Programmed Hunger: Is it Really Hunger?

When you think about eating at school as a child, what do you think of? Most people would cite things like milk break, lunch lines, and bad food. The latter was and may still be inescapable, but the two-former suggest something I like to call ‘scheduled eating.’

Scheduled eating is something that has been on my mind recently. With two young children, I have found myself attempting to pre-empt hunger on a near daily basis in order to avoid the two girls shifting into hungry toddler mode. Their hunger is anticipated and an eating schedule has been established. As they get older and begin attending school regularly, this schedule will be continued with the aforementioned milk break, lunch break, and after school snack.

As they then finish school, they will likely obtain a job with a typically scheduled lunch break around midday. Thus, a pattern of programmed or scheduled eating has been set from toddler-hood, carrying forward into adult-hood.

Just as my toddlers may not be hungry at times when I essentially force them to eat, adults may not be hungry during the times that we are conditioned to eat either- before work, at our lunch break, and then after work. Rather than pay attention to hunger, we pay attention to the clock, and eat because we have to. This is not inherently a bad thing, unless one routinely eats when not hungry, but rather because one is ‘supposed’ to. Let’s face, we will eat when we are hungry too, so the pattern of also eating when not necessarily hungry may lead to overconsumption, weight gain, and potentially chronic disease.

I will confess- I am not prepared to break this cycle before it starts with my toddlers, as their behavior deteriorates RAPIDLY when they are truly hungry. Perhaps I am setting them up for a lifetime of overconsumption- let’s hope not. Although patterns are often set in childhood, they do not have to carry on into adulthood. After all, most of us do not still take naps or drink out of bottles as adults!

Through Precision Nutrition (PN) coaching, forming new habits that promote health are the focus of the coaching program. One of the many things that we work on is deciphering true hunger from programmed hunger- many adults have a problem with this. And to make matters worse, life situations, such as work schedules, may reinforce this pattern. One may HAVE to eat at noon, regardless of hunger, as it may be 5PM before he/she has a chance to eat again. Modern life is tough like that!

One the most effective exercises used by the PN coaching curriculum is the ‘Notice and Name’ activity. The idea behind this activity is to identify what is really behind the apparent feeling one is having at any given time. In the case of hunger- notice why you are experiencing hunger, and then name the reason.

One clear example I hear commonly is that people often eat when they are experiencing boredom. During a time like this, we wonder into the kitchen and snack on something- even though we are not really hungry. If you find yourself in this position, notice what you are doing, and then name it: ‘I am eating because I am bored.’ With this increased awareness of what is really driving food consumption, choose to do something other than eating that will NOT leave you feeling bored.

Overall, awareness is crucial when it comes to developing proper nutrition habits. Mindless eating, during times of boredom or stress, can lead to substantial excess caloric consumption, weight-gain, and potentially chronic disease. Sometimes the clock may force us to eat at certain times- but not always. If awareness is something you need too work on, PN coaching can provide the accountability needed to make a lasting change.

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