Category: Humane Nutrition

Red meat and mortality – this one’s for you.

So, you all saw that headline about red meat being unequivocally Bad For You, right? The headline was super scary – “All red meat is bad for you, new study says” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Very scary, very definite-sounding.

I tried to avoid looking at the study all day, because I knew it would make me angry. I suspected shenanigans from the get-go. Why? Because pretty much nothing in science is ever that unequivocal. Science is, allegedly, the study of material reality – when it’s done well. And material reality is incredibly complex and nuanced, which makes for uncertainty. Bets must always be hedged when observing it.

So I knew that, at the very least, the mainstream media reporting of this study — which might have been a very good study — was oversimplified and sensationalized, as any juicy news story is.

Finally, late last night, I gave into temptation and clicked on the LA Times link, which led me to the abstract of the study. And before I even got into the full-text, by looking at the numbers and methodology reported in the abstract, I was…deeply embarrassed.

This study used a problematic methodology to determine how often people ate red meat – they used a food frequency questionnaire, something I was taught in school should never be used alone to assess a person’s actual food intake. It’s simply not precise enough – it is only a rough guesstimate, and it is vulnerable to faulty memory, to misunderstanding food amounts, and to embarrassment or shame.

Even if you gave a person a food frequency questionnaire every single day for the duration of the study, it would not be great data.

Sadly, this study didn’t even go to that much trouble. The analysis was based on food frequency questionnaires that were only updated once every four years.

I’m going to give you a second to let that sink in.

Once every four years.

Every four years, subjects in the study were given a piece of paper with a bunch of check boxes on it, next to a long list of foods, and asked to check off how often they ate each food over the course of the past four years. Totally accurate, I’m sure — accurate enough to pinpoint with reasonable certainty the type of food each person ate every single day for the 24 years of the study.

Oh wait a second, no. Not at all.

Then, based on this rigorous assessment of each subject’s diet, the researchers managed to find an association between people who reported eating a serving of red meat every single day…

I’ll give you another second.

A serving of red meat Every Single Day…

[Interlude: this is not to say that no one, anywhere eats red meat every single day for 24 years. Plenty of people around the world probably do. But I doubt they represent the larger population from which this study’s subjects were drawn — and even if they did, the results of the data from this study would give them no reason to worry.]

…was associated with a 20% higher risk of dying during the study.

That actually still sounds pretty scary, doesn’t it?

I mean, nobody wants to entertain a 20% higher risk of dropping dead at any moment. Death is the worst bad thing that could ever happen to you, and if avoiding a couple of hamburgers can stave it off, why the hell not?

Yes, it does sound scary — until you point out that the average risk of each person in the study dying, in the first place, was actually very low.

Per person, per year of the study, the risk of dying was less than 1%.

For the people who (allegedly) ate red meat every day, the risk of dying was…also less than 1%.

I’ll give you another second.

The risk of each person dying, per year of the study, was less than 1% — whether or not they ate red meat.

In fact, the risk of people in this study dying was quite a bit lower than the risk of the average person of the same age in the general US population (for year 1994, right in the middle of the study period.)

The subjects would have been between the ages of 44 and 89 years old by the middle of the study, and the risk of an average USian (of roughly this age group) dying in the middle year of the study was 2.5%. (I’m just grabbing rough numbers to make a point here – please don’t mistake for Actual Science.)

Which tells us something important – and probably not that Being In A Study Reduces Your Risk of Death by 67%!!! – it tells us that not only did the people in this study who allegedly ate red meat every single day for 24 years have a lower risk of death than the average person, it tells us that the people in the study don’t represent average people.

You could very well say that not being a predominantly white health professional or nurse is associated with an increased risk of death. Investigating why that is might be a pretty interesting question, no?

But, sadly, it’s not as newsy as saying that red meat will kill you.

Last layer of the onion: this study was not a clinical trial, which means it can only draw correlations between things – it cannot prove causation.

So even if the dietary assessment strategy were sound, even if the population of the study did represent the average person, and even if the difference in risk of death between meat eaters and not-so-much meat eaters was very large, it would only signal the need to do a more rigorous study to get to the bottom of the association, and to find out whether it’s likely that eating more red meat makes you die faster. Nothing more.

This study didn’t prove that red meat was bad, because it didn’t prove anything at all — except that predominantly white health professionals die less often than the average person.

