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Enlightening You about Food and Nutrition

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Hunger & Fullness: Honoring Our First Biological Instinct

“What are you hungry for?” 

This seems like it should be a simple, uncomplicated question. So, why do so many people struggle with a simple answer? You probably know how this goes! Whether you’re asking your kids, husband, guests, or yourself, we often get the response: “I don’t know!”

We are all hungry for something and there are different types of hunger. There is, of course, physical hunger for food, but too often people aren’t really hungry for food – or don’t know how to recognize their physical cues.

iStock_donut choice edit

Some people – including kids – are hungry for comfort; others are hungry to fit in or belong; while some are hungry for feeling safe, secure, successful, or happy. Others crave to be the best, to win, or to be perfect. In fact, our tendency to overeat or constantly choose highly palatable treats over a simple piece of fruit (as the above image suggests) limits the opportunity to really figure what you’re hungry for.

Before we dive into this topic, it’s important to understand that there is nothing wrong with enjoying some of our favorite treats or goodies (unfortunately referred to by many as “junk food”). I don’t find this language helpful, nor descriptive of some of these favorite dishes that are often heirloom recipes reflective of time-honored traditions.

I do believe, from personal and professional experience, that it can be easy to get off track from recognizing and honoring our internal cues of hunger and fullness – which are really one of our first biological instincts that we are born with. So my hope is that with a little lesson in terminology, along with some simple nutrition interventions, your awareness of physical cues can be differentiated from other times when food is perhaps being used for another purpose.

What is the difference between hunger and appetite?

Hunger is a physiological need for food.  Appetite is a psychological desire or craving for food or drink, in other words, what sounds good?  Both hunger and appetite determine what, when and why we eat.  At times we are not hungry but have an appetite, such as seeing a dessert after eating a meal. Or, we may be hungry but not have an appetite, such as when we are sick.

Hunger:  “An uneasy sensation occasioned normally by the lack of food and resulting directly from stimulation of the sensory nerves of the stomach by the contraction and churning movement of the empty stomach.” ~ Webster’s Dictionary

What is the difference between fullness and satiety?

Fullness is usually associated with a satisfied feeling in the stomach or, if you overeat, an uncomfortable feeling. Therefore, fullness is a function of the amount of food you eat.  Satiety; however, is feeling satisfied, or not being hungry, that lasts after the initial feeling of fullness subsides.  Macronutrients in the food you eat can influence feelings of fullness and satiety.  For example, while fiber in food may promote a feeling of fullness in the short term; protein and fat have a lasting affect on satiety.

Satiety: “The quality or state of being fed or gratified.” ~ Webster’s Dictionary

How do you know if you are hungry or full?

The ability to use your internal cues to notice hunger and fullness may be difficult for some people and are only noticed until they are strong or intense.  For example, you may not notice the physical signals of hunger because of consumption of coffee or diet sodas. Eventually, you may become “famished”; and consequently overeat, not realizing how physically hungry your body really was.  On the flip side, you may not recognize the feeling of fullness until you feel uncomfortably stuffed.  The following scale is designed to help you become aware of your internal cues so you can manage your intake.

hunger and fullness scale

Why do I feel “full” but not “satisfied”?

Feeling full is a function of the amount of food you eat; for example, the amount of food on your plate also takes up room in your stomach.  However, sometimes it’s not just the amount of foods eaten, but the characteristics of that food that lead to fullness.  For example, the water and fiber content of the foods we eat can all influence fullness.

Satiety is a measure of many factors, most important being the macronutrients (such as protein and fat) in the meal that signal the brain you have had what the body needs.  For example, I could eat a whole plate of lettuce or drink a 20 ounce diet soda.  It will certainly take up a lot of room in my stomach, but shortly you will get urges to eat more because the proper nutrients weren’t supplied.

The impact of individual macronutrients on satiety is typically measured in experimental studies.  From this research, we know that sugar and fruit provide a quick source of energy, but are quickly digested and absorbed, so don’t stay in the stomach as long, compared to complex carbohydrates, fat and protein that take longer to digest.  A food that is reported to have high satiety tends to produce a longer “intermeal” period (a period of time between eating episodes during which an individual does not experience hunger).  Foods containing protein and fat tend to promote longer satiety between meals. There are many other factors, including food temperature, pleasure of food, individual issues such as blood sugar and hormonal response to food, or trying to use food to solve a problem (which it can’t do) that may continue to trigger the urge to eat or not feeling satisfied.

