My brother ordered a hot-fudge sundae. The waitress then looked at me. My mother seemed not to notice and handed back the menu. "No, thank you," she said. The waitress nodded and left.
I don't remember if I wanted a chocolate sundae before the waitress left. But I wanted one afterward, and, in a sense, I have wanted one ever since.
This wasn't some big, traumatic event. It was a moment whose time had come. If it hadn't happened that particular night, it would have happened on another. But in an instant, I went from a young girl who feels herself from the inside out to one who looks at herself from the outside in.
I had broad shoulders, and there was a little section of my tummy that I couldn't make hard when I tightened my muscles. I wasn't fat, but I wasn't thin. I'd better be careful, I thought. My hunger -- a mix of insatiable longing and anxiety -- emerged, and like some mythical young dragon, it looked me deep in the eyes and imprinted.
I don't have an eating disorder. But like many women I know, somewhere along the way, eating -- what, when, how much, in front of whom, how fast -- got complicated. The sensation of hunger went from a physical signal with a simple response ("eat") to a mixed emotion that has no clear solution. Should I, shouldn't I? I'm being bad, I'm being good. I deserve this. I will hate myself in the morning. And on and on.
Talk to food psychologists and you'll hear that learning to respond to your body's natural sense of physical hunger, and subsequent feelings of fullness, is a powerful tool for maintaining a healthy weight. But talk to women of all shapes and sizes, and many of them will tell you they fight hunger and, in some cases, fear it.
How did our appetites -- for nourishment and pleasure -- become suspect? Is it possible to listen to our bodies the way we did when we were children? The answers lie somewhere in the tangle of emotional, cultural, and neurological reactions that shapes our desire to eat. "Hunger is complicated," says Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Indiana State University and president of The Center for Mindful Eating. Besides the actual physical sensation, "it has to do with a complexity of psychological cravings that may have very little to do with your physical need for food."
A pretty, slender mother of two, my friend Misha works full time and loves to cook nice meals. But when I ask her if she eats when she's hungry, she guffaws as if I'd suggested she buy every diamond she sees. She spends much of her day thinking about food, she tells me, and she worries that if she lets loose, she might eat a whole cheesecake.
When it comes to deciding when to eat, Misha says, "I've completely gotten away from the physical sensation of whether or not I'm hungry. I control and plan what I eat; I eat by the clock."
Mary, a 58-year-old who tells me she's been an emotional eater ever since she had children, has a different outcome when she wrestles with her hunger. She more often yields to the feelings. "Some days are fine, but on my bad days, I know that once I start, I won't stop," she explains. "Being hungry makes me miserable."
How does the sensation of hunger grow so much larger than life? "We use food in so many ways that have nothing to do with physical hunger," says Ruth Quillian Wolever, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. Some people eat when they're lonely, anxious, or depressed -- or when they have a vague sense that something is missing. When this happens over time, our brains begin to associate these emotions with an urge for food, the same way that Pavlov's dogs learned to salivate when they heard the ringing of a bell.
"Food is a really simple intervention," explains Wolever, "so it gets reinforced over and over again." Over time, frequent emotional eating can lead to a mistaken sense of hunger, so that it becomes difficult to parse out true, physical hunger from the neurological associations that accompany it.
Adding to the confusion is this: Hunger can actually get distorted at the hormonal level when overeating results in excess abdominal fat. Levels of a hormone called leptin increase in proportion to belly fat. Plus, the fat tissues themselves secrete a number of hormones that help regulate satiety. "The more abdominal fat you have," explains Wolever, "the more likely you are to have a disregulated hunger hormone system." That can make decoding your body's hunger signals all the more difficult.
So how do you learn to listen to your body when its most basic signals confuse you? Start by developing what Kristeller calls "inner wisdom," or the ability to sense what's going on inside your body and mind. This can be a tough task for those struggling with their weight.
"Many people know what extreme hunger feels like, or extreme fullness, but they have a lot less experience with moderate hunger and moderate fullness," adds Wolever. When it comes to hunger, if you miss the subtle pangs and notice only the deep ache -- or corresponding shakiness and fatigue -- that's when you'll likely find yourself wrestling with visions of whole cheesecakes.
Having excess abdominal fat (and corresponding haywire hormones) may make this identification challenging, says Kristeller. Regardless of how big your belly is, however, you'll feel different if you haven't eaten in six hours than if you finished a large meal an hour ago. Start paying attention to those differences.
It's crucial to balance these bodily check-ins with "outer wisdom," or an objective assessment of what's good for you, Kristeller explains. Say you start to feel pangs 30 minutes after eating a large meal. "You're probably not truly hungry," she says. "So ask yourself, 'Why else might this food be calling me?' " Perhaps you're stressed, anxious, or exhausted. Whenever we go for the quick fix -- chocolate instead of a good night's sleep, a bag of chips instead of a long talk -- we strengthen those associations and train our emotional hunger on food.
Healing your relationship with hunger requires looking beyond food and emotional-eating patterns to the bigger picture of your life -- your deepest hungers. "Food substitutes for a lot of things," says author Elizabeth Berg, who explored women's relationships to food in her collection of short stories, "The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted." "Love and longing and desire, sexuality, missed opportunities, the road not taken." You may know what these longings are; you may not. To get in touch with them, suggests Kristeller, imagine getting past your angst about food and hunger, then ask yourself a few questions: What goals might emerge? What would I have time for? How would I nourish myself?
Everyone's answer is different. For Mary, years of emotional eating stopped about a year ago, when she discovered jewelry making. "I found something I love," she explains. "I don't even think about food anymore." After years of yo-yo dieting, she dropped 24 pounds without trying. For Misha, who considers herself "lopsided toward the mental and emotional," a spiritual practice through her local church helped bring balance and perspective. "You know how strength trainers are always talking about your core?" she says. "Right now I feel like I have to develop my inner spiritual core." Being satisfied on this level, she hopes, will tame her emotional eating.
Whether we move toward our deepest hungers or simply recognize them, we begin inhabiting ourselves more fully. And this moves us closer to feeling ourselves from the inside out, like we did once upon a time.
Text by Celina Ottaway