The foundation of nutrition as we know it remains variety. And variety, as we know it, can still include red meat if you like it and are inclined to eat it. I personally wouldn’t suggest eating it every single day for 24 years, but even if you did, this particular study wouldn’t give you a good reason to worry.

Just a note — I don’t want comments to turn into a referendum on red meat. Some people eat it, some people don’t — it’s a judgment call everyone has to make for themselves. Let’s talk instead about how weak observational data shouldn’t be dressed up and paraded around like definitive science.

ETA: Some commenters have pointed to some other critiques of this study, which you may want to take into consideration:

Unpacking the meat data

Red meat is killing us all! Or not…

Will eating red meat kill you?

Also a note to say that I’ve edited this post slightly from the original version. I think I was too mean to the researchers, frankly, and too quick to assume bad faith on their part. My apologies. I will try to be more circumspect in the future.

The Last Supper Syndrome

Happy Mardi Gras! Also known as Fat Tuesday. Or Shrove Tuesday. Or pancakes-for-supper.

It struck me as an odd coincidence that, just last night, I was talking with one of my groups about the thing I call the Last Supper Phenomenon.

Here’s how it happens: Something happens that makes you feel bad about your weight. You feel fat.

Because you’ve been inundated since childhood with the message that being fat is the worst thing that could ever happen to you, an uncomfortable tension (between the fat body you have, and the thin body you think you should have) builds.

Almost automatically, to release the tension, your brain rides the crazytrain straight to restrained-eating-town.

Even if just momentarily, you think of food restriction. You tell yourself, “On Monday I’ll cut back.” Or even, “I’ll start making Smart Choices ™ ” (which is translated from the original Jerkbrain to mean “eat food I dislike, and avoid food I do like.”)

And then the Last Supper Phenomenon kicks in.

As soon as you have that thought of restriction, or that thought of possibly-maybe-in-the-misty-uncertain-future restriction, you begin to think about food – specifically, the foods that will soon become forbidden. You want them. An uncomfortable tension (between the foods you want to eat and the foods you think you should eat) builds.

To resolve the tension, you hit on what seems like a brilliant solution – feast now, fast later. You empty the pantry, make a special run to the store, to your favourite pizza place, in anticipation of self-imposed food scarcity. You make what looks for all the world like a valiant effort to EAT ALL THE FOODS!

Which is kind of like Mardi Gras – the last hurrah before Lent, the time to get all the fat out of the larder and make delicious things. Things you will very soon have to go without. Things that you must eat ALL OF. RIGHT NOW. OR ELSE.

For some of us, because we are completely sick of dieting, Monday never actually comes. Nevertheless, just the thought that Monday might come, that the other shoe might drop, is enough to keep the restraint-disinhibition cycle alive.

Because you are, in effect, threatening yourself. You’re threatening to take food away from yourself, and especially if you have a history of chronic dieting or disordered eating, this is going to scare the shit out of you, and you are going to react violently to the fear of food scarcity.

After the violent reaction, you feel guilty. The dissatisfaction with yourself deepens, and you begin to look forward to NEXT Monday morning, when you will finally, really this time, once-and-for-all, stop eating food like some kind of dirty human being.

Which leads to the reappearance of the Last Supper Phenomenon, which has now escalated to the Last Supper Syndrome – a cycle of bouts of wildly eating, threatening never to eat again, and then even more wildly eating until you have finally become a flesh-and-blood substantiation of a Cathy comic.

The trick, then, to ending the Last Supper Syndrome is to stop threatening yourself.

You do this by first becoming aware of when it happens. You listen to your thoughts, especially the quiet, slippery ones in the background that seem to have a mind of their own. The ones that come automatically, like a knee-jerk reflex, on a bad body-image day. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear them.

They say things like, “On Monday, I’ll cut back.” Or “I’m going to start making Smart Choices ™ .” Or “All I need is portion control.”

The gist of all of them is “I feel fat and that is unacceptable and I need to do something about it RIGHT NOW.”

When you hear them, it means you’ve caught them in the act. When you catch them in the act, you can drag them out of their preferred obscurity into the light, and force them to undergo rational scrutiny. You talk back to them, again and again, as many times as it takes.

You remind yourself that, no matter what your weight, your first duty is to take care of yourself. Which means feeding, not depriving, yourself.

Finally, you make a promise to yourself – that Monday will never come again.