What can I do to better honor my internal cues of hunger and fullness?

Awareness of your internal cues of hunger and fullness is a great first step.  You can do this by using the sample hunger and fullness scale and noticing how you feel before and after meals and snacks.

Following are some additional strategies for helping you increase your awareness of your internal cues:

  • Keep a journal. Record when and what you eat along with rating how hungry you are before and after a meal or snack.
  • Awareness of emotional eating. Check in with how you are feeling (bored, happy, sad, angry, frustrated, etc.) before you eat.  Are you eating because you are hungry or to “fix” a feeling?
  • Include a balance of macronutrients in meals and snacks. Include protein and fat in meals and snacks to promote satiety and decrease overeating between meal.
  • Identify and challenge negative beliefs about fullness. A history of dieting often promotes the idea that “fullness” equals “fatness.”  Remind yourself that it is normal to feel “comfortably full.”
  • If it seems you are out of touch with your internal cues (i.e. always hungry, never feel full, or never hungry), planning your meals ahead so they are well balanced, and include moderate portions, is vital to help you reconnect and relearn your hunger and fullness cues.

Dr. Susan Albers (www.eatq.com) has a number of resources and books to help individuals improve their relationship with food and eating. Following is an infographic that illustrates a decision tree for discerning the difference between physical and emotional hunger. Beginning to increase your awareness of these difference can be a great first step to reclaiming and honoring our first biological instinct!


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5 Tips for Managing Emotional Eating


Emotional eating is when an emotion triggers a person to eat, instead of the physical symptom of hunger.

There are many misconceptions about emotional eating.  One of the biggest myths is that all emotional eating leads to overeating and weight gain.  In fact, it is natural to eat for emotional reasons and still maintain your weight.  For example, celebrations with family and friends often include special foods that we have an emotional relationship with.  Having birthday cake with friends, not because you are hungry, but because it feels good isn’t necessarily a prescription for overeating or weight gain.   In fact, a recent study investigated how an individual’s perceptions about eating a food, like chocolate cake, influenced their motivation to maintain a healthy eating plan.  Researchers discovered that those who felt “guilty” after eating a piece of cake were more likely to sabotage their weight loss efforts than those who associated the cake with “celebration.”

So then, what’s the problem with emotional eating?  Emotional eating is a problem when you abuse it.  When a person is out of touch with their feelings and eats to comfort themselves or stuff their feelings down, it can result in overeating.  When an individual engages in this behavior day after day, it is likely to result in weight gain.

Diets and forbidden foods often make the problem worse.  Dieters, or individuals with restricted eating patterns, are typically eating less than they need; less of the foods they enjoy; and, are chronically hungry.  When faced with stress or other emotions, the ability to maintain control of the restrained eating becomes intolerable for the individual who “gives in” and overeats.  In these situations, the individual eats quickly; is distracted; and, is disconnected from his or her internal cues.  Feeling guilty and remorseful, the dieter tries harder to restrict the eating and the cycle continues.

How to stop abusing emotional eating.

  1. Identify your triggers.  Keep a mood food diary and track information about your meals and snacks (including unplanned eating), Write down what you are eating, when you are eating, where you are eating, whom you are eating with, and how you are feeling at the time.  Many of my clients strongly object to keeping a journal for various reasons.  Taking time with a nutritionist or other health professional to discuss strategies to overcome  those barriers may be key for you to take the first step in getting control of your emotional eating.
  2. Don’t skip meals.  Feed yourself regularly while being mindful of balance, variety and moderation in your meal planning.
  3. Eat whole foods.   Eating whole foods that you enjoy, on a regular basis, can help to balance out your mood and provide consistent energy during the day.
  4. Develop alternative coping skills to manage your emotions. Take a moment to create a list of activities you can use when emotions run high.  Things like calling a friend, gardening, being outside, reading, and taking a bath are all examples.  Many activities result in the release of the chemicals in the brain that help us feel better.  I suggest that individuals have their list visible and easily available.  When you notice a trigger to use food for comfort, try one of the items from your list.  After 10 minutes, if the food is still beckoning you, try the 2nd activity for 10 minutes, and so on.  Usually if you make it to the 3rd activity, you will notice that the urge to eat is less.
  5. Try Individual or group counseling. Talking about your triggers and getting support for planning healthy meals and snacks may be the key to making the behavior changes that are needed.

