EnlightenU Nutrition Consulting, LLC

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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Do Fear-Based Nutrition Messages Really Work?

shutterstock_wellness illnessAn old Chinese proverb suggests “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. The meaning behind this proverb is that in bad times or hopelessness, it’s better to do something – no matter how small – than to curse your plight or misery. Lately, I’m wondering if we need to do both.

I don’t know about you, but although fear-based messages about food and nutrition in media and advertising may be “something” aimed at improving health and wellness, they drive me nuts because of the negative effect these messages have on a significant number of people.

Consider the following statements I’ve read recently: “cow’s milk is toxic”; “sugar and carbohydrate-based foods are the underlying cause of all disease”; “GMO’s cause cancer”; “animal products cause heart disease and death.” Really? We know that for sure?  Of course each of these proclamations is from “an expert” that has something to sell – a book, a diet program, supplements, a blog, endorsements, an industry. So perhaps I feel the need to “curse the darkness.”

Recently, I listened to a highly credentialed food and nutrition expert discuss an important topic related to food, mood and the brain. Initially, I was captivated by the research and science related to what we are learning in the field of neuroscience.

And then it started…the preaching or “nutrition evangelism” (as I like to call it). That idea that it is her “duty” to question and convince everyone – at parties, in the grocery store, wherever – that what they are eating is making them sick; will cause a horrible disease; and will likely result in a pain-filled and shortened life. This is where the “expert” lost me.

Look, I get it. We live in a sedentary and toxic food environment with a lot of choices that aren’t so helpful for achieving optimal wellness – and other choices that are.  And, the reality is that many individuals are truly struggling to navigate this “toxic” environment. But, for the “experts” out there – describe a time you sat with an individual, or group of people, struggling with binge eating, disordered eating, or just their relationship with food, eating and weight?  Have you heard about the pain and trauma people experience when you follow through on your “duty” to proclaim what they have in their grocery cart is “bad”; “will make them fat” and “cause horrible disease?”

Or, how about the latest viral video (interestingly sponsored by Chipotle) that so dramatically describes how horrible the food industry is? So, it’s okay to eat the Chipotle burrito that has the nutritional equivalent of more than 2 meals because their food is from some non-GMO, organic farm? Sadly, this was distributed through a news feed to folks who already struggle with disordered eating.

The reality is that this dramatic, fear-based strategy doesn’t work, as evidenced by most victims of this experience reporting more anxiety and stress; increased cycles of restricting and overeating; more shame, guilt and clinical depression. The truth is that some people may benefit from lowering their carbohydrate intake, replacing cow’s milk, or more carefully considering their selection of foods. It’s likely we all need to move more and “eat more real food.” But, a one-size-fits-all approach is not the answer and catastrophizing the situation doesn’t help anyone and likely causes more damage.

Instead, consider asking yourself the following questions when reviewing health and nutrition information for “something” that may help YOU feel more hopeful with your health goals:

What are they trying to sell me?

Does it sound too good to be true?

Is the message informative or make me feel worried, bad, guilty?

Is the information based on un-biased scientific research?

There are a LOT of different opinions about what is “healthy” and “what is not.” What I’ve heard from my clients is that people need more positive messages based on credible evidence about food and nutrition and how to make realistic lifestyle change, i.e. when choosing fast food, consider wholesome food choices such as a burrito bowl, with tortillas on the side, and make your own reasonable-sized burrito (with leftovers to spare). Only then will people be able to experience the freedom to choose what will work for them; rather than coerced or “bullied” into something that benefits the seller – not optimal wellness.

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True or False: It’s Not Good to Eat Carbs After Dark

Question on a forkThis question comes up a lot from my clients and from individuals attending my workshops. It seems to have morphed from another myth or food rule that states, “it’s not okay to eat after 7 pm”.

The short answer for both of these statements is False! There are many interesting theories and anecdotal evidence about this idea for weight loss. But, let’s understand where these myths come from and why they seem to work (at least at first).