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When I wrote this post, I hadn’t read the book Intuitive Eating for ten years. I recently (at the end of 2012) went back and re-read it, and realized the authors use this same term – “The Last Supper” – in describing the same phenomenon, so I wanted to give them credit! It’s also just a great book.

Lesson Five – Putting food in its place.

I want to preface this post by saying that we observe the Division of Responsibility in Blogging around these parts – which means, I offer information, and you decide what and how much of it you want. Not everything applies to all people – because People Vary, and because Reality is Complex.

As Ellyn Satter says, food is one of the great pleasures of life – but only one of them.

It is important, but it has its place – which is to say you should not have to be thinking constantly about it. And you want the thought and attention you do give to be of the useful and pleasurable sort, not of the fretting and obsessive variety.

In this lesson, I’m going to talk both literally and figuratively about putting food in its rightful place.

Let’s get the literal out of the way first, because it is astoundingly simple.

Put it away.

Yes, that’s right – put your food away. Be neat and tidy with it. Organize it a bit.

Don’t leave random stuff laying around on counters, coffee tables, desks, bookshelves. Don’t put food somewhere it will hover right in front of your face, especially if you are slightly food-preoccupied due to chaotic eating and lack of permission, a history of dieting, or just because you are a primate who is immediately attracted to tasty, tasty food, regardless of whether you actually want it at just that moment.

Because if any of these are true, having it constantly before you gives the food more power than it deserves. It interferes with genuine decision-making. It calls to you in that really annoying food-voice.

In a sense, the food begins to boss you around.

We don’t want that. You’re the one in charge here. You get to decide what you eat, what you like, and how much feels good.

You don’t want those important decision-making criteria pushed into the ditch by RANDOM COUNTER COOKIES!!!

Now, it’s one thing to think, “Yeah, some cookies would be awesome right now,” and then you go and get some cookies, and indeed they are awesome.

It’s another thing entirely if you pick cookies by default because they were there and you didn’t have any better ideas.

If they’re right in front of your face, you will probably never come up with tastier or more nourishing ideas, because you’ve got an easy out – something sweet, perennially tasty (even when you’re not particularly feeling cookies), and that requires no thought, effort, or preparation.

You’re human, which means you are an animal. Animals like to conserve effort wherever possible – including when it comes to acquiring food. So of course you’re going to take the easy way out.

However, a strong aside:

This is not a trick to get you to eat less.

This is, however, a trick to help you be the one making the decisions about it. I really don’t care how much you eat, because that is none of my (or anyone else’s) fucking business. That’s entirely between you and your stomach. I only care about your eating being enjoyable, nourishing, and satisfying.

At the same time, especially if you’re of the “Oops, I forgot to eat lunch!” variety, it’s important that food be reasonably convenient to you, so that you can continue having regular meals at regular times.

That still doesn’t mean it should be staring you straight in the face. It means that, if you’re busy and don’t have much time or energy to cook, you should find some quick and easy meals, even frozen or instant stuff…and then put them away until it’s time to eat.

It means that, if you sit at a desk all day long and often forget to take a lunch break, or bring a lunch to work, you should get some tasty, filling snacks…and put them in your desk drawer until it’s time to eat.

Or create a snack box.

I have a snack box. It’s where I store the food that I eat with my clients during sessions. Because we’re dealing with food issues like guilt, or shame, or vague fears about “unhealthiness,” a lot of this food is of the delicious, immediate-gratification variety. Otherwise known as “junk food.”

I discovered long ago that leaving this food just sitting on my desk – a Snickers here, a bag of chips there – instigated both Jeffrey and me to primal feeding sessions of the type not seen since Wild Kingdom. Which was rather inconvenient, since then I would have to go back out and buy the food all over again, and also since we’d not be very hungry for dinner. Which is a crappy feeling.

The solution cost like two bucks at Ikea – one of those cardboard cassette boxes with a lid.

I set that puppy on my desk, all the tasty snacks went in there, and it was just…no longer an issue. Not because we were disallowed from eating the tasty food (we can still raid it, in a pinch, and we still sometimes do), but because it suddenly just didn’t occur to us anymore.

This works because, first of all, neither one of us is a restrained eater, meaning we’re not abnormally preoccupied with food – and second, because it is no longer bossing us around by gazing into our hungry ape souls.

