Infants howl and insist on food, and only healthy food, when hungry. Grown-ups don’t do that.
Work schedules, deadlines, traffic, travel and TV control your eating timetable instead. You don’t eat till you have to—and then, all of a sudden, when gnawing hunger strikes, you eat anything and everything in sight, gorging on bhel, burgers and brownies as if they were going out of style.
Partying is another ball game. Delicious aromas and flavours of rich, delectable—and unhealthy—fare lures you to hog and put off your health resolution for yet another Monday morning.
Clearly there is little room for the healthy hunger signal these days. And if you continue to avoid your hunger signals, you have lost out on nature’s way of keeping you healthy and fit. With the human body, it is always “use it or lose it”.
It isn’t the stomach, it’s the brain that makes you hungry. The hypothalamus, a tiny gland located in a deep cranny of the brain, works out when you need to eat and when you are full. When the hypothalamus senses that your blood sugars have dipped, levels of fats and proteins in the blood are low, and your stomach and intestines empty, your stomach growls and you feel hungry.
Within 20 minutes of you starting to eat, the hypothalamus senses (via nerve receptors) that the stomach has stretched because it is full, that levels of blood sugar and other nutrients have begun going up so you can function well, and it alerts you to stop eating.
It may be fine for you to skip meals—except it is stressful for your brain. Skipping meals dangerously lowers blood-sugar levels and red-alerts the brain to restore those sugar levels quickly so you don’t feel faint and dizzy. In this situation, it sets up that “quick fix” situation, making you seek food urgently, making you feel that you could kill for that muffin or bhelpuri.
Eat like a baby: A child is in sync with her body’s hunger needs.
Be a big baby
Learn hunger management lessons from infants. They cry and bring the house down till their hunger is satiated; once fed and full, they stop eating and refuse the last spoonful. Try explaining to an infant that you have run out of food or try stuffing another mouthful through his tightly pursed lips when he has eaten enough. You will find that it is next to impossible.
Infants listen to their bodies—as long as they can, that is, until they too get hooked on television, and distractions such as fairy tales and rhymes, and eat even more than they feel like and are taught to give up regular feeding for mindless munching. And as they grow up, and learn to ask for food the polite way without howling, they stop insisting on eating when hungry and stopping when full. They learn that eating more is more important than eating enough.
Till the age of 12, serving guidelines for children are just about as many tablespoons of any food as their age. A six-year-old would be in sync with his/her natural hunger/satiety response if he got 6 tablespoons of dal, rice and vegetable or curd and chapattis. If adult portions are served to him and he has to finish those, then he has to be distracted to eat. So he learns to watch Cartoon Network and gets fed mindlessly, while Mickey and Donald entertain him. He learns that eating and distractions go hand in glove. We continue in the same mould as adults, only the distractions change.
The point here is that distorted eating timetables and serving sizes are coming in the way of many an adult’s health plan. The hypothalamus becomes programmed more for distraction and work than for making you feel hungry/full, and this stops you from using a simple, easy, instinctive tool to manage health—hunger.
Programme your hunger
If you wish to stop the quick-fix red alerts and reprogramme the hypothalamus so that it only signals at times when you really need to eat, this isn’t difficult. Just decide to eat at regular intervals, don’t skip meals and put an end to all distractions at meal times.
Exercising regularly also catalyses this process, because it stabilizes hormonal levels, blood sugar and nutrients. Do this religiously for a week and you will begin to feel hungry and healthy the instinctive way.
Madhuri Ruia is a nutrition specialist, functional health and Pilates expert, and founder, HALF, Mumbai’s first functional health studio.
Write to Madhuri at firstname.lastname@example.org