The “real” problem often begins with over-eating at night when an individual is tired, bored, stressed, or overly hungry. This is especially true for the person who “diets at breakfast, diets at lunch and blows it at night.” By this time, cravings (usually for carbohydrate-containing foods) become very intense and they “give in” to eating, and often overeating, highly palatable, convenient, serotonin-producing, processed snack foods. Food rules, like “don’t eat after 7 pm” provide structure and and a sense of control when the person feels “out of control.”

So, what are food rules? Food rules often develop along with sincere efforts at eating healthy. Having a list of foods that state “eat this and don’t eat that” or labeling foods “good” vs “bad”, healthy/unhealthy, fattening/nonfattening, etc. provide very clear structure for an individual who is trying to lose weight. Basically, when a person can’t trust themselves with their eating and weight, they turn to something or someone else, like a “diet” or an “expert” with a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that they believe they can trust.

Although food rules are meant to be helpful, they often backfire. When an individual follows a rule like “stop eating carbs at night” or “don’t eat after 7 pm”, and they lose weight, it’s easy to believe that the real culprit to their excess weight was because “carbs are bad” or that “late-night eating leads to weight gain.” Unfortunately, when the real problem of under-eating or emotional eating hasn’t been addressed, the individual will likely “give in” and break the rule. Since deprivation can increase desire, this may also contribute to overeating the forbidden food or eating at the forbidden time.

Subsequently, feelings of guilt or shame result because they weren’t able to “follow the rules” which again leads to more overeating…and more self-doubt. Sadly, the cycle continues when the person tries to regain control with even more “structure” – a stricter diet, more food rules, another “expert”, etc etc.

Most would proclaim they want to stop this food fight, but having unconditional permission to eat (at any time of the day) feels very scary. The only way to reduce fears of food is to discover the root cause of behaviors that may be leading to excess weight gain and develop strategies that address those behaviors. For some, that may be giving themselves permission to eat enough earlier in the day or it may be legalizing food and trusting that a healthy balance is achievable.

In either case, this usually means getting the appropriate support for positive behavior change with food, eating and weight. It may also mean setting aside unrealistic “rules” about weight and weight loss. Learning to trust yourself (and your body) with food and eating, rather than a diet, a food rule or a so-called “expert”, may be the real answer to a nourishing and healthy relationship with food, eating and weight.

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Health Halos…A Culprit for Overeating?

healthy crepesI was very amused with this ad in the window of an ice cream parlor during my recent vacation.  It is interesting to me how we can be so “health-conscious” in America, yet continue to struggle with increasing waistlines.  While buzz words such as natural, organic, whole wheat, low fat, gluten free, non-GMO are intended to guide the health-conscious consumer to simple healthy solutions, it seems we just continue to eat more – not less.  Brian Wansink and Pierre Chandon from Cornell University have researched this paradox and describe a “health-halo” effect when foods are labeled in this way.  Their research indicates that consumers underestimate how much they are eating and end up increasing their overall calorie consumption.  See article here.

This phenomenon is hardly new in our culture.  I can vividly recall the “Snack Well” era which is another great example of this health halo effect.  Back in the late 80’s, eliminating fat in foods was the solution to America’s increasing waist line.  Therefore, non-fat foods such as Snack Well cookies, Entenmanns pastries, and a slew of nonfat versions of cheese, salad dressings, etc. filled the grocery stores.  Misguided consumers believed that if you eliminated fat in food, you would lose weight and be healthy.  When that didn’t work, carbohydrates were suggested as the culprit for our health problems.  Today, branding foods to help guide the consumer to healthy food options seem to continue to confuse consumers.

When an individual is trying to manage their weight and health outcomes, it is vital to recognize that “eating healthier” doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual has created a caloric deficit that prevents weight gain or result in weight loss.  Instead, staying aware of portions and internal cues versus judging food – not as “good” or “bad” or an opportunity to “indulge” – can help reduce mindless eating.

Remember, eating doesn’t need to be so difficult.