Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

“Hurt” Your Hunger

July 13, 2013

       Andrew Siegel, MD Blog #112

Hunger is one of our most basic and primal urges and a fundamental part of our hard-wired engineering in order to ensure adequate intake of calories, energy, and nutrition for the purpose of survival of the individual.  It is one of nature’s clever “bait and switch” mechanisms: we think we are satisfying an urge, but we are really fueling up to stoke our metabolic processes and provide fodder for cellular growth and maintenance.

Hunger is functionally based upon chemicals including hormones and neurotransmitters—for example, ghrehlin (appetite stimulating), and leptin (appetite inhibiting).  Additionally, our circadian biorhythm plays an important role as our brain’s body clock drives the cycle of hunger which is typically at its lowest at 8 AM in the morning and peaks at 8 PM at night.  This cycle can lead to a tendency to gain weight by not eating when you need it (breakfast) and eating when you don’t need to (evening after dinner).  Furthermore, emotional factors—particularly stress—can impact our “hunger” in a major way.  Our environment—which can expose us to the sight, sound, and smell of food, television commercials and other triggers—also has a significant influence on our hunger, causing us to suddenly desire food when moments before we had no appetite whatsoever.

It is important to make the distinction between physiological hunger and emotional hunger.  Physiological hunger is the instinctual drive to seek food versus emotional hunger, which is psychological and largely influenced by environmental exposure to food triggers as well as to our emotional state of mind.  If you haven’t eaten for hours and are famished and have a stomach that is producing a symphony of growling sounds, it is a pretty clear-cut case of physiological hunger. However, if you have just eaten dinner and are sitting on the couch relaxing in front of the television and become “hungry,” typically for a very specific food item, it usually bespeaks emotional hunger.

Interestingly, our physiological hunger drives us to consume a fixed weight of food every day, regardless of calories/nutrient content; therefore, low-caloric density foods—those that contain abundant water content—rule. For this reason, it is good to “preload” before a meal by eating low density foods such as salad, soup, a piece of fruit, cut-up raw veggies or drinking a glass of water to help curb caloric intake.

Fatigue eating is a very common phenomenon, which has a physiological basis.  This is why a good night’s sleep goes a very long way in helping to maintain a healthy weight. It is important to not succumb to the temptation to eat yourself awake—see my blog on FATigue eating:

The nutritional content of our meals is of fundamental importance in quelling our hunger. Specifically, eating protein as well as some healthy fats can go a long way in diminishing our hunger. A diet that is balanced in terms of carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats can keep one satisfied until the next meal.  So, try to have some protein for breakfast as well as for an afternoon snack— it does wonders in terms of maintaining high levels of our satiety hormones to keep hunger at bay.  Carbohydrates without protein or fat provide only a short-lived suppression of hunger.

Stress is a particularly toxic emotion in terms of driving “hunger.”   It is best to try to avoid “eating” stress away and instead trying to “exercise” it away.   Exercise has numerous positive effects, including the enhancement of the brain’s executive function to help inhibit temptations and impulses—see my blog on Exercise To Exorcise: Like fatigue, there is a clear-cut physiological basis for stress- induced eating.  Stress causes the release of a number of hormones and chemicals including cortisol, which can profoundly influence us to eat, often fatty, salty, and sugary foods—see my blog on The Mind-Body Connection and How It Relates To Our Eating Behaviors:

Bottom Line: Exercising “mindfulness” is a vitally important asset in the struggle to maintain a healthy weight. It is a good idea before putting any food item into one’s mouth to consider what you are eating, why you are eating, when you are eating and where you are eating.  If what is a bad what, why is for non-physiological reasons, when is late at night and where is in front of the TV or in the car while driving, it is worth considering an alternative activity to occupy and amuse yourself in lieu of eating. Am I saying it is bad to sit in front of the television and have a snack?  Not at all…but if you are really not hungry and just desire entertainment and diversion, it is best not to down a large bag of chips mindlessly. Consumption should be accompanied by conscientious choices.

Andrew Siegel, M.D.

Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food:

Available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle edition

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Dr. Siegel’s Interview on “Best In Health Radio”

May 18, 2013

Audio podcast of Shira Litwack of Toronto’s “Best In Health Radio) and Dr. Andrew Siegel’s illuminating discussion of “promiscuous eating” behaviors, delving into cravings; addictive foods; mindfulness; our relationship with what we eat; Freud; neuroplasticity; food stress; why we eat; processed foods; exercise; and setting a good example for children.

Seasonal Eating Patterns

November 22, 2012

Andrew Siegel, M.D.   Blog # 83


For many of us, myself included, fall and winter are the seasons for weight gain.  Fortunately, this is balanced by spring and summer, which are the seasons for getting back to “fighting” weight, good fitness, and healthier eating patterns.

It all seems to start around Halloween when the kids bring home bags full of tempting sweets, although the weather pattern over the last two years has effectively destroyed trick-or-treating in the Northeast USA.  Shortly thereafter, Thanksgiving arrives—the holiday of feasting—and then we have the December holidays upon us, with abundant opportunities for parties, festivities, celebrations and over-indulging.   In addition to its nutritional role, food seems to serve a major medicinal role as a soothing antidote to the cooler weather, the shorter days, and the winter doldrums.

The French word for winter is hiver, which has the same etymological origin as hibernation.  And truly, many of us go into hibernation mode in the winter—perhaps a vestigial biological imperative to eat more to store up energy for the leaner months ahead.  This is likely on a biochemical basis having to do with our chemical response to decreasing amounts of daylight.

One thing is indisputable—cold and dark seem to foster a foraging behavior for many of us. Unhealthier, “heavier” comfort foods, including stews, macaroni and cheese, creamy soups and starches seem to be the remedy for cold weather and darkness.  During the winter months we tend to be more housebound, with ample opportunities for “boredom” eating and less distractions from eating that are possible in the warmer times of the year.  Seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.)—an affliction that many of us endure due to the very short winter days—is characterized by variable degrees of melancholy, which can certainly beg for relief by means of comfort foods.

Obviously, there is less opportunity for outdoor exercise and outdoor activities during winter.  There is also less availability of healthier fresh fruit and vegetables that are more readily available in summer.  There is less opportunity for grilling, a healthier form of cooking than many alternatives.  Finally, many seem to care less about their physical appearance during winter when they are less likely to need to get into shorts or a bathing suit, so are less attentive to their more disciplined eating and exercise patterns that are typical of spring and summer.

The solution to the problem of seasonal weight gain is to be mindful of the process by which winter promotes weight gain and to exercise moderation with respect to eating behavior. Increased physical activity and staying busy and productive are useful strategies.  Joining a gym, attending yoga class, playing in an indoor tennis league, taking adult education classes, etc., are all terrific ways of staying active, engaged and out of the kitchen.  And if you do gain a few pounds, spring and summer provide ample opportunities for shedding them.

Have a magnificent Thanksgiving feast, and a wonderful holiday! We are grateful and truly fortunate for the bounty of food and companionship that makes this day so special.

Andrew Siegel, M.D.

Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food:

Available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle edition

You Tube channel:

Blog subscription: A new blog is posted every Saturday morning.   On the lower right margin you can enter your email address to subscribe to the blog and receive notifications of new posts by email. Please avail yourself of these educational materials and share them with your friends and family.

Sleep To Slim

July 20, 2012

Andrew Siegel, M.D.      Blog # 67


On many levels, sleep has a vitally important role. Our brains and bodies require this critically essential down time to “recharge.” Our sleep cycle includes restorative deep sleep phases and rapid-eye-movement sleep phases.  Our bodies need sufficient time to complete all phases of sleep to maintain our well being and to promote tissue repair, memory reinforcement and the release of hormones that function in regulating growth and appetite.

Who does not relish the blissful experience of a great night’s sleep, in which we awaken feeling alert, rested, energetic, optimistic and ready to tackle life with vigor? Throw in some great dreams and we have the recipe for the beginning of a wonderful day. Conversely, we have all experienced a very poor night’s sleep, in which we awaken feeling physically exhausted, mentally spent, lids heavy, dark circles under our eyes and in a disassociated state, totally unprepared and unenthusiastic about facing the new day.

Many of us do not realize the profound association between sleeping and eating.  The bottom line is that an adequate amount of quality sleep helps keep us on the healthy eating wagon, while insomnia and chronic sleep deprivation can throw us off it.  Fatigue eating is a very real phenomenon and is one of the circumstances that drive my own bouts of mindless, unnecessary eating.  Many of us, when physically and mentally exhausted, in a “zombie”-type state, often seek refuge in the refrigerator or pantry in spite of not being genuinely hungry. It seems that this FATigue—an altered state of mind and body—would best be served by seeking refuge napping in our beds, but mindless food foraging all too often serves as a surrogate activity.

In addition to the dis-inhibition of “eating discipline” that occurs with fatigue (similar to that which occurs with alcohol), there appears to be a physiological basis for this fatigue-driven eating. Fatigue or sleep deprivation causes the following:

  • decreased levels of leptin, our appetite suppressant
  • increased levels of ghrelin, our appetite stimulant
  • increased levels of cortisol, one of the stress hormones
  • increased  glucose (blood sugar)levels

Thus, fatigue results in internal chemical changes that can drive our eating.

Acute sleep disruption is associated with increased appetite and caloric intake and chronic sleep deficits result in an inability to be attentive and focused, interfering with our mindfulness, which can wreak further havoc with our eating.  The disassociated “zombie” state lends itself to dysfunctional eating patterns and, as such, weight gain is a predictable consequence. Additionally, a chronically fatigued state will also affect our ability to exercise properly, if at all.

The following are pointers to help achieve a good night’s sleep:

  • A quality mattress and box spring, topped by a cushioned mattress pad, are wonderful investments since we spend up to one-third of our lives sleeping; amortized over many years, they really prove quite a bargain.
  • Same goes for pillows—some like them firm, some fluffy, so you must find what works best for you.
  • Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule in terms of time going to sleep and time arising, making an effort not to disrupt the pattern too much on weekends.
  • Caffeine restriction after a certain hour, depending on the individual—this means coffee, tea, colas, and chocolate (which contains a caffeine-like chemical).
  • Limit daytime naps.
  • Don’t overdo it with alcohol during dinner and the evening hours; even though alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant (which one might think would aid in sleep), in reality, it interferes with our natural sleep rhythms.
  • Easy on late-night eating—going to bed bloated with churning intestines is counter-productive in the effort of getting quality sleep.
  • Don’t overdo it with fluid consumption in the evening that can cause sleep-disruptive nocturnal urinating.
  • Exercise early since evening exercise tends to stimulate our brains and bodies and cause insomnia.
  • Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature—generally, a cool room promotes quality sleep.
  • Keep the room as dark as possible—black out shades are terrific.
  • Try to keep the ambient noise to a minimum so the sleeping environment is quiet.
  • For some, white noise can be very helpful—I go to sleep to the sound of machine-generated surf; not quite as good as when I lived in Manhattan Beach, California right on the ocean, but helpful nonetheless.
  • Have a pre-sleep relaxation and tension-reducing ritual such as reading, a hot bath, meditation, romance, etc.

Take home points:

— The fatigue resulting from insufficient sleep interferes with our mindfulness and can result in unnecessary eating as a surrogate activity for sleeping.

— There is a biochemical basis for this sleep-deprivation eating.

— When we find ourselves succumbing to fatigue eating, it is best to try to muster up the wherewithal to head to the bedroom instead of the refrigerator—we will feel much better about ourselves in the morning and will have saved ourselves needless calories!

— On a general basis, it is best not to use eating as a substitute for other activities.

—  Try to consistently get enough sleep in order to avoid FATigue and its many pitfalls!

Andrew L. Siegel, M.D.

Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food

Available on Amazon Kindle

My “Freshman Fifteen”

August 20, 2011

‘Tis the season for the start of the academic year so I thought it would be worthwhile doing a short blog on the weight gain that many college freshman experience…also known as “The Freshman Fifteen.”

Many moons ago, as a freshman at Middlebury College, I developed a very bad habit of consