Head Hunger - Coping with Your Triggers for Overeating

by Michelle May, MD

Do you sometimes confuse ?head hunger? with ?body hunger?? If you?re sensitive to food cues, weight management becomes much easier when you?re able to recognize the triggers in your environment and break the associations that lead you to overeat simply out of habit.

Let?s take a look at just a few of the common triggers for overeating and strategies for coping more effectively.

By the Clock:

Society programs us to follow a schedule, so like Pavlov?s dog, we?ve learned to salivate when the bell rings. The reality is that it?s more convenient to eat at certain times than others, so it takes effort to listen to your hunger cues.


Though it?s challenging to change this routine, you can adapt it to fit your own needs. Learn to pace yourself by observing your natural hunger rhythms. You?ll probably notice that you get hungry every three to six hours, depending on what and how much you ate at your last meal and how active you?ve been. Keep a healthy snack handy to satisfy hunger that doesn?t conform to mealtimes. If you?re consistently tempted to snack right before a meal, consider moving the mealtime up or adding more protein to your previous snack.

High-Risk Times:

Many people have times of the day that are high-risk for overeating. For example, you may experience a late-afternoon energy slump or a tendency to munch when you come home from work to transition into your evening.


Know when you?re most at risk and develop an alternate strategy. For example, create a Recharge Ritual or Transition Time that helps you relax or unwind. Save a favorite magazine or book to read, call a friend or walk your dog instead.

Create a list of things to do instead of eating. Keep the list (and any necessary supplies) handy and make a commitment to try one of these activities before eating simply out of habit.

?Tis the Season:

Be aware of your seasonal and weather-related cues for eating. Holidays can be especially difficult because of all of the social ties to certain foods and even certain people. Many of the foods you eat during this time may seem ?special,? and therefore, harder to eat in sensible quantities.


These occasions repeat themselves, so you can anticipate what typically occurs and create a plan for dealing with your triggers. Make it a point to really listen to your body instead of the external cues when making your food choices. Also, keep in mind that special foods will be even more special when you eat them mindfully when you?re hungry, focusing on the appearance and flavors of the food, the ambiance, the other people and the reason you?re all together.

Tempting Displays:

Seeing displays of food like candy or nuts in dishes and tempting foods when you open your cabinet or refrigerator can trigger you to want those foods.


Out of sight, out of mind. Don?t use food as decorations or leave appetizing foods in plain view. Try putting tempting foods behind other foods in your cabinets and refrigerator. If a co-worker keeps food out, ask him or her to put it in a drawer instead.


Food is everywhere in television and magazines (ironically, often right next to the articles about the latest wonder diet!).


Get yourself a glass of water during commercials, avoid watching programs that focus on food and skip quickly over the food ads and recipes. Break the habit of eating while watching television?usually a mindless, high-calorie activity.

Location, Location, Location:

If you eat in front of the TV, in bed or standing in the kitchen, you may feel an urge to eat just from being in those places.


Try to eat only while sitting at a table. Make it a family rule to limit eating to one or two rooms in the house. This will decrease triggers like TV and reading and help you focus on enjoying your food without distractions.

Biggie Size:

Restaurants often serve overly large portions to make their customers feel that they are getting value.


Be prepared to have extra food wrapped up to go as soon as you feel satisfied, or estimate how much you think you?ll need and wrap up the rest even before you start eating. If you leave the food sitting in front of you, you?ll be more likely to keep nibbling. Remind yourself that you?ll get to enjoy that food again when you?re hungry. You can also share an entrée or order an appetizer-sized portion.

Forbidden Food Syndrome:

Although it?s a popular topic of conversation, the mere discussion of dieting can trigger feelings of deprivation and cravings. Just thinking about restrictive dieting has been shown to increase food intake.


Decrease the amount of time you spend talking about food, weight and dieting. Depend on your physical hunger cues to let you know when it?s time to eat.

By learning to recognize and cope more effectively with your head hunger, you?ll begin to break free from old, problematic habits. You?ll find yourself eating less, feeling more satisfied and meeting your needs more appropriately.

To get a one-page handout called ?101 Things to Do Instead of Eating When You?re NOT Hungry,? visit http://amihungry.com/enews.shtml.

Food and Feelings

Emotions are common triggers for eating. People sometimes eat to cope with stress, distract themselves from difficult emotions or stuff down feelings they don?t know how to express in a healthier manner.

However, boredom, anger, anxiety, loneliness, stress and other feelings are a natural part of our lives, and eating won?t make them go away. In fact, eating in response to these feelings disconnects you from important information about what you need. For example, ?I want brownies? might really mean ?I want comfort,? ?I need a reward,? ?I wish I had a friend to talk to? or ?I wish I could tell you how I really feel.?

The food you eat to deal with feelings comes with strings attached?weight gain and regret. But more importantly, it denies you the opportunity to discover and satisfy your true needs. Since eating cannot meet your emotional needs, those unmet needs trigger overeating again and again.

The way to break out of this pattern is to stop judging yourself when you overeat and instead try to figure out what you needed that drove you to eat when you weren?t physically hungry. Examining your current eating behavior can be a powerful source of information about your inner self and your true needs and wants. Once you have identified the emotions that triggered the urge to eat, seek ways to comfort, nurture, calm and distract yourself without turning to food.

Michelle May, MD, a physician and recovered yo-yo dieter, is the author of Am I Hungry? What to Do When Diets Don?t Work, available at www.AmIHungry.com.





September 2008


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