When we do decide to open the snack box, it’s because we really want that food, and it’s going to be awesome enough to be worth the hassle. Win-win.

That said, now for the figurative aspects of putting food in its place.

Food is only one important aspect of your life.

It is necessary for survival, yes, just like sleeping and going to the bathroom and drinking water. But, ordinarily, none of those activities consume our thoughts when we are not doing those things, or preparing to very soon do those things.

When we do start to become preoccupied with them, it’s usually because something is out of whack – we’re stuck in traffic with no bathroom in sight; we’re burning the candle at both ends to get a project done, or to nurse a baby; we’re hiking in hot weather and the water bottle is empty.

So, what does that mean for food? When you are preoccupied with it, outside of planning for meals to happen, or actually sitting and eating, then it could be a sign that something is out of whack.

Normally those things are either 1) you’re not getting enough to eat, or 2) you’re not getting enough permission to eat.

If you’re not getting enough to eat, it may just be a practical issue – you need more time. You need more money. Or you need to be a bit more organized about getting groceries into the house and food on the table.

You need to make getting fed more of a priority, just like most people normally do with sleep and going to the bathroom.

When you gotta go, you gotta go – and when you gotta eat, you gotta eat.

It may also stem from a lack of permission, which is the second issue, and which is something I see very often in my clients.

You need to give yourself permission – by saying explicitly to yourself that you have it, and then following through as though you believe it – to eat as much as you want. To eat the food you really, really like. And to eat frequently enough that you’re not starving in between times.

Sometimes a lack of permission is present even when you are getting enough (or sometimes too much!) to eat – though that sounds totally counter-intuitive. Even so, merely the hint of a thought of possible future food restriction, maybe, at some point, on the Fourth of Vague – that can be enough to set off the alarm bells in your crazy monkey brain.

And here’s how it responds:

“OMG SHE DISAPPROVES. MAYBE SHE WON’T FEED ME AGAIN. WHEN WILL WE EAT? WHAT WILL WE EAT? WILL IT BE GOOD, OR WILL IT BE THAT BLAND CRAP SHE EATS WHEN SHE FEELS BAD ABOUT HERSELF? WILL IT BE ENOUGH? CAN WE GET DESSERT JUST THIS ONCE? MAYBE WE SHOULD EAT THE LEFTOVERS RIGHT NOW JUST IN CASE.”

This is not only the sound of crazy-monkey-alarm-bells, it is the sound of food taking over your life in a completely inappropriate, and totally useless, way.

How do you get over it? Present yourself with enough tasty food at regular times, and then give yourself the permission to eat it. Even give yourself the permission to overeat it, since that is probably going to happen anyway for a while, until your crazy monkey brain starts to trust you again.

You may as well short-circuit the shame spiral, right now, and interrupt the feast-famine cycle. And since it’s hard to interrupt the panic eating part of the cycle, target the thing you can control, and stop beating yourself up about it. And for God’s sake, stop threatening yourself with thoughts of future restriction.

Once you’ve calmed down and stopped obsessing, you can work on directing your attention toward other things – like pre-planning some of your meals for the week. Like asking yourself what you’re hungry for, and then putting in some effort to make that happen. Like making a list of what you need to stock your cabinets and fridge, and then actually going and buying those things.

Like eating with a reasonable amount of attentiveness, and pausing to give yourself explicit permission.

You know – useful stuff. In manageable quantities. Right where it belongs.


If you feel like you need to work on this more, you can sign up for one of my groups, or work one-on-one with me.

And we’re also going to talk about it right here, cause that’s what we do.

Lesson four – Emotional eating.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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A lot of the time, emotional eating is discussed as a somewhat dirty little secret.

Even in the intuitive eating world (see #7), it’s presented as something undesirable, something that indicates you’re emotionally unstable and Not Very Good at Eating, but most of all, something that causes you to get fat. I’ve even heard emotional eating blamed for the Obesity Epidemic ™ (I’m not going to address that here, except to say: I Really Doubt It’s That Simple.)

But, to be honest, eating is inherently emotional. First, in the sense that it provides us pleasure, otherwise we probably wouldn’t take all the time and effort to find food, prepare it, and eat it. Because it is so essential to our survival as a species, it has, of course, become embedded in our brain’s pleasure-pathways as something intensely enjoyable (much like, ahem, other species-propagating activities.)

