Progression from Binge Eating Recovery to Weight Loss: Hunger

Jan 08, 2020

To keep binges at bay, it's best -- at least initially -- to eat frequently enough and avoid getting hungry. But as you probably guessed, that can prevent weight loss if you kept it up forever. What's a person to do if they want to eventually be able to lose weight? In this episode, we walk you though the steps we use with our clients to move away from binge eating and towards a healthy lifetime weight, getting to know and relate to hunger in new, positive, healthy ways.

This is a transcript of an episode of the Breaking Up With Binge Eating Podcast. If you'd prefer to listen, you can do that right here, or just keep reading.


“Deer in the headlights”, would be the best way to describe the look on Bethany’s face.

She was speechless, motionless. I was coaching her over a video chat and had just brought up the idea that the next skill we might explore was feeling hunger. From the look on her face, you’d have thought I said “Let’s throw steaks in the water and swim with sharks!”

I can’t blame Bethany for being hesitant. Lots of people over the years had told her that hunger was bad. “Don’t let yourself get too hungry.” “You’ll go into starvation mode.” “Gotta boost that metabolism!” Trainers, Weight Watchers leaders, even magazine headlines were in on the consistent message that this sensation is bad, or at least, that it’s avoidable. She saw the ads: “Lose 40 pounds and never feel hungry”.

One of the things I admire about Bethany and people like her, is that despite her hesitation, she was ready to hear more. “Ok, tell me about it,” she said. She knew I must have a reason for bringing it up, and she trusted that I wasn’t out to make her life a living hell. After all, so far, nothing we had done had meant major suffering, and she had come a long way with stopping binge eating.

The coaching process is a journey, and often part of the journey is a progression through getting to know, make peace with, and even make friends with, our body’s sensation of hunger. Since it doesn’t happen overnight or in one massive epiphany, I’ll be breaking it all down in this episode.

Raise your hand if you really don’t like hunger. If hunger were a person, would you rather not spend time together? If so, that’s okay. We understand, and it makes sense if you’ve had unpleasant experiences before. Dieting may have meant you guys spent too much time together in the past. Or you may have heard messages like Bethany that hunger was up to no good.

The first step in this progression is to clean the slate mentally, letting go of the beliefs and associations you have about hunger from your past.

In case it helps, I’m going to give you some straight facts right now on hunger:

  • Hunger is a sensation you feel in your abdomen. It’s different from wanting food or desiring to eat - so when you think about experiencing hunger, think of your belly. It will feel like an empty-hollow sensation.
  • Hunger doesn’t mean anything bad is going to happen to you.
  • Hunger isn’t dangerous. Your body is equipped to survive for long periods of time without food.
  • Feeling hunger for a little while before eating is an accurate way to know how your overall energy balance is - without having to count anything! If you never feel hungry before eating, you are probably taking in more energy than your body is burning.
  • Feeling hungry for a little while will also not hijack your rational mind. Feeling hungry for 3 or 4 minutes will not instantly make you murder people or steal doughnuts. Excessive hunger can cause emotional distress - but we’re not going there! We’re talking small, safe visits with hunger.

The second step is to practice feeling for hunger.

Again, it’s super important here to focus on your abdomen, not what might be going on in your head. To practice feeling hunger, you can wait a while between meals and sooner or later it will show up! You may also find that if you have a meal or snack time in you daily routine that you don’t think you really need, you can skip it and feel some hunger before your next meal. If you’re anxious about hunger showing up, you might want to choose a time when you are relaxed and at home, and have food prepared so you don’t have to spend lots of time with hunger, you can just notice it, shake it’s hand, and then eat in a few minutes.

Most people want to spend plenty of time in this phase, just feeling hunger once a day for a few minutes. With each repeat, we can get more assured that we won’t actually die if we get hungry, and it gets less and less scary. Feel free to spend as much time in this step as you want!!! You cannot go too slowly.

The third step in the progression is to practice feeling for it a bit longer, and more often.

Once you are feeling hunger once a day for a few minutes, you can gradually practice feeling it for 10 or 15 minutes, working your way up to 30 minutes. You also will find it’s manageable to practice it more than once a day, working your way towards feeling hunger for most if not all times you eat.

You’ll likely have to do some shifting of your meal size and timing to settle into a pattern of feeling hungry for about 30 minutes before each time you eat. You might move from eating 5-6 times a day to eating slightly fewer times with a bit more space between. Or, you might eat the same number of times per day, but dial back the portions slightly. You might find you can drop one of the side dishes you have with your lunch, or have a few bites less of each thing.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, go slowly and make little changes. If you do end up feeling stomach-hunger WAY before a planned meal, don’t force yourself to sit through hours of hunger - just have something to eat and take note that whatever you ate didn’t keep hunger at bay for quite long enough.

Don’t overshoot on this step, because more hunger is not better. 30 to 60 minutes is the window of hunger we recommend, and that’s enough to see weight loss. Don’t push yourself to feel hunger for more than an hour at a time on a regular basis, and we also don’t recommend eating fewer than 3 times per day.

And the most advanced step: develop some appreciation for your hunger signals and notice the benefits!

It may sound crazy to someone on the outside, but when you’ve actually gone through the sequence you might discover the strangest thing happens. You sort of begin to appreciate your hunger signals. Not because being hungry is fun - I haven’t heard anyone say that! But because you recognize how this simple system works so well to keep you on track, not eating too much, not eating too little! You don’t have to count calories or grams or points, you just try to keep hitting that 30-60 minute window before you eat.

When hunger does show up, you begin to feel happy and more confident, because you know “hey I’m doing this right! I’m on track!” You can stop worrying if you ate too much because hunger shows up, pats you on the back and says, “hey, it's me again, I’ve run through the fuel we had a while ago, how about we eat in half an hour or so?”

It’s simple, it works, and it can cut through all the mental stress you ever had about following a diet. It can also help set you free of compulsively weighing yourself to know if you are “on track” or “doing well”. If you are feeling hungry before each meal, you are on track and doing well.

In this stage you’ll also notice some real tangible benefits aside from the mental ones. Your clothes and weight will probably start to change once you consistently allow yourself to feel hungry before eating for a couple weeks. Food tastes better too, and clients often comment about how much more they are enjoying their meals once they wait to be hungry first.

Noticing the positive benefits of this practice is a crucial step to doing it long term. If you tell yourself that hunger is horrible and awful and uncomfortable and you are only doing this so you can lose weight… you’ll stop doing it. And then you’ll go back to whatever weight your old eating habits supported. But if you purposely notice the upsides, how it’s not that bad, how it has a lot of rewards, you can see yourself being someone who waits until they are hungry to eat from now on.

To summarize this progression:

1. The first step is to clean the slate mentally, letting go of the beliefs and associations you have about hunger from your past.

2. The second step is to practice feeling for hunger, just a few minutes, once a day.

3. The third step in the progression is to practice feeling for it a bit longer, and more often. Working up to 30 minutes before most or all of the times you eat.

4. And the most advanced step: develop some appreciation for your hunger signals and notice the benefits.

Take your time with each step, and if you find you’re stumbling, a coach can help keep you on track. Click on Coaching at the top of this page to check out all the ways we can help you.

See you next time!

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