day.
Choose your focus. Imagine what would happen if you took a fraction of the time, energy, attention, and money that you would have spent on that new diet (whether they call themselves a diet or not!), and instead invested it in becoming the expert in yourself?
Take supportive action. What is one small step you could take toward mindful self-care when you feel tempted (or frustrated) by all the diet-hype ? A Body-Mind-Heart Scan? Use your Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Virtual Coach App? Take a mindful bite?
Shift your focus
Mindful eating, like yoga, is teaching me to be present and nonjudgmental. I am repeatedly amazed at what shows up when I simply pause to notice. Our final yoga class was held on the grassy upper deck of the ship as we pulled away from the French Riviera. I was in a downward facing dog looking at the ocean through the railing when I saw this beautiful rainbow…
* At first, mindful eating might sound too good to be true! Eat what you love? How can that possibly work? Admittedly, it sounds simple, but it isn’t always easy. Like most worthwhile changes, it’s a process! (Read How Long Does It Take to Learn to Eat Mindfully?