So whether you think you’re eating for emotional reasons or not, whether you’re doing it intentionally or not, all eating is fundamentally emotional.

On top of that basic biological foundation, we can place the obelisk of culture – all cultures use food as a way of bonding, expressing aesthetic values, celebrating regional flora and fauna, and marking both sad and happy occasions. To attempt to divorce food from this context and view it purely as biological fuel is not only overly simplistic, it is practically impossible.

This is a large reason why strict diets often do not play well with real life – because as primates, we live social lives, and as Homo sapiens, our social lives are organized into culture. We run into it at every turn: going out for coffee or lunch with a friend who needs some quality time; eating as a family on a Wednesday night; popcorn at the movies; holiday dinners; Shrove Tuesday; casserole to a grieving neighbour; cake at a birthday party.

When dieting turns you away from these traditions, or significantly complicates them for you, that is isolating. Sometimes it’s necessary, when it comes to a food allergy or therapeutic diet, or ethical and religious food restrictions, but its impact can be minimized, or it only centres around a limited set of foods to begin with, and the outcome is vital to survival or one’s moral values.

But I cannot help feeling that, when a voluntary weight-loss diet (by cutting out or significantly reducing broad swaths of the diet) imposes such demands on you, it’s destructive. It’s isolation from the larger culture and a way of bonding with others, done through emotional blackmail of the evillest sort: No one will love you unless you’re thin, or at least repenting of your fatness by making a visible, distinctly pleasure-renouncing effort to become thin.

Which makes dieting, itself, a form of “emotional eating” – eating a certain way in an effort to gain love and acceptance.

But, the way that emotional eating is most commonly understood and portrayed is eating directly in response to an acute emotional upset – stress, trauma, anger, sadness, rejection, worry. This type of eating is institutionalized in media through the trope of Sad Girl Eats Ice Cream from Container; or Harried Woman Eats Chocolate with Eyes Closed; and even Woman Laughs Alone with Salad.

(Which brings me to an important pet peeve, that “healthy eating” is never portrayed in images by anything other than FRUITS AND VEGGIES!!! and, most often, a white lady eating/cooking them. However, one cannot live by salad and laughter alone. Not for very long, anyway.)

I find this annoying because it presents emotional eating in a good-food, bad-food light (and images of orgasmic chocolate experiences have become part of that good-food narrative now that chocolate, or specifically, dark chocolate, has been officially approved by the Foodguilt-Industrial Complex), but also in a very gender-stereotyped way.

Women eat when sad. Women orgasm for chocolate. Women eat virtuous salads.

Men eat things like Manly Steaks and Beef Jerky and Dos Equis and Delicious Bacon and Dr. Pepper Ten (and they wash their faces with soap that comes in gunmetal grey packaging, and their shower gels don’t contain moisturizers, they use HYDRATORS, and they don’t even wash, anyway, they DETAIL because their bodies are machines, MANLY EMOTIONLESS MACHINES.) And they do it all between kickin’ ass and takin’ names. Women, meanwhile, eat and moisturize between bouts of laundry and bathroom-scrubbing.

Why yes, I have been drinking many cups of coffee. Emotionally.

Anyhow. The thing with emotional eating is that we, as a society, are in denial about it. Because it’s bad to have and express emotions, somehow, and that leads us all to do this thing that every single person in the world and all of human history has done at some point, in a secretive, guilty, furtive way.

Herein lies the problem.

When you are secretive, guilty, and furtive about your eating, it is not satisfying.

I absolutely agree that eating cannot solve life circumstances or emotional problems, but it can provide pleasure, comfort, a shared experience, and enough distraction to distance you temporarily from the problem at hand – and this is not a bad thing. We all need things like this in our lives – it is a legitimate coping mechanism for when things get a bit overwhelming. And, if anything, food is one of the more benign substances we can use for this purpose.

Used exclusively for escape, no, it is not healthy. But, ironically, forbidding emotional eating may actually cause people to use it this way – forbidden fruit syndrome being what it is. Forbidding it is also going to distract us from doing the thing that can help – using emotional eating as a trigger to investigate our emotions, and to acknowledge what is actually going on that food can’t fix.

Because we will be too busy feeling guilty and trying to hide the evidence to matter-of-factly assess the situation – or even to enjoy the goddamned food in the first place.

So – emotional eating: learn to do it well. Here’s how.

