mind is hungrier than your stomach

After WLS, What To Do When Your Mind Is Hungrier Than Your Stomach

June 26, 2017

Let’s go through a scenario that might sound and ‘feel’ familiar.

A Scenario of How Your Mind Gets Hungry

I worked all day and it was a busy day. I come home after all the running around to make, and of course, clean up dinner.  I am tired.  Does this sound familiar yet? Let’s not forget errands, chores, and homework may be in this mix as well.  The time has come and I can relax. I can’t wait to watch some TV and just ‘relax’ on the couch. I click through the TV and I don’t see anything interesting, so I start to think about what I can ‘have’ (aka eat).

I start to visually think about the snacks in the cabinet, the drawers and what’s on the counter. I get up and find myself looking in the cabinet for what I already visualized. Ahh, now I can relax. I go back to the couch and still not sure what to watch so I flip through the channels again.  I start feeling ‘hungry’ so, within moments of eating my snack, I am back up from my relaxing couch looking for another snack.

My thoughts are surrounding the snack, I am starting to ask myself what am I doing? I am not hungry, but I continue to rumble through the cabinet for another snack because this will be the last one I have.  I walk back to the couch ‘to relax’ and flip through the channels to find a show to watch.  I begin to watch my favorite show and at the commercial, I start to think that I really had a long day and I deserve to relax and I deserve the snacks.  I continue to ‘relax’ watching TV and I am suddenly distracted with my guilt….Why did I eat that?  Why did I continue to eat? I am so angry at myself! I must be better tomorrow, I don’t want to be like this anymore.  I will be better!

Multiple scenario’s/thoughts such as the “I deserve”, “I need to relax”, “only one more”, the mindless “handful”, the poor structured “meals “at the snack machine, the “taste” while we cook, the “it's meal time, so I should eat” …. will ultimately end in the conflicted thought process of, “why did I have that? I didn’t need that. I can’t believe I went off my ‘diet’… I have to be better tomorrow.”

The Difference Between Physical Hunger And Head Hunger

So, the question is… What to do when your mind is “hungrier” than your stomach?

What is physical hunger?

Physical hunger is a physiological response to a biological need for nutrition and can be satiated with nutrient-based food.

What is emotional or mindless “head” hunger?

Emotional hunger is a psychological response to a situation, emotion, and therefore camouflaged into ‘hunger’.

  • “mind” hunger does not satiate physical hunger
  • “mind” hunger leads to overeating
  • “mind” hunger does not change a stressor
  • “mind” hunger will exacerbate negative emotions
  • “mind” hunger will contribute to shame eating
  • “mind” hunger will be disguised with comfort

We've all done it, and sometimes we don't even realize when it's happening. Maybe you emotionally eat when you're bored, stressed, happy, sad, watching TV, attending a movie, socializing, or simply reaching your hand into a bag or jar each time you pass by. These are mindless, emotional “head hunger” opportunities to eat for reasons other than physical hunger. No matter what our head hunger says, our goal is to be mindful about these behaviors because we have all eaten something when we weren't physically hungry.

Let’s review some common situations that may encourage vulnerability when you're not physically hungry and learn tips to strategize in a healthier way.

Strategies and Tips for Head Hunger Situations

Common Situation: Emotions are a common trigger and can lead to emotional eating. Happy? You might eat to celebrate and/or from excitement. Sad? You might eat to soothe, punish or comfort yourself. Angry? You may take it out on yourself with food instead of confronting the situation/person that upset you. When turning to food for emotional reasons, with “head” hunger, there will not be a resolution of the situation and/or issues.

Let’s strategizewriting your food down and adding the place, mood and hunger level may help you make a connection you hadn't seen before. Self-monitoring will aide in identifying the connections if you eat when you're lonely, stressed, bored, happy, sad or angry. When you can see the pattern of your behavior, you can create a different outlet.  What outlet has helped you previously? What outlet will you try to implement into your routine?

Common Situation: Sometimes you're not emotional—you're just bored. For many people, eating seems like a good solution or activity when there's nothing better to do; whether you mindlessly eat at home, socializing with food or just looking for something to eat (or snack on).

Let’s strategize…. If you know boredom is a trigger for your “head hunger”, have a list of strategies or a ‘bag of tricks’ in place to keep yourself busy and entertained when you don't have anything else to do. This will encourage confidence and reduce boredom eating. Eating won't be your ‘go-to’ activity if you have as a functional alternative, which will give you a true substitute to occupy your mind and your body!

Common Situation: When you're out enjoying a dinner with family or friends, it can be easy to over order, eat when you're no longer hungry, feel like “I’ll be bad tonight, I’m allowed” and make poor choices. It is easy to indulge when others around you are overindulging. It makes you feel like you fit in, and feel like it's OK since everyone else is doing it. Research shows that our habits mimic our peers/family’s behaviors in situations like these.

What to do…. You don't have to eliminate “happy hour” with friends. When your dining companions devour a second basket of bread or chips, or order dessert, pause…. check in with your hunger level to see if you really ‘need’ it or if you'll be more satisfied with the surrounding company. If you are having difficulty with your negotiations “just one more, I’ll be good tomorrow, it’s good, everyone is having it”- pause, ask yourself if ‘one more’ will help you reach your weight goals? Will ‘one more’ feel good after the meal? Or the morning after?

Common Situation: Do you start the negotiations with a candy bowl at the office that calls your name? Do you feel powerless to pass up food at a party? When food is in plain sight, it can be easy, without ‘conscious’ thought to grab a handful simply because it's there. It's right in front of you. What's the harm, its only one?

What to do…. If you're having difficulty with reducing or eliminating trigger food, create a boundary with where you are eating. Attempting to move the poor choices ‘snack foods’ out of sight—you'll be less likely to mindlessly grab a handful. Continue to create your boundary with where you are eating, this will maximize food designated areas to eat. If you are “head hungry” you will be less interested in eating at a kitchen table.

Common Situation: Do you think about eating when the clock says noon, just because it's ‘time’ for lunch? Or start thinking about dinner because it is 5 p.m. just because that's your typical dinnertime?

What to do…. When its ‘mealtime’, use it as a mindful cue to check in with your current hunger level. Are you physically hungry? Are you “head hungry”? If you are physically hungry, it’s time to eat. If its “head hunger”, pause, hydrate and wait until your body physically tells you to eat. This is an ideal time to create your hunger scale to aid you with identifying how you PHYSICALLY feel.

hunger scale 2

A hunger/fullness scale will prevent overeating, mindfully identify your sensations of satiety throughout your meal to gauge how physically hungry you are. A hunger scale will allow you with confidence to identify if you eat for reasons other than being hungry and check-in with yourself. Knowing what true hunger feels like can help you recognize when you're eating for other reasons. What will your hunger/fullness scale look like? Try to rank your hunger and fullness from 1-10, use numbers, words or images to aid you with your personalized scale.



Dr. Willo Wisotsky is a NY State Licensed Psychologist and is affiliated with New York Bariatric Group. Dr. Wisotsky has committed her research and clinical practice to the field of eating disorders and obesity with its related medical and mental health comorbidities. Dr. Wisotsky practices from a Behavioral Medicine approach with an emphasis on improving overall well being, increasing mindfulness, motivation, quality of life and health.
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