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5 Tips for a Healthy Holiday


Thanksgiving is upon us! Typically thought of as the day of “football and the fatty feast”, it’s also that time of year – you know the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day featuring endless buffets and tempting carb-laden goodies.  There’s no reason you can’t “have your pie and be healthy too!” But, a few important tips may be the key to help you make it through this blissful time of year.

Holiday weight gain (and frankly indigestion) tends to be related more to “how” we eat rather than “what” we eat. Yes, eating a bunch of highly palatable food doesn’t help with weight management, but throw in alcohol, dieting, busyness and stress and you have a perfect recipe for over-eating.  (Read more about this)  So, how can you make sure you are able to successfully enjoy your holiday parties, time with family and friends and manage your weight at the same time?


Holiday cooking was sheer joy in my grandmother’s Nebraska kitchen!

1. Set yourself up for success.  Eating less all day to “save up” for the Thanksgiving feast or holiday party is not helpful.  Skipping meals/snacks usually affects productivity, causes poor concentration, more difficulty with problem solving, and increased fatigue.  It can also lead to overeating at the next meal or snack, such as at the holiday party or gathering.  Take time to enjoy a bowl of soup, yogurt, or veggies and hummus at your regular meal or snack and come to the meal hungry but not ravenous!

2. Take a plate and practice portion control.  Many individuals often graze or “pick” at the foods when cooking in the kitchen or standing by the buffet or appetizer table.  By the end of the event (or before the meal even begins), you’re stuffed and wonder why. Sit down and have a snack if you’re hungry when cooking. Learn to indulge intelligently at the buffet by first scanning the table to figure out which foods will be most satisfying for you.  Make a plate balanced with some protein, veggies and fruit and whole grains. For example, make 1/4 your plate protein (i.e. turkey); 1/2 your plate fruit and vegetables (i.e. green beans and cranberry salad); and 1/4 your plate whole grain carbohydrates, (i.e. stuffing).  I know, I know, I know…what about the hot dinner rolls or mashed potatoes and gravy? My recommendation is to enjoy your favorite foods while eating mindfully. When you portion your plate with moderate amounts of food, eat slowly, savor every bite, and then stop when you are comfortably full, you will feel better! Remind yourself that you can have a serving of the sweet potato casserole at the next meal or enjoy the piece of pie at your next snack.

3. Location, Location, Location. When you realize you are not hungry, step away from the food.  Try to sit or stand away from the food table and near supportive people to decrease the urge to mindlessly eat.  Take time to enjoy the folks you are celebrating the season with – participate in conversation, listen to stories, learn something new about a friend or relative.  Most important, try to relax and have fun.

4.  Drink water. This is often the most common mistake people make.  On average, women and men need 2.7 and 3.4 liters of water per day, respectively.  This does not include additional fluid needs for activity.  Also, with the hustle and bustle on the day of a party may lead to decrease fluid intake.  Thirst is often mistaken for hunger and can lead to overeating.  Try to drink small amounts of water frequently throughout the day – and at your holiday party – with added limes, lemons, or cucumbers for extra flavor.  An added benefit for some can be decreased headaches by avoiding dehydration.

5. Move your body! Take time to include moderate, enjoyable movement in your day.  Ideally 30 to 60 minutes of some cardio and strength training activity is recommended daily.  If you already have an exercise routine, try and stay with it.  You may also want to include less frenzied activity such as a yoga class or a peaceful leisure walk under the stars.  To include the family (and unplug), consider walking together after a holiday meal; ice skating at a local park; going to a good museum or the zoo instead of sitting around.

Remember: Don’t over-think healthy eating. Keep food in it’s place and you will do great!

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Finding Peace with Food Through Mindful Eating

Does anyone remember the Paul Harvey radio show? Well, I certainly do. My father was a huge fan and listening to Paul Harvey’s storytelling while gathered around the table for lunch just went hand-in-hand for us.  In fact, our family ritualistically surrounded the dinner table for meals in our small, quaint kitchen in Nebraska.  Although we would listen intently to the Paul Harvey news at lunch, there were no other distractions at meals.  No talking on the phone – for one thing there were no cell phones at the time.  In fact, there weren’t even cordless phones. We didn’t have a television in our kitchen. Another thing I don’t believe anyone had back then.

