Who’s hungry in there? You just had a delicious lunch and you’re feeling full and happy, but then you smell your kid’s french fries that they’re still working on, so you snatch a few and start munching. That’s nose hunger. Or maybe you’re trying to save your appetite for the dinner party at your friend’s house, but the charcuterie board appetizer is so lovely, you can’t resist sampling it. That’s eye hunger. Or how about the hunger that comes along when you’ve finished a bowl of that new Thai curry soup you just figured out how to make, and you’re completely full, but your tongue wants more of that delicious taste, so you eat until you’re absolutely uncomfortable. That’s tongue hunger, my personal nemesis.
In her book, Mindful Eating, Jan Chozen Bays discusses all the different ways we experience hunger and how we can become more mindful about why we eat. I read this book about ten years ago, and I decided to revisit the book this summer because I was feeling a little overtaken with a sugar tooth, and I had been noticing that I was starting to compare my body to younger bodies more often.
I wanted to feel physically fit and healthy for my age. I wanted to work on my relationship with food and get more joy and satisfaction out of eating, and I wanted to embrace a way of eating that was anchored in wisdom. Most importantly, I wanted to model a healthy eating mindset for my kids, and push back against the relentless diet culture that distorts our relationship with food.
Jan Chozen Bays is a Zen master and founded the Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple in my home town of Portland Oregon. She was a practicing pediatrician when she wrote this book, yet she found that the best solution to conquering overeating habits wasn’t through the western medicine routes of diet pills, meal plans, or gastric bypass surgery. The solution was simply to pay attention when you eat.
Mindful Eating describes the seven different ways we experience hunger, and how we can satisfy these hungers, sometimes without eating. Satisfaction is the key term here. The overarching insight of this book is to make eating as gratifying as possible, so we can feel content and not always in a state of grazing and endless snacking because we’re never satisfied. When we mindfully sit down to a meal and acknowledge all the types of hunger we are feeling, we can bring more joy and contentment to our eating experiences.
7 Types of Hunger
Eye hunger is the hunger for beauty. An example of this hunger is when you are handed a dessert menu at a restaurant filled with photographs of beautiful and delicious looking desserts. Your stomach is screaming, “no more!” but the eyes are saying, “yes please.” Eye hunger shows up during a commercial for food, while scrolling through a friend’s pics of the pie they just made, when perusing a cookbook. In fact if eye hunger doesn’t show up while I’m looking at pictures in a cookbook, I don’t buy that book!
Feed Eye Hunger
The way to satisfy eye hunger is to feast on beautiful things. Bays encourages us to prepare a “mindful meal” once a week for ourselves, pretending that we are serving a guest. We can present our food in a beautiful way and even set out our best china and light a candle. She says that our eyes truly hunger for beauty because we often are looking at everything half distracted.
This habit, of not really looking, of skimming our eyes over the surfaces of things, leaves us hungry and lonely in a fundamental way. When we stop and look with awareness, we connect. A brief connection like this can lift our mood, feeding our hearts for hours.Jan Chozen bays
So next time we sit down to eat let’s take a moment to really take in the colors, shapes and textures of our food. Let’s arrange our meal beautifully. Let’s acknowledge this need to feed our eyes beautiful things, and the next time a commercial entices us with its delicious food images, making us think we’re hungry, we’ll check in with our stomach hunger, and if we’re full, we’ll consciously find another beautiful image to feast on. We will look for beauty in nature, in the faces of our loved ones, in fine art, gardens or home décor. We’ll honor our need for beauty and fill up on something lovely.
Pinterest is a great app for making digital collages of beautiful images. You could even title your Pinterest board “eye hunger” and go to it anytime that you’re needing a beauty snack.
Nose hunger is aroused by delicious smells. Think of walking by a pizza shop or bakery. Whenever I smell that damn Cinnabon, my nose hunger is on high alert. This is the hunger for fragrance, and it’s connected to how we taste food. The nose says, “I could eat that” even if our stomachs are saying “no thanks.” Our sense of smell is primal. It’s how we determined what food was safe to eat and who were members of our family. Smells can evoke memories of past experiences or specific people in our lives. It’s important to be aware of our nose hunger, the hunger for comfort foods and cozy family smells. One of my favorite smells is the scent of the pages in an old book.
Feed Nose Hunger
Jan Chozen Bays explains the importance of taking the time to smell the different spices and scents in our food and notice how our sense of smell enhances the taste of our food. She offers a playful meditation that she created after being told by her Zen teacher that we light incense for our deceased ancestors because they are nourished by fragrance. Imagine that we have entered the realm of spirit, where we no longer have bodies that need food, yet we are nourished by fragrances.
“‘Feed’ yourself by putting something with a pleasant scent in a small bowl or cup, like a teaspoon of vanilla, or almond flavoring, or a bit of spice like nutmeg or cinnamon. Inhale the fragrance, imagining as vividly as you can that it is nourishing you.”
