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The Secret to Consistently and Sustainably Eating Well

Learn about how awareness of hunger and satiety cues is the real key to making lasting changes to your eating habits.

The Real Key to Changing Your Habits: Body Awareness

Think about how you move through your life, from your earliest memory, through every positive and negative experience of your years on this planet, to where you are right now. This might sound silly, but none of that would have been possible without your body. Living without a body isn’t an option — and being intentional with your physical self is key to healthier and happier living. When you’re sick, your body lets you know. When you’re feeling good, you want to get up and move, right? When you’re cold, you reach for a blanket or a sweater, and when you’re in pain, you look for ways to soothe. Body awareness isn’t about counting calories, constant exercise, or other deprivations, but it is about being healthy and feeling better in your own skin.

What Is Body Awareness and Why Does It Matter?

The definition of body awareness is fairly straightforward: it’s how conscious of and attuned to your body you are. This includes proprioception — your perception of your body’s position and movement — and your sense of balance and stability. You know what’s also involved? Recognizing your body’s cues, like hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Being in touch with your body has many benefits, including better balance, reduced anxiety and depression, improved pain management, greater self-acceptance, and even better weight management — because when you’re more attuned to your body and its needs, you’re less likely to eat when you’re not hungry.

 "A 2018 study in Health Psychology demonstrated that with lower body awareness comes less mindful eating and eating when you’re not hungry — habits that might increase risk of obesity."

"People who don't struggle with food or weight use their natural signals of hunger and fullness to guide their eating,” says Michelle May, MD, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. “They don't need to think about food all the time because they trust their bodies to let them know when and how much to eat." A 2018 study in Health Psychology demonstrated that with lower body awareness comes less mindful eating and eating when you’re not hungry — habits that might increase risk of obesity. Being in tune with your body means you’re better able to register when you’re full, when your stomach expands and tells your brain that you’ve had enough. Body awareness means being able to recognize that you’re tired and need a nap, instead of mistaking fatigue for hunger. It means paying attending to your feelings and getting enough sleep

It also means getting up and moving in anticipation of that afternoon slump, or even before you start feeling achy or stiff, because you’re listening to your muscles. You remember how good it feels to engage with your body when you let your instincts be your guide. Basically, when you learn to trust what your body is telling you, you’re better equipped to meet your own needs from moment to moment, which makes for a better and healthier experience all around.

Why We Don’t Trust Our Bodies

Does this sound like you? You don’t even know when you’re hungry or when your stomach is full. You have no idea how to trust your body, or even feel reluctant to do so — because you’re afraid that if you listened to your hunger, it would be “too big” or uncontrollable. My clients tell me they feel completely out of touch with their bodies, and it’s no wonder: dieting breaks that natural trust we have with our bodies. Restrictive dieting puts us into an uncomfortable and sometimes destructive tug-of-war, because we’re denying our hunger and pushing ourselves into strenuous fitness routines when we’re tired or need nurturing instead.

There are lots of reasons we might lose trust in our bodies. Past trauma can leave you feeling unsafe in your own skin. Conflicting and damaging messages from media can make us feel like our bodies aren’t good enough or are something we need to remake and control. When you count calories, you’re training yourself to ignore your hunger and satiety cues, which is not a great recipe for health and well-being. It’s easy to mistake emotions for hunger when you’re out of touch with your body. You might even fear hunger if you associate feeling hungry with putting on weight.What would it be like if you learned how to depend on your body again — and for your body to trust and depend on you? Imagine stepping back into the body awareness and trust we’re born with, and what it could feel like to reclaim that confidence, empowerment, security, and vitality.

How to Get in Touch with Our Bodies when Eating

The good news is that you can absolutely cultivate body awareness and rebuild those connections. You can restore trust by simply slowing down and listening. Recognize that your body isn’t your enemy but is instead your partner on your life’s journey. Show up for your body the same way you would for a cherished friend. Feed your body when it’s hungry instead of denying yourself nourishment, and start to re-learn your own hunger and satiety cues. 

"You can restore trust by simply slowing down and listening. Recognize that your body isn’t your enemy but is instead your partner on your life’s journey."

Physical exercise is a great way to improve body awareness, especially when you’re moving with intention. Balancing exercises turn your attention to awareness of your body in space, and yoga links movement with breath to increase present awareness. You might try the easy, deliberate flow of tai chi as a moving meditation. And remember the games we played as kids? “Simon says” lets you reconnect with your physical self because you’re paying active attention when Simon says to touch your left knee. And don’t forget about about Twister, jumping rope, and hula hoops. No one said reconnecting with your body couldn’t be fun!

You can also deepen your body awareness through mindful eating. Mindful eating means shutting off distractions and paying attention — to your hunger and satiety cues; to the smell, taste, sound, and texture of your food; and to your thoughts and feelings as you eat. While mindful eating can result in weight loss, other benefits include healthier eating habits, reduced stress, and — you guessed it — stronger body awareness.

When you’re paying closer attention as you eat, you’ll start to notice more subtle cues, thoughts, feelings, and triggers that you might have missed before. You’ll develop a better understanding of how different foods impact your energy levels as well as any patterns of emotional eating. You might discover that healthy eating is rich in flavor and options, instead of “boring” or limited. You can learn what your body truly craves, and what makes you feel good. For instance, you might find you don’t really like those doughnuts you reached for out of habit, and instead find pleasure and satisfaction in spinach and quinoa.

When you take a mindful approach to eating, including pausing to breathe and reflect before each meal, you can learn to trust your body again and no longer fear hunger. You might even learn more about what type of hunger — eye, ear, mouth, nose, stomach, mind, emotional, or cellular — you’re experiencing. Being mindful about each bite and pausing during your meal grounds you in the moment and brings you back to your body. Are you still hungry? Have you had enough? When you understand your hunger, you can learn to feed your body what it truly needs.

You can adopt a 1-10 hunger scale to learn more about your cues and to prevent overeating. Are you feeling dizzy with hunger (level 1)? Are you so full you might be sick (level 10)? Or maybe you’re somewhere in between? Mindful eating is not about denying yourself — like cutting out desserts or restricting favorite foods. Instead, it’s about allowing your body to lead the way. “The best way to get in touch with your hunger cues is to first be sure you're giving your body consistent, adequate energy throughout the day,” says registered dietician, nutritionist, and food freedom expert Colleen Chistensen. “When we ignore our hunger or restrict food, we lose the ability to hear and feel our hunger cues. It's normal to feel out of touch at first and only notice feeling overly hungry or overly full. As you practice listening, you start to notice the more subtle cues that allow you to stop when you're comfortably full and get a nudge to eat before you're hangry!”

Cultivating body awareness may feel like a balancing act, but it doesn’t have to be awkward. We could all use some better body awareness to help us feel safe and grounded as we move through our lives. In a world that’s filled with negative body messaging — and even derision when our bodies don’t conform to shifting beauty standards — it’s okay to be kind to your body. Remember to be patient with all parts of yourself. Disconnecting from your body isn’t something that happened overnight, and it takes time to reconnect and cultivate this renewed, deeper trust. The rewards — including improved confidence and self-assurance — are worth it.

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sera Lavelle, is the cofounder of Bea Better Eating and owner of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy in NYC. To learn more about Bea Better Eating and our mission, please click here.

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