1) Acknowledge that something is going on for you emotionally. Take a moment to name it, if you can. It can help to write this down on a piece of paper – even just one word or phrase, like “sad” or “bored” or “freaking out.”

2) Pick a food that is really, really enjoyable – not just the random thing sitting on the counter, or even the thing that you always go to, out of habit, without asking yourself “What do I really want right now?” Get enough of it, too – you can always save extras for later, by storing them in a convenient but not distracting place (we’ll talk about this next time.)

3) Find a comfy place, without external distractions, to sit. (Put on pajamas or comfy pants too, if practical.) A recliner or couch is awesome. Turn off the TV and the computer, or turn your chair away. Close the book or the magazine or the newspaper. This will only take a few minutes, and then you can go back to what you were doing.

4) Remind yourself that eating is morally neutral – you are not doing something “bad” by eating delicious food. You are simply being human. (And if you have worries about the ethics of food production, you can address those things with more upstream, systemic approaches – beating yourself up at the point of food-on-plate, or depriving yourself of foods that matter a lot to you, won’t fix a problematic food system.)

5) Give yourself full permission to have as much as you want. Say it out loud if you can, or say it internally, sort of like saying grace before a meal.

5) Eat the food. Pay attention to how it looks, smells, and tastes, how it feels in your mouth and throat, and how it settles in your stomach. Give yourself the mental space to just have the physical experience of eating.

6) Pay attention to whether the food reminds you of anything, has family or other associations, brings up familiar feelings and memories.

7) Your mind will wander to random things – let it. Just check in, periodically, with the food and your body.

8) Eat until you are truly, honestly satisfied. Even if that means going back for more.

9) Afterward, assess how you feel again – have you felt comforted? Do you have a little distance? Is everything feeling a little less…intense? What else do you need to take care of yourself? Go and do that, or make a promise to yourself to do it later, when it’s practical. Write it down.

In short, emotional eating can be healthy and useful – if you do it with your eyes open, and short-circuit the shame spiral with permission.

This will take practice – guilt is not something you can unlearn with one try. If you do it consistently, daily or a few times a week, even when you are not in emotional distress, you will be ready for the times when you are.

If you feel like it’s time to commit to eating well, I’ve just opened sign-ups for January groups, or you can do the program one-on-one with me.

But we can also talk about it (for free!), right here on the blog.

Lesson three – How does hunger feel?

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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Getting in touch with hunger, and getting good at respecting its needs, is a crucial part in learning to feed yourself well.

If you’ve been dieting for a long time, or just eating chaotically and inconsistently due to practical or emotional constraints, you are very likely out of touch with hunger signals. It can help to have a primer to guide you in first identifying them for what they are – and what counts as hunger might surprise you a little.

Ellyn Satter describes the drive to eat as both hunger (physical) and appetite (aesthetic and emotional.) Hunger is what drives you to seek out food in the first place, to just get the job done with feeding, but appetite is what mostly guides the type of food you choose – something salty, something crunchy, something meaty…or something creamy, soft, and sweet.

Other intuitive eating approaches describe these drives as “mouth hunger” and “stomach hunger,” which makes a lot of sense and is easy to remember, but which, I think, leaves something to be desired.

For one thing, splitting the two into stomach and mouth leads to the tendency to de-legitimize and de-prioritize “mouth hunger.” It seems frivolous to our ears, because, in this culture we tend to give short shrift (at least theoretically, if not in practice) to mere food wants and desires, and give precedence to real, honest-to-goodness Nutritional Needs and Physical Requirements – of which your stomach alone is the judge.

Through personal experience, I’ve come up with a different version of the hunger/appetite, “mouth hunger”/”stomach hunger” dichotomy – both of which closely parallel mind/body dualism, which I still use to describe things to my students, since it is the language we largely speak as a culture, but which I try to get away from in theoretical work.

It’s a bit more complicated, but to me it legitimizes three different forms of hunger, all of which deserve equal attention. They are:

  1. Mechanical Hunger
  2. Aesthetic Hunger
  3. Chemical Hunger

Mechanical Hunger is the easiest to understand, and sometimes to recognize – it’s the feeling of an empty stomach, often accompanied by growling or churning, or a sense of hollowness or tightness in the stomach. (Keeping in mind the physical reality of the stomach – that it hovers higher up than most of us visualize, just below where your ribcage parts, close under the bust.) This is the hunger that, if you ignore it long enough, can go away altogether, or get really uncomfortable and lead into the desperation of Chemical Hunger (we’ll talk about that in a minute.) It’s something that many people I work with haven’t felt in a long time, but which is probably the most obvious of all the types of hunger.