I’ve been splurging more on candles and essential oil room misters because beautiful smelling rooms are extra cozy. And when it’s cold out, I sometimes make myself a fragrant cup of tea and sniff it luxuriously to satisfy my nose hunger.
Mouth hunger is the desire for pleasurable sensations through stimulating tastes and textures. When I think of satisfying mouth hunger, I think of the sensation of eating crunchy potato chips, creamy chocolate, warm apple pie, and spicy Thai noodles. My mouth loves to be constantly doing something, and it is often disappointed when my stomach becomes full before it is ready to stop experiencing the taste and texture of whatever I’m eating.
Feed Mouth Hunger
The only way to satisfy mouth hunger is to be totally present while eating. Whenever I eat while doing something else, I feel unsatisfied with my eating experience, and want to keep eating more to try and reach a place of contentment, which never comes because I’m not present. Bays explains that:
The mouth is easily bored. It has difficulty staying present with sensations as we continue to chew, as the intensity of the flavor begins to fade, and the texture turns to mushy. When the mouth is bored, it asks for another bite. If we keep shoveling in bit after bite, and ignore the signals of ‘full’ coming from the stomach, we will take in more food that our body needs.Jan Chozen bays
Let’s try to satisfy mouth hunger by slowing down and chewing every bite thoughtfully and thoroughly. When mouth hunger asks for another bite, let’s try to postpone that next mouthful and be present with the sensations in our mouth in this moment for a little longer. Let’s notice all of the layers of flavor and texture and truly begin to savor each bite as opposed to scarfing a meal in front of the TV, barely tasting anything.
I’ve noticed that certain emotions are more conducive for a satisfying eating experience. I have three kids, and when arguments arise at the dinner table and irritating bad manners take place, I find it hard to mindful of my eating and to savor my food. I’ll try to pause my eating and wait for the negative emotions to flow past or I’ll excuse my kids early and finish my meal in peace.
Stomach hunger is the stomach signaling that it’s hungry. The feeling of hunger can be a growling stomach, a gnawing sensation or a sense of emptiness in the stomach. Jan warns us that we have conditioned ourselves to “feel hungry” at certain times of the day, and that it important to pay attention to our bodies and evaluate that stomach growl that reminds us that it’s noon, lunchtime, but maybe we’re not really that hungry yet, and we might decide we would be hungrier for lunch at one-o-clock today instead. Another thing to look out for is stomach pains related to nerves or anxiety. In this case, we may eat because our stomachs are acting up, and food can be soothing, but this is emotional eating, and anxiety may be better remedied by a walk or hot bath if we aren’t truly hungry.
Feed Stomach Hunger
Bays gives us these following prompts to get to the bottom of what it feels like to be hungry:
- Be aware of any sounds, internal feelings of pressure or movement, warmth or coolness, and so forth, that are signaling hunger.
- When you are eating, what sensations tell you the stomach is empty? Pleasantly full? Overfull?
- Are there any other sensations besides hunger that make the stomach feel pangs or discomfort? What do you think is going on at those times?
- When does the stomach signal hunger? Is it at predictable times? When during the day does it signal most strongly: before breakfast, at noon, afternoon, before dinner, or at bedtime?
I’ve been playing a game with my kids, having them rate how hungry they are or how full they are. Zero equals stuffed, ten equals starving and five is neutral. I think it is helping them to know their bodies better, and it helps me gauge when the next meal should be. My daughter often wants to eat right at meal times, so I’ve been asking her to rate her hunger and decide if she would rather eat now or a little later based on her stomach hunger. It’s also been good to discuss feeling overfull ve pleasantly full. I let my kids know that my mouth wants to keep going, but my stomach feels full. And even if I decide to eat a few more bites, I like being aware of the fact that I’m choosing to go beyond comfortable fullness because the chocolate mousse is amazing, I didn’t just unconsciously stuff myself.
Here’s my hunger scale (I’m a six right now):
0-Going to explode; 1-Totally stuffed; 2 Uncomfortably full; 3 Pleasantly full; 4 Getting full; 5 Not hungry or full; 6 I could eat; 7 Worked up a pleasant appetite; 8 Getting hangry; 9 Could eat a horse; 10 At death’s door
Cellular hunger is the instinctive awareness of what nutrients our body needs. The best way to understand cellular hunger is to think about what you’re craving. Sometimes it’s hard to discern why we’re craving Oreos. Do our cells need some fat or some carbs? Sometimes a craving for an orange could really be a craving for water. Our body needs essential elements that “ include water, salt, protein, fat, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins and trace elements such as iron and zinc.” We even have ancient cellular scripts telling us to load up on calories in the fall to store up fat for winter time.
