seven types of hunger
I’ve recently been reading Mindful Eating by Jan Chozen Bays, a Zen teacher, Buddhist abess, pediatrian, and mindful eating educator. Among other things, I loved Jan’s concept of the seven different types of hunger.
I have written before about how when I talk to clients about hunger and ask them to describe how they know they are hungry, they are usually at a complete loss to tell me what the physical sensations of hunger feel like in their bodies. (When I started contemplating this blogpost, I asked my husband how he knows he’s hungry, and he couldn’t describe it either — so you are not alone!)
Jan says that one reason for this confusion is there are many different types of hunger — not just one “real” hunger — and all of these types of hunger are valid and important experiences. These different types of hunger occur as "sensations, thoughts, and even emotions within our bodies, minds, and hearts.” I found her description of these different types of hunger very helpful in identifying what I am experiencing when I get the “urge” to eat. Each of these types of hunger are legitimate reasons to eat — though once we have consciously identified which type of hunger we are experiencing, we may or may not wish to satisfy that hunger with food.
Jan’s Seven Types of Hunger
- Eye Hunger
- Nose Hunger
- Mouth Hunger
- Stomach Hunger
- Cellular Hunger
- Heart Hunger
- Mind Hunger
There is so much more to this concept than I can reasonably fit into one blogpost, but I will try to give you a little "taste" of each of these types of hunger to get you thinking. Hang in there with the length — it is worth, I promise!
“Your eyes were hungrier than your stomach,” I sometimes say to my kids when they take more food than they can eat. As adults, we also experience this type of hunger when we are already full from dinner but the dessert cart comes by and the chocolate mousse just looks too good to pass up. Advertisers and food bloggers & photographers know all about this — They do everything they can to maximize the allure and appeal of their images so that our brain says “I'm hungry for that!” — so then we will buy their product, make their recipe, or go to their restaurant.
Another aspect of eye hunger is that we usually eat what’s in front of us. If we buy the small or the large bucket of popcorn, we usually finish whichever we purchased. This is where the idea of using smaller plates comes in. When we see a full plate, even if it’s smaller, our brain registers that it is full of food and must therefore be enough to satisfy us — versus a large plate that is only half full may trigger us to think that we are depriving ourselves and need more.
Satisfying Eye Hunger
One way to practice satisfying your eye hunger is to treat yourself as a guest in your own home. Get out your nice dishes. Set the tables. Create a centerpiece or light a candle. My friend, Debra, is an expert at this. She loves eating with friends and she makes an occasion of it every time. There are always lovely dishes and cloth napkins and flowers — it is a feast for the eyes before we even begin to eat.
Then when you eat, take a few minutes to really stop and enjoy your food. Notice everything you can about the food. The colors, shapes, textures. What do you find appealing about this food? What speaks to you? Feed your senses with the sight of the food, your surroundings, the people you are with — Take in everything with your eyes.
My daughter likes to say “they are piping that delicious smell out of that place just to get us to buy something!” She learned once that they purposefully waft smells into the streets at Disneyland to entice people into the restaurants — and now she notices it everywhere.
Most of our sense of taste comes through smell. That is why most food doesn’t take good when we are sick or have a cold. Our tongues can only taste five flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and amino acids (a protein-like taste). It is can also sense the texture of your food. Everything else that we “taste" really comes from our noses. That is why inhaling the aroma of food can be so enjoyable — sometimes almost as good as eating itself!
Satisfying Nose Hunger
Nose hunger is satisfied by fragrance. Try mindfully smelling a fragrance. This can be incense, a candle, flowers, tea, a baby’s head, cinnamon rolls. Take a moment to feel how the smell itself nourishes you. Each time you eat take a few seconds to relish in the smell of your food and enjoy the fragrances as you eat.
Mouth hunger can defined as the mouth’s desire for pleasurable sensations. How you define “pleasurable sensations” is variable for each of us — depending on our culture, upbringing, genetics, and personality we may very different foods to be pleasurable. I love cilantro — my sister hates it. My husband loves eel skin — I can’t stand the fishy taste. My nephew loves quesadillas, but only with a certain brand of cheese and heated up in the microwave, not on the stove.
So our tastes may vary, but we all have something in common: “To satisfy the mouth’s hunger for sensation, it isn’t enough to put food in the mouth, chew it, and swallow it. If we want to feel satisfied as we eat, the minds has to be aware of what is occurring the mouth. In other words, if you want to have a ‘party in the mouth,’ the mind has to be invited.”
All of us eat mindlessly at certain times — maybe we get talking to a friend at dinner, or we are caught up in our book, or we are watching a movie… our thoughts are not on what we are eating. So our stomach may be full and start to protest, but our mouth is still craving more sensation.
Satisfying Mouth Hunger
The key to satisfying mouth hunger is awareness. We want to open our awareness to all the textures, movements, smells, sounds, and taste sensations of eating and drinking.
"If our mouth is accustomed to always being stimulated, it won’t be happy being empty.”— Isn’t that brilliant? This is why I want popcorn during a movie, chips on a long drive, or gum when I’m sitting in church. Start paying attention to this mouth hunger and what it is trying to tell you. See if paying attention to your mouth as you eat helps to satisfy your mouth hunger.
What happens if you experience mouth hunger and you choose not to eat? What happens? How do you feel? Refer back to the blog post I linked to last week to give you ideas about how to be with the uncomfortable feelings that may arise.
What signals does your stomach give you that it’s hungry? It may be an emptiness in the stomach. You may constriction, like the stomach is attempting to grind up food that isn’t there. You have “hunger pangs” or growling in your stomach, an unpleasant gnawing, as if something is eating away at our insides. Some clients I talk to experience none of this — their stomach never tells them they are hungry.
It may surprise you that stomach hunger is not necessarily the most reliable source of hunger signals. Our specific stomach hunger cues can depend on our hormones (you may have heard of leptin & ghrelin, complicated little guys that affect our hunger & fullness cues), our routines (our body gets hungry at the times we normally eat), our current weight and health (extra stored fat on our bodies can totally mess with hunger cues), our emotions (anxiety can make us hungry), among other factors. So the thing to remember here is that stomach hunger is not as straightforward as it seems and shouldn’t be our only guide.
Satisfying Stomach Hunger
Satisfying stomach hunger is about feeding yourself the right amounts and kinds of food. Think about your stomach — when is it most at ease? I find that my stomach likes to be slightly full — not empty, not overstuffed, just enough in it to have something to keep it busy. Sometimes it even likes being empty and resting for a while.
Before you eat, check in with your stomach hunger. How does your stomach prefer to feel? Then check-in again when you are halfway through the meal, and then again when you are finished. Try to notice when your stomach is “comfortably full.” What does that feel like for you?
I was so intrigued by the term, cellular hunger. I had never heard anyone use it before this book. But when I was really in the midst of my health challenges several years ago, I remember describing to my husband that my cells felt hungry — “it's like I’m eating, but my cells are still hungry. They are just aching for something they can’t get.” It was years before I discovered that I was literally right — my cells were not absorbing the nutrients I was feeding it!
We were all born an instinctive awareness of what foods and how much food our body needs. (Think about how a little baby eats.) However, many of us have lost this inner body wisdom as we have gotten older because of all the other “voices” in our heads telling us what we should and should not eat! We can advice from well-meaning parents, teachers, peers, doctors, scientific researchers, the internet, movies, mirrors, social media… The list is long.
If we want to have a healthy relationship with our body and with food, we have to learn to quiet these other voices, and tune into our own inner awareness of what our body needs and wants. “To learn to listen to cellular hunger is the primary skill of mindful eating.”
My husband is a long-distance trail runner. Last Saturday he ran 44 miles around the base of Mt. Hood to prepare for an upcoming 100 mile race in September. (Yes, he is actually going to run 100 miles at one time! Crazy, I know!) When he runs this long, his body craves very certain nutrients — most noticeably SALT! (I amazed at the amount of pickles and chips these runners ingest at the aid stations during races!) He is sweating like crazy for an incredible amount of time and his body needs to be constantly replenished with salt and electrolytes. If he tried to just drink water, his muscles would cramp up and he would not be able to continue. He has to listen to what his body needs at that particular moment if he wants to be able to keep going.
Our need for a certain food or nutrient may not be as apparent or urgent as Mark’s during his runs, but our body does have its own wisdom and can tell us SO MUCH about what it requires if we are only able to listen.
Satisfying Cellular Hunger
Discerning cellular hunger takes practice. Sometimes it is easiest to hear when we are sick — then the signal comes in loud and clear — I need soup! I need juice!
We can also practice slowing down and really listening. Before you decide what to eat, take a few moments and really tune into what your body needs right now — water? protein? fat? carbohydrates? rest? movement? What is the thing that will satisfy the need in our body right now? Be patient with yourself as you try to reestablish this precious connection that may have been lost for a while.
Jan teaches that mind hunger is based on our thoughts. “I should eat a salad for lunch.” “I deserve a treat.” “Fat is bad for me. I should eat the low-fat yogurt.” “Fat is good for me. I should eat the whole milk Greek yogurt.”
Mind hunger is influenced by all the words we hear and read in thousands of diet books, blogs, cookbooks, nutrition experts, podcasts, movies, etc. The problem is the words they tell us OFTEN CHANGE: Eggs are bad; eggs are good. Vegetable oil is good; vegetable oil is bad. Coconut oil is bad; coconut oil is good. How many dietary recommendations have done a complete 180 just in your conscious memory?
We tend to think that the latest nutritional theories are the “correct” ones, because they are the most recent — and certainly we have learned from all our mistakes in the past, right? But many continue to push dietary extremes and absolutes. All of it just causes us all anxiety and uncertainty — and in the midst of so much food abundance, we all have no idea what to eat anymore!
“Like Catholics who grow up anxious because they might be sinning and not even know it, the mind is anxious because we might be ingesting something dangerous and not even know it — until a new scientific study is published. When we eat based upon the thoughts in the mind, our eating is usually based in worry. When the mind is fretting about 'should eat' and 'should not eat,' our enjoyment of what is actually in our mouth evaporates."
Satisfying Mind Hunger
In our mind hunger games, it is probably best not to get caught up in extremes and absolutes — the middle way is probably best in most cases. Food is food. Nutrition matters, but there is so much more!
Start to pay attention to your thoughts around food. Notice when there are competing voices in your head telling you what you should and should not do. Before you eat, take a second to notice what thoughts are going through your head. Is your hunger “good” or “bad”? Is the food you are eating “good” or “bad”? Then take a minute to quiet those voices. Tune into your awareness, rather than your thoughts. Awareness is where we find true satisfaction.
Many of us may call heart hunger “emotional eating.” This can be both positive and negative. We may love eating the food our grandma used to make (for me that is homemade rolls and raspberry freezer jam!) Eating those foods may help feel close to that person.
We may also feel heart hunger when we are lonely or afraid, when we are craving intimacy or companionship. We want the warm feelings of connection, love, and friendship that frequently accompany a wonderful meal shared with others. — When may feel heart hunger when we are bored, stressed, or procrastinating. We may experience heart hunger when we are deeply hurting and we desperately want/need to avoid feeling those painful feelings — This is such a part of eating for almost all of us, and there is so much to explore further…
Satisfying Heart Hunger
In most cases, heart hunger will not actually be satisfied with food. When you check your seven hungers, and you realize that your mouth, stomach, and body are not hungry, choose to do something deliberate to nourish your heart and genuinely connect with others. Talk with someone you love, play with a child, create something, listen to music. If you eat, eat slowly and open your awareness to your connection to everyone who helped bring that food to your table.
Wow! You hung in there until the end. I’m so impressed. I was not sure anyone would. If you found these ideas as fascinating as I did, I would encourage to start practicing increasing your awareness around these different types of hunger. With practice, checking in with your seven types of hunger will only take a few seconds and can dramatically change your eating experience. Let me know what you find out about yourself. I would love to hear.
If you are interested in the possibility of putting these ideas into practice with a small group of like-minded people, please let me know. I have an exciting possibility opening up soon!