Do you remember the first time you held out your hand, right under a dog’s nose, as a tentative gesture of introducing yourself? Extending your hand was a signal to the dog that you could be trusted, and the wet sniffing around and possible lick of a drooling tongue was the beginning of a long-term relationship. As long as you held up your end of the bargain – feeding the dog and keeping it safe and loved – you and your new friend would have a long, happy coexistence together.
But, if that dog had been abused or neglected in the past, if it had been ignored and kicked so many times that it learned that people could not be trusted, you might not have gotten that affirming nuzzle on your first attempt. You may have had to extend your hand several times, patiently demonstrating that you are kind and trustworthy, before that dog believed that you could be trusted. Only after consistently proving your steadfastness would you be rewarded with that reciprocal relationship of unconditional love.
Well, your hunger is like a dog. When your body signals hunger to you, and you ignore it, it is like kicking that dog. Kick it away enough times, and it will simply stop coming around. You may notice that you don’t feel hungry anymore. Advice to “eat when you’re hungry” may seem confusing because you’ve ignored your hunger for so long that you never even feel hungry.
How do you get that feeling back? What if you want to stop kicking the dog but he won’t trust you enough to come over?
Regardless of whether you hear your body’s hunger signals or not, you still need to eat during the day to fuel your body’s energy needs and to manage weight in a healthy and sustainable way. Hunger can show up in ways other than a growing stomach; headaches, feeling weak or tired, grouchiness, and feeling dizzy are all signs that you have kicked the dog. Reconnect with your growing stomach by demonstrating consistently – with regular meals and snacks – that you can be trusted to provide nourishment to your body. Feed that dog!
Be intentional about eating something small at regular intervals – every three hours or so – and when you eat, make a note of your hunger level on a scale of one to five, with one being not at all hungry and five being ravenous. Pay attention to whether your hunger varies during the day and as you are more intentional about eating. If you are worried that you may eat too much, pay attention to signals that you are full, such as eating mechanically without enjoying the food or feeling pressure in your stomach. Remember, wellness is about progress, not perfection. It is okay if you don’t master your hunger signals right away. Make notes, adjust, and try again in a little while.
Yes, this means that at first you may need to eat when you do not feel physical hunger, and that does feel counter-productive. Don’t worry, you don’t need to sit down to a three-course meal! A piece of fruit with some peanut butter or low-fat cheese, a cup of protein-rich yogurt, or some crackers and hummus are low-calorie snacks that can be enough to wake up your metabolism without making you feel stuffed.
As you consistently extend your hand to yourself in a gesture of goodwill and nourishment, you will be rewarded with that welcome feeling of a growing stomach. That is your metabolism jumping into your lap and giving you a big wet slobbery kiss like a happy dog whose owner has finally come home!
Once you are reunited, all is forgiven. All you need to do maintain your new relationship with is to keep providing food, love, and compassion to yourself. It won’t always be simple and of course you’ll mess up now and then. That’s okay. A happy dog comes home eventually.