Feed Cellular Hunger
Bays believes, “Through mindfulness we can become more sensitive to cellular hunger and learn to separate what the body actually needs from what our mind is demanding. If we stop and listen carefully and often enough, eventually we might be able to do what some animals do, taste a food and “know” it’s what we need. We would eat a banana when our cells asked for more potassium; carrots when we needed beta carotene; eggs or meat when we needed protein or iron…”
Next time we are getting ready to eat, let’s stop and ask our body what it needs right now. When we begin to eat, let’s try to discern if the food is truly hitting the deep cellular spot, or if it’s mouth hunger tricking us again.
Sometimes I try to think of what’s in season, and try to eat more aligned with nature. So more fruits and salads in the summer and more carbs and fat in the winter. I have noticed that although my cells almost always want leafy greens my kids’ cells never seem to want leafy greens. Not a great tip, but weird huh?
Mind hunger is every diet and wellness plan you’ve ever heard. The mind says, “No carbs! “No Sugar!” “Eat more kale!” “I need chocolate!” The mind is always telling me what I should and shouldn’t be eating. These thoughts are usually based on the current diet trends of the day. These days it’s keto and gluten free. Coming from a medical background, Bays describes the “scores of dieting fads come and go during my medical career. What was good to eat one year becomes evil a decade later.”
Feed Mind Hunger
The mind likes to be fed with information. My mind is always hungry for a new news article, or book, or blog post, or podcast, or google search or social media update. In the instance of mind hunger, Bays tells us that nothing satisfies the mind. It will always be hungry and this is the age-old wisdom of meditation itself. Bays reminds us that “the mind is truly content only when it becomes quiet. When the many and contradictory voices around eating are still, when the awareness function is dominant over the thinking function, then we can be fully present as we eat. When we are filled with awareness, we become filled with satisfaction.”
Maybe if we stop thinking so much about what foods are “good” and what foods are “bad” and we just do our best to be present and truly enjoy what we’re eating, we’ll know when it’s the right time to stop eating, and we’ll have no guilty thoughts and no inner critic tainting the joy of eating.
I experienced heart hunger while visiting the coast this past weekend. I went to a restaurant with my grandparents and ordered a large cobb salad and a cinnamon roll for dessert. I realized that when we were kids, my sister and I used to order the big chef salad and a cinnamon roll every time we went to the Whale Cove Restaurant with my grandmother. Sure I might have eaten a little more than I needed to, but, as Bays explains, “Hunger for these foods arose from the desire to be loved and cared for. The memory of those special times infused these foods with warmth and happiness.” I needed to feed my heart with those comfort foods to soothe the hurt I was feeling from the relentless Coronavirus and the scary Oregon forest fires, to the weird online schooling and the isolation from friends.
Feed Heart Hunger
The heart is fed by intimacy. We often try to soothe ourselves with food when we are feeling sad or lonely. Bays advises us to figure out what our comfort foods are and then to mindfully enjoy those foods when we are needing to feed our heart. She also recommends finding another way to nourish our heart when we aren’t hungry but needing comfort. I call family or friends when I’m feeling lonely, and I take walks when I’m sad. Stand up comedy is my go-to when I need cheering up.
Bays reminds us that our hearts are fed every time we eat when we really think about it:
When we eat and look deeply into our food, we are in the company of many beings…the food on our plate is the product of the sun, the earth, the rain, the insects who pollinate the plants, and many people, including farmers, truck drivers and grocers. This energy, which is the product of many beings, courses through our body, propelled by every beat of our heart. It travels to the farthest cells, to our toenails and to the tips of our hair. These beings literally become us…”Jan Chozen Bays
Streaming Zumba these days is really feeding my heart. I cannot tell you how stumbling through some dance moves to upbeat music can make me smile and release those endorphins. Even if I only dance for ten minutes, it always improves my mood.
That’s it for the seven types of hunger. Bays encourages us to be constantly curious about our eating habits, and she recommends stopping during a meal and rating each of the seven hungers for levels of satisfaction. When we mindfully savor our food, we need less and feel more content.
It is important to acknowledge that mindful eating is a privilege. Some people deal with poverty and food scarcity where the luxury of mindfully choosing what foods their cells are craving isn’t an option. Bays describes a heart-wrenching moment when her adopted daughter, who had come from extreme food scarcity, would stuff herself at every meal till her stomach swelled because she had learned that her next meal may not arrive for a very long time.
Today, some of us working two or three jobs, may not have the time to savor every bite and constantly rate our seven hungers. But even if this is the case for some of us right now, we can still savor our morning cup of coffee by intentionally smelling the aroma, and noticing the warmth and flavors of the coffee beans, even if only for a moment. We all have the right to experience eating in a more mindful and joyful way. I thank Jan Chozen Bays for her beautiful book and wise insights.
Stay tuned for another blog post centered on Mindful Eating Tips.
Check out Jan’s book, where you can find a lot more information, interesting stories and a handful of mindful meditations to practice!
Support my local bookstore and buy here: Powell’s Books
or buy at Amazon
Visit Jan Chozen Bays’ Zen Community for more mindfulness inspiration.
Featured Image by Margot Pandone