Aesthetic Hunger is the longing for food – similar to what Ellyn Satter refers to as appetite, and what intuitive eating approaches refer to as “mouth hunger.” I use the word “aesthetic” because I believe the need for pleasure in food mirrors the human need for beauty – in this sense, the beauty of how food tastes and feels. But it’s more than just needing the taste and physical feel of food, it’s also eating for emotional reasons – celebration, grief, comfort, nostalgia. It is the need of enjoyment, since enjoyment is actually a critical part of good nutrition.

In national food surveys over many years, people consistently answer that the number one reason they choose food is because of how it tastes – enjoyment. The enjoyment of food is intrinsic motivation to eat, pure and simple – which means it’s more productive to work with it than against it. The need for enjoyment drives people to seek out flavours and textures, which in turn leads to experimentation and nutritional variety – a critical component of nutritional excellence.

Aesthetic hunger also drives people to practice their regional and cultural foodways, which in turn comprise a crucial part of one’s cultural identity and sense of social belonging (one of the fundamental steps on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.) And it drives emotional eating – again, a cultural practice institutionalized in the form of birthday parties, holidays, wakes, but also a legitimate psychological coping mechanism. And this is where eating competence parts ways with many other eating approaches.

Eating competence recognizes and legitimizes comfort eating as a thing that can actually do some good. It is not the dirty, shameful little secret that you think you’re hiding – it is something that all of us do. The problem, as Ellyn Satter explains, only comes when people do it poorly. They do it furtively, guiltily, without proper attention and enjoyment, and end up with more shame than comfort when all is said and done.

When done well, comfort eating can’t solve the underlying problems you’re experiencing, but it can distract you, soothe you, and provide a bright spot of much-needed – and harmless – pleasure on a dark day. Compared to many of the other distractions people may seek when they need an emotional lift, comfort eating is truly benign and can even be helpful. More than that – it is damn near universal. Lesson Four will go into more detail about comfort eating, and how to do it well.

Bottom line – aesthetic hunger is a legitimate need, since emotional health is a hugely important part of overall health, and because “when the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.”

Chemical Hunger refers to the feeling that lies beyond the garden-variety grumbly stomach. It is generally subtle, but if not attended to, can become a deafening roar. It is the sense that “something is missing” or something didn’t quite hit the spot. I often get this feeling when I haven’t eaten the amount of fruits and vegetables I need for several meals or several days. I also get this feeling after a stretch of illness where my appetite is shot and I can’t eat very much – when I start to recover and refeed myself, even when I eat enough that my stomach is physically full, there is still a gnawing sense in the background that my needs are not fully met, and it’s going to take several more meals before I get there.

Lastly, chemical hunger can come in the form I referred to earlier, in Mechanical Hunger gone too far – low blood sugar. That shaky, weak, lightheaded feeling you get when you’ve forgotten to eat entirely, or gotten stuck in traffic between work and dinner. These are not feelings that come directly from the stomach, but from your blood, your glycogen stores, and even sometimes depleted vitamin and mineral stores.

When chemical hunger is fulfilled, you won’t only get full, and the food won’t only taste and feel good, but you’ll feel satisfied for a while after eating, and maybe even get an overarching sense of vague well-being that follows you around over the days or months that your eating continues to be consistent, varied, tasty, and nourishing.

When you put regular meals, and the permission to eat them, into place, you will start to feel these signals more clearly. You will also start to learn what you need to do in order to satisfy them, by non-judgmentally observing what various foods do for you. You’ll notice which foods give you an emotional lift or satisfy a flavour craving, which foods and amounts give you the sense of fulness you like to have in your stomach, and what foods and combinations provide that sense of having “hit the spot.” You’ll also be far less likely to get into desperation hunger – the chemical hunger that indicates an acute deficiency of glucose, or longer-term deficiency of micronutrients.

When you make your hunger happy – in all forms – you’ll be healthier physically and emotionally. And you’ll be a lot closer to eating competence.

How do you feel your hunger, and what does it take to meet it? Dirty eating secrets revealed in comments.