One of the essential aspects of Mindful Eating is becoming curious about the sensations of hunger. When working with my Mindful Eating clients, we explore the sensations of hunger in detail: what does hunger feel like, where does hunger live in the body and what causes hunger to arise? The first stop is always the rumbling tummy. A feeling of emptiness and the occasional growl is certainly one manifestation of hunger, but as most of us eat when we’re not physically hungry there must be other forces at play. There are many reasons that compel us to eat and drink: these are known as the Eight Hungers.
The most basic hunger is our body’s request for food. When our energy reserves are low and the body needs more fuel, we experience stomach hunger as a rumbling, churning sensation and a feeling of emptiness. Our body may also signal hunger in more subtle ways such as a lack of energy, inability to concentrate or irritation (being ‘hangry’!) If we were able to only respond to Stomach Hunger and Body Hunger, we would eat in a simple, straightforward way. However, because we take pleasure and delight in food, it calls to our senses and encourages us to eat for reasons other than physical hunger.
One of the most powerful hungers is Eye Hunger. Think of a buffet with a table laden with platters of beautifully-presented food – who doesn’t come away with a plate piled high with delights? This is eye hunger at work, compelling us to take more food than we need and possibly return for a second helping of treats we may have missed. If the eye can see food, it has the power to override signals from the stomach, body and mouth and encourage us to eat when we’re not at all hungry.
The human nose has the incredible ability to distinguish ten thousand different scents and our sense of smell exerts a potent effect on the subconscious mind. Nose Hunger has the power to make us eat more: just think of the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, vanilla sponge cake or frying bacon. Even supermarkets are aware of the power of nose hunger as they pump the smell of baking bread to the front doors, encouraging us to buy the source of the irresistible smell!
Mouth Hunger is the mouth’s desire for sensations and a variety of tastes and textures. It is not enough to satisfy mouth hunger with food as the mouth becomes easily bored. If we don’t stay present when we’re eating and drinking, the mouth can convince us to keep feeding it. This is why mouth hunger is often the cause of mindless snacking as the mouth signals “I’m bored, please put something in here!”
I class Thirst as one of the eight hungers because the body requires liquid as well as food. Yet the body’s requests for liquid and food are very similar and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. You may have experienced thirst as a parched mouth on a hot day but the more subtle sensations of thirst can easily be confused with hunger and we may end up eating when, in fact, we are thirsty.
Mind Hunger is based upon our thoughts and often presented as absolutes and opposites: ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food; what we should eat and should not eat. Mind hunger is always present, especially if you’re on a diet, yet when we eat based upon the thoughts of the mind, it can create anxiety, reduce the enjoyment of the food in our mouth and completely override the deeper wisdom of our bodies.
Last but not least is Heart Hunger. I believe everyone eats food to comfort and reward themselves to some degree and there is nothing wrong with mindfully eating something you love. The problem comes when we eat to fill a hole in the heart, instead of the stomach, and use food to manage uncomfortable feelings – emotional eating can never truly satisfy heart hunger.
In an ideal world, we would only respond to Stomach and Body Hunger, and Thirst, with food and drink. However, we live in a society where food is abundant and the other five hungers encourage us to eat when we are not physically hungry. Over time, this has the potential to develop into an increasingly unbalanced relationship to food and eating. Mindful Eating enables us to untangle and separate these different experiences of hunger so we can respond to them in the most appropriate way: eating and drinking when the body requires fuel and hydration, and nourishing ourselves without food when needed.
Mindful Eating practice
Part 1 – Next time you feel physically hungry, take a moment to turn your attention inward and notice how your body is telling you it’s hungry. What does hunger feel like and where does the sensation live in your body? If you’re experiencing a rumbling tummy (Stomach Hunger), can you notice any other subtle sensations of Body Hunger?
Part 2 – Next time you have something to eat or drink, check in with your body to see whether it is physically hungry or thirsty. If not, what other hungers could have played a part in encouraging you to eat or drink: eye, nose, mouth, mind or heart hunger? Is there one main hunger or a combination? (Hint: Mind Hunger always has something to say!).
Please leave a comment below to let me know about your Mindful Eating experience. I’d love to hear what you learned from the practice!