It’s impossible to deny the importance of food in our lives. And it is important- it’s what keeps us alive! But we don’t just eat when we’re hungry. We crave food when we are sad, or nervous, or just bored. We munch without even thinking about it, as we casually flip channels on the couch, or straighten up our homes. And on top of that, we experience cravings. Hungry or not, we want something salty or sweet, and we want it now. But what does being hungry even mean anymore? Has a lifetime of snacking prevented us from being able to tell when we are truly hungry?
If you’re hungry, it generally means that your body has burned through whatever energy it could glean from the food you’ve just eaten. But that doesn’t mean you’ve burned fat. The first energy source your body turns to is the sugar stored in your blood. The body stores sugar and carbohydrates as glycogen, which it releases when you start to feel hungry. Once it has burned through available sugar resources, it will start to burn fat. Lowering your sugar intake can help to encourage the body to burn its fat stores when it needs fuel.
Myth #1: If your body burns fat when it’s hungry, then skipping meals would cause it to burn more fat, right?
Wrong. This cycle will happen naturally as long as the body is accustomed to being fed regularly. Skipping meals will halt the process, and send the system into storing mode, or “Famine Response.” Instead of burning its fat reserves, the body will store as much fat as possible, in an attempt to stave off starvation. Besides the fact that skipping the first meal of the day is likely to lead to binge eating later on, breakfast is the most important meal because it kicks your metabolism into gear as soon as you wake up. Morning exercise also encourages your body to burn fuel all day long. Additionally, the best way to use the body’s natural calorie-burning process to your advantage is to spread your meals out, and to have six small meals a day instead of three large ones. Eat your last meal well before you go to bed, so your body has time to burn it before you rest. Your body uses more calories to digest protein, so opt for foods higher in protein and lower in fat and carbohydrates.
Myth #2: If your body burns fat when it’s empty, and it also burns fat when you exercise, then exercising on an empty stomach means you’ll burn twice the fat, right?
Wrong again. The body burns the same amount of fat regardless of whether or not you are hungry. What’s more, if your stomach is empty, you have no fuel, and the intensity of your workout is likely to decrease. This means you’ll probably burn less fat than if you had eaten something beforehand. If you press the body to physical extremes without fuel (and I think dance often falls into the category of “physically extreme”), you will force the body to burn muscle protein for energy, and you will grow weaker and increase your risk of muscle fatigue and injury.
Myth# 3: But I’m always hungry!
Trust me, I feel you on this one. But here is the cold hard truth: you’re not. You can always talk to your doctor about some medical reasons why you may feel hungry all the time, but if you have a clean bill of health, you are feeling hungry for a list of reasons that won’t actually be solved by eating:
1.) You’re not drinking enough water. The symptoms you feel when your body goes into Famine Response are similar to the symptoms of dehydration. How much water you should be drinking varies, depending on your physical activity level and the climate in which you live, but start with the recommended 8-10 glasses a day and see how you feel. Not only will drinking water help you to distinguish those times when you are actually hungry, but it comes with a whole host of health benefits, including improved digestive function and clearer skin. The cherry on top (or the lemon wedge on the side?) is that often ‘cravings’ stem from thirst. Ice cream on a hot day…think about it.
2.) You’re on a too-strict diet. Depriving yourself of food is more likely to cause an obsession than an achievement of a weight loss goal. And starving yourself is only going to lead to a massive binge later. Instead of cutting back on intake, focus on putting nutritious foods into your system that the body can actually use. Protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals– these are your friends. Think about it this way: your body is like your bedroom, your own personal space, decorated just the way you want it. You can fill your room with cozy pillows, or with flowers, or with cool prints and pictures of your friends… or you can fill it with trash. Up to you! Either way, you have to sleep there every night.
3.) You’ve forgotten the difference between “hunger” and “an appetite.” Ever heard the expression “your eyes are bigger than your stomach”? Turns out there is some truth behind it. “Appetite” is a “desire for food and drink” linked to sight, smell, or thought, but it is not a need. Appetite is what causes us to eat until we feel bloated and disgusting, because the food was just too delicious to stop! And while I am all for the occasional fantastic dining experience, turning this into a habit isn’t being indulgent, it’s overeating. If the temptation is hard for you to resist, try eating off a smaller plate (that fits less food), or put half of your meal into a to-go box or storage container so you don’t feel pressure to clear your plate. If you finish and feel that you want more food, wait five minutes before reloading; you may realize you’re fuller than you think!
4.) You’re not hungry, you’re ___________. Fill in the blank however you want, but we all have those moments when we find ourselves emotionally eating. Or stress-eating. Or nervous-eating. Or bored-out-of-our-minds-eating. Are you stressed? Take a five minute breather instead. Bored? Get out of the house! Do something new. Do something period. Sad? I’ll give it to you, sometimes you need a day to splurge if you’re really down in the dumps. But after you give yourself time to mope, cut yourself off. Get back out there! Wallowing is bad for you! And so is binge eating.
It’s not easy to redefine your relationship with food, especially when you’ve come to rely on it for a multitude of reasons outside of hunger, but awareness is the first step. Hopefully with some new information under your belt, you can make smart, healthy, and yummy choices when it comes to enjoying, and not overindulging in, your food.