Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What's your hunger telling you?

Are you someone who wants to change their relationship with food? Do you suspect that there is more going on when you overeat than simply making bad food choices? Are you looking for a solution that is whole instead of fragmented, holistic instead of linear?

Deepak Chopra's book What are you hungry for? offers valuable insights and suggestions that can help us become more aware of how we relate to food and why we might be misusing it. Among other things, Chopra talks about how food can become a substitute for other things that we might be looking for.

Why does this happen? Why do we turn to food for comfort and security instead of keeping it in its proper place.

The answer, Chopra says, lies in the fact that we, human beings, are complex organisms. "In its natural state, the brain controls hunger automatically. When your blood sugar falls below a certain level, messages are sent to an almond-sized region of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which is responsible for regulating hunger. When it receives messages of decreased blood sugar, your hypothalamus secretes hormones to make you feel hungry, and when you've eaten enough, the hormones reverse, making you no longer hungry. This feedback loop between blood and brain operates on its own, as it has for millions of years. Any animal with a spinal cord (vertebrate) has a hypothalamus, which makes sense, because hunger is so basic." 

But, what makes people different is that in us, pure physical hunger gets interfered with easily. For example, we might be distracted and forget to eat. We might be extremely stressed out, which makes us ravenously hungry. We are always in search for what will satisfy us.

Although this might feel like self-destructive behavior when it comes to eating, it is, in fact, a normal human drive to seek fulfillment. What we need to understand is how this process works physiologically, how we start substituting food for other things we need.

Chopra says that we need to look beyond the simple circuitry that controls our basic hunger drive through the hypothalamus. We need to be aware that our brains are more complex than that, that we have the capacity to override simple signals from our body.

He says: "Imagine that three telephone conversations converge at one junction, which in reality is the meeting of three basic regions of the brain. Each region has something to tell you; each is sending neural messages to you at once. Each is seeking a different kind of satisfaction. The lower brain is satisfied when you feel good physically. The limbic system is satisfied when you feel good emotionally. The higher brain is satisfied when you are making good decisions for yourself.

The miracle of the human brain is that all three lines can merge and cooperate. The lower brain can send the message "I'm hungry," which the emotional brain accepts, because "Eating puts me in a good mood," so the higher brain can say, "Let's stop for a meal." This balancing act is natural, and it works to the benefit of all three regions of the brain. None of them must force its message through, trying to get heard by pushing the others out of the way. Your brain is structured to find happiness at every level."

So, unlike a baby who operates almost exclusively with basic instincts from the lower brain, and eats when he is hungry or sleeps when he is tired, in an adult, the interaction amongst different parts of the brain becomes more complex as the limbic system and the higher brain also have their individual pieces to communicate. "Their version of happiness is far more complex" than simply meeting biological needs.

So what does this mean for us? If we are aware of how our brains and different motivations work, we can also see that our bodies are not turning against us. There is an unsatisfied need in some other part of our life that is reflected in the way that we are eating, or rather, overeating.

Instead of solving the problem only from a nutritional standpoint by cutting calories, we can look beyond the surface to see the underlying web of what's driving us. Is our natural hunger getting converted into a ravenous emotional hunger? Which of our needs are we not taking care of? 

We can start the process of change by asking ourselves what is it that would truly satisfy us.
Maybe it is something that brings us joy like music, maybe it is creating a more meaningful life. Maybe it is a need for connection.
Whatever need lies beneath our hunger, fulfilling that would help us approach our hunger from a more holistic perspective that recognizes that we are complex and multi-layered.
What are you hungry for? And what will satisfy your hunger?  

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