There were no “superfoods” at our meals. We ate whatever my mom prepared, whether that was grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, fried egg sandwiches or just plain leftovers. And, we were thankful…for the food, for the time together, and the time to just take a break in the day.

My experience eating mindfully began before “mindful eating” was even defined in our culture. Growing up in a food environment that emphasized regular family meals taught me to appreciate good cooking, food and time with family.

And now for “The Rest of the Story”

Sadly, this harmonious meal time didn’t stay so sweet and peaceful.  External cues from society that normalized dieting, “eating on the run”, and “good” vs “bad” foods increased as I ventured off to college and the working world. Lunch was no longer peacefully enjoying my meal while listening to the velvety voice of Paul Harvey. Instead, I was running off to get a large frozen yogurt and popcorn (because these were nonfat and “good for you” at the time), then eating at my desk while working on the computer. Evening meals ended up being some “low-fat” frozen meal conveniently heated in the microwave and then mindlessly eating in front of the television.

Coincidentally, I couldn’t understand how I continued to gain weight. I thought I was eating right.  Eating continued to become so chaotic, cycling between restricting and over-eating; struggling with persistent weight gain; and, continuing to erode away my pleasure with food.

I began to obsess about what to do?  So, I exercised more and ate better. After some time (and the desire to make a career switch), I decided to go back to school and study nutrition. Clearly, I thought, if I just knew more about nutrition, then I would get it right!  Well, I did get that Master’s degree in nutrition, and fortunately discovered my passion for physiology, food and nutrition. In fact, the education actually helped me break many of the diet rules that had sabotaged my enjoyment of food and eating. But, not even an advanced degree in nutrition could have changed my relationship with “how” I was eating.

I fondly remembered back to that time when it was so simple. I could eat food, enjoy my meals and not worry about what I was eating, calories or my weight.  Was that even possible anymore?

As my own family started to grow, I began to plan and insist on having family meals.  My husband and I sitting at the table with a 2-year old and a baby wasn’t the sweet and peaceful “Normal Rockwell” painting I remembered back from that dinner table in Nebraska.  But, we stuck with it.  Eating began to be more focused on “how” we were eating instead of “what”  we were eating.

Of course, I continued to try and provide good nutrition for our family at the meals.  But, it really wasn’t about the food.  I began to notice that I looked forward to planning, shopping, and preparing family meals with favorite family recipes and with foods we actually enjoyed!  We were thankful for the meal and setting apart the busyness of the day for each meal.  And…unintentionally, my weight dropped back to the point I was at before all the chaotic eating.

Fast forward about 15 years through a divorce; being a single parent; stress of a job; taking care of adolescents; and the list goes on. As I reflect back, mindful eating has been the cornerstone of health and nutrition for me. Finding a peaceful relationship with food, eating and weight has not included any specific foods or recipes. It has NOT been about following a diet or set of food rules. It has not been about eating less or more depending on how much I exercise (or don’t exercise). For me, eating mindfully has been a practice of staying aware of my body and giving myself permission to take time to eat. Whether having a family meal (even as a busy single parent); or, a meal alone, eating at the table without distractions has truly been an important behavior to stick with.  This has meant challenging judgment about food, and instead eat what I enjoy at meals, not what is the latest food or diet trend.

Of course, being a nutritionist, I enjoy preparing a variety of foods while keeping balanced nutrition in mind for my family.  But, if you asked anyone in my family, they would tell you there are no “forbidden foods” and “it’s just normal to have a family meal at the table.”

Recently, we had a young guest over for our evening meal. The table was set, as it is at every evening.  We began our meal with our usual centering of prayer.  As we talked about the day, enjoying our food together (with no cell phones or TV allowed), our guest commented about how different this meal was from her experience at home.  When I asked, “what seemed different?” She added that “it was very strange to sit at a table and eat.” Later in the meal, she continued to explain how  “there is so much noise at her house during meals” and “eating here is so pleasant.”  Awww…truly the joy of mindful, healthy eating!