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One of the many reasons mindfulness meditation and mindful eating are so effective at helping me combat my eating disorder is because it is really difficult to keep up and requires me to engage in it emotionally, psychologically and physically. One of the more difficult parts of this has been untangling emotional eating from actual hungers- yes, hungers, there are many different kinds, and figuring out which I’m feeling at any given time.

In order to do that, I’ve had to train myself to become more sensitive to my body’s physiological signals for hunger and thirst. Before, I didn’t have much of a sensitivity for when I was feeling hunger or thirst. The funny thing about these physiological responses is that while they do, at first, come naturally to you, over time, as you get older, food and drink stop being just food and drink: They have cultural, moral, health, emotional, and sometimes even religious, baggage attached to them, partially by you as you learn which food and drink you like and dislike, but mostly brought on by other people. For example, “Don’t eat that, it’s not Kosher/Halal”, or “Don’t  eat that, think of the calories/fat/salt/sugar/carbs in it” or, “Don’t eat that, it’s gross” or “Don’t eat that, you’ll spoil your appetite!”

Certain foods can take on stigma, or an extra special meaning: Birthday cake has a special celebratory meaning for most people, communion wafers have deep sacred significance for Catholics, Nanny in Eloise has Irish bacon with her breakfast, which reminds her of her brother. When food stops being simply “food”, it becomes more difficult to untangle emotional hunger from actual, physical hunger.

If your family was like mine, physical hunger and thirst become even more difficult to detect, since we had a strict schedule of three meals a day, with between-meal snacking forbidden, and a padlock on the fridge to make sure my sister and I didn’t sneak food in between meals. If I was hungry, I would have to wait until the next mealtime to eat. After a while, my body adapted to be hungry at the points when I knew mealtime was coming. It wasn’t true hunger, just the expectation of food coming.

Thirst is even more difficult to navigate, my mechanism for sensing thirst is less developed than the one for hunger, and I get the feeling this is a common problem, if my forays into “health” and “dieting” advice blogs and magazines is to be believed: Many of them espouse to drink 8-10 glasses of water a day, talk about how important it is to stay hydrated, and encourage drinking water whenever you feel hungry, since you might be mistaking hunger for thirst. The 8-10 glasses a day is ridiculous, it’s a misinterpretation of a scientific study which said you should try and get a decent amount of liquid in your daily consumption, not necessarily a glass of water. There’s water in many foods we eat, such as fruits and vegetables, and if you dislike the taste of plain water, you shouldn’t force yourself to drink it out of some misguided notion of health (As I learned the hard way once)

However, there is great value in learning how to distinguish hunger from thirst, and I have adapted the strategy of “drink before you eat” to see if it helps me develop my sense of thirst more acutely. It’s actually quite effective; what I usually do is I fill up a pitcher with ice cubes and water flavoured with either lemons, limes, strawberries, or another fruit I enjoy, and keep it in the fridge to access at my pleasure. But it isn’t enough to do this, that’s merely the beginning of my development and refinement of thirst and hunger. After I drink, I try to observe how my lips, tongue, mouth, throat, and stomach all respond. Do I feel less parched? More satisfied? Does the taste in my mouth change? Do I still crave food?

This process can take up to five minutes, maybe even more. But being mindful of what my body is feeling during, before, and after I drink is helping me develop awareness of thirst, recognize when I am thirsty, and when I am satisfied. It’s an ongoing process, but very rewarding, and very helpful as I look to reclaim my mind, body, and health from outside forces and discover what it is my body truly needs.