21 micro habits to make weight loss stick #15: Differentiate between sensations

I used to think every urge I got to eat was hunger, says Food Psychology Coach Laura Lloyd. Then, when I was at college, I made a list of every reason I ate, and there were about 30. I was dizzy when I looked at it. Only hunger feels really hungry. The rest were emotions.

Here, Laura helps you understand the difference between hunger, desire and cravings, so that if you’re aiming to lose weight, you can spot when your body is asking for comfort and nutrition, as well as fuel.

Hunger is when you need to eat. Physically. 

Your body feels like it definitely needs food. It’s a pleasant, consistent message (that grows into an unpleasant emergency one if you leave it too long).

It’s not just ‘thinking about food’. 

But most of the time, hunger is a signal that’s only one voice amid a clamour of ‘false messages’ – random urges to eat that have nothing to do with needing nutritition.

I believe that hunger, as well as a natural attraction towards WHAT could satisfy it so perfectly, is body wisdom. 

It is available to all of us, but for most of us the voice of our body wisdom is so drowned out by the other habitual voices within us begging to be fed, that it’s pretty hard to distinguish.

Learning to recognise hunger – which comes with its own emotional signs and signals, and changes in your thinking and attention as well – is a key skill you’ll need for a lifestyle approach to weight management.

It reminds me of penguins. 

I was penguin crazy as a kid, and I remember being amazed at how the Dad stays with the baby, and then the mum trekks off to find food, and when she gets back, she has to find her family again.

And there is literally a sea of penguins, all beeping and cheeping. She has to listen, and distinguish that one call that’s her true family. 

Here are a few of the sensations that you can easily mix up with hunger.

These are not hunger, and feeding all of these impulses to eat – and not saying ‘no’ to them for fear of being in ‘restriction mentality’ – is what can confuse people who are trying to adopt an intuitive approach to eating. 

  • Desire is when you ‘just want it’ but you’re not hungry. It’s an urge – which is an emotion – urgent desire
  • Cravings are when you really, really want one specific thing.
  • Emotions can create desire to eat, to take the edge off their keenness (or to ‘enhance’ the joyful ones).
  • Visual and social cues, and daily routine triggers also give rise to urges.

When I first saw the size of my list of non-hunger reasons to eat, it spun me out.

If I had so many other motives, it’d take me forever to untangle them all!

But don’t worry, understanding your emotional eating isn’t like that.

And giving yourself a hard time for all your negative thinking and emotional reactivity just stops you in your tracks.

As it did me.

I didn’t come back and properly understand my emotional overeating until years later!

I just felt too crap and ‘Why me? Everyone else seems to find eating easy’ about it.

Also, I didn’t find a coach like me. I’m not sure if they existed. And the self-help shelf in Waterstones was one metre long, and mostly had diet books.

And my overwhelm at seeing the big list there stopped my creativity, so I didn’t think about solutions, only about how messed up I was compared to my housemates, who could breeze through their day and get so lost in their studies they could just about remember to go eat a baked potato at 2pm.

Just a little side note from me:

Self-judgment is never even slightly helpful, people, if you want to lose weight.

It will stop you in your tracks. Self-judgment creates inaction.

I mean, we think it’s failure that’ll stymie success. That’s not true.

As Brooke Castillo says, failure is not the opposite of success. Inaction is the opposite of success. 

Essentially, feeling like a human car crash because you have a lot of thoughts that aren’t helping you, and a lot of habitual behaviours bothering you, just makes it painful to look at what you’re doing, and analyse it.

Which is why we put off leaning in and looking at what we’re really doing when we’re messing up. 

But when we do look at it with curiosity, it’s SUCH a relief! 

It’s your ability to go into ‘data analysis’ mode that takes the drama out of your weight loss journey:

Scale gone up? Just data – which habit or skill do I need to learn next?

Mum make a snide remark about how you’re ‘getting too thin’? Just data – how can you let other people’s opinions wash off you like water off a duck’s back?

Notice that you ‘can’t’ sit down to work without a road snack to get from the kitchen to your desk? Just data – what am I thinking and feeling about my work?

Go all-out on chocolate one day, and body feels sick and jittery afterwards? Just data – what was I thinking and feeling that day? Does this information from my body change how I think about ‘how much I love’ chocolate?

Self-doubt creates overwhelm. Overwhelm stops you starting. And, once again – that inaction is the opposite of success – not failure.

Failure is very informative. Failure means you’re trying things. It increases your probability of hitting on a solution.

Laura Lloyd

Food psychology coach

Desire to eat is often a form of emotional eating.

Let’s look at this one in more detail.

So if desire is sometimes triggered by emotion, why don’t I feel emotional when I’m wanting to eat, but am not hungry?

Firstly, emotion isn’t like in the movies. There’s no music. There often aren’t any tears. It can be quite humdrum.

For instance, some common ways I’ve found myself eating emotionally which have gone under my radar because they didn’t shout ‘emotional!’ are:

Feeling bored –

Sometimes we get the urge to eat and it’s just entertainment that we want. We’re wired to be hungry for stimulation. Thoughts that go with the boredom emotion, that pave the way to eating, could be like:

“Oooh, that ginger cake my colleague brought in sounds so nice!”

“I wonder what’s in the cupboard. Maybe I’ll go and stand in front of it and just have a look.”

Finding work hard –

We’re having trouble focusing, or we’re feeling a little self-doubt or resistance getting on with something. Thoughts that create this emotion might be innocuous little badgers like:

“Ooh, I wonder if I can do this.”

“I’m not sure I’m going to get this done in time.”

“Grr. This computer just doesn’t do what I want it to!”

Celebration –

We use food for positive emotion, to mark occasions and make ourselves feel that life is good.

I’m not necessarily talking about birthday cake.

I’m talking about how my husband I and aim to eat a ‘special’ meal on a Friday, with beers for him and exciting tonic-and-frozen-fruit drinks for me.

There’s an element of reward here, too.

We’re trying to say to ourselves “Well done, it was worth it.”

Actually, that is often what our dinner time conversation consists of on a Friday – so it’s not even that we’re saying it to ourselves unconsciously, we are openly speaking it.

Which goes to show it’s the thoughts and conversation of self-congratulation that counts, and not whether or not we’ve defrosted some fancy venison steak leftover from New Year’s.

Anxiety –

I have only recently discovered how to plan and manage my time.

I used to spend a lot of headspace on feeling rushed, and stressed, and unable to prioritise, and stressed at the kids for being so slow to find an acceptable pair of socks.

And funnily enough, although this emotion doesn’t lend itself to opportunities to eat, I would grab things in that headspace and stuff them in my mouth while running out the door, or just march to the kitchen and pop a chocolate eclair in while all the mayhem was going on.

Thoughts that would go with this emotion would be innocent-seeming little tykes like: 

“C’mon, c’mon, we’ve got to go.”

“We’re going to be late.”

“I’ve got a lot to get on with!”

Some desire to eat, when you’re not hungry, is purely habitual.

You expect to eat at certain times. Your body and brain knows that.

For instance, my grandparents used to always eat ‘elevensies’.

This was a pillar of their day, where they’d take a break, sit down on the patio in the sunshine with a coffee and a lion bar (that’s a kind of caramel, popped rice, chocolate bar that you could get in the UK in the 1980s).

Visiting them was a revelation – we had no such mid-morning ritual, and didn’t expect to eat then. They probably would have found not having elevenses very disorienting.

Another habitual, routine-based cue to eat that many people have (especially mums and teachers) is the 4pm slump.

Of course, it’s accompanied by a lot of habitual emotional-fuelling thoughts like

“I’m so freakin tired.”

“I missed lunch, I’m starving (you may be actually hungry, but there are other less emotive ways to think about it).”

“Oh, God, now we have to do their homework, this is gonna be a long evening.”

“I wish the kids would stop arguing, it’s unbearable.”

Some triggers to eat when you’re not truly hungry are social and visual.

You see a croissant sign hanging outside a bakery.

You smell popcorn at the cinema.

Your mum expects you to taste everything she’s made for your visit.

You eat a piece of birthday cake at a kid’s party at 4.23pm one Saturday. On Sunday, (and Monday and Tuesday) at 4.23pm, your brain reminds you – “Don’t we usually get cake now?”.

Every which way, it’s not hunger.

Let’s talk about cravings, they are a little different, but also similar.

Cravings are a strong desire for one specific food. You can’t get it out of your head.

Sometimes this is biological – your body’s way of letting you know that you’re missing something nutritionally.

For instance, if you’re trying to eat ‘low carb’ all day, but you just get taken over by a desire to eat breakfast cereal at 9pm each night.

But sometimes this is also another version of emotional eating, where the story you’re telling yourself about a particular food is super compelling.

For instance, I have a whole big narrative about chocolate.

It signifies luxury to me.

That I can have something for myself. Peace, time, beautiful solitude – I remember Saturdays very vividly, because they were ‘Chocolate Day’ in my otherwise sugar free childhood, and I’d visit the corner shop and get some chocolate tools and a Beano comic, and then sit and make it last for hours.

So when, as an adult, I found myself having cravings for chocolate specifically, I was also curious about the amount of meaning I had invested in that particular food, and what luxury and time for myself I was craving in my life.

So much of the work we do in coaching is to unpick, gently and over time, all of these urges to eat when we’re not really in need of food.

The aim is not to divest food of comfort, pleasure and emotion entirely – we aren’t cars, and getting satisfied from food is about much more than just fuelling your body.

But, as we learn not to obey every urge to eat as equal, we can reduce the excess food we’re taking in, and increase our sense of compassionate self-control around food.

Which is good for our weight, but also most importantly, the route to feeling ‘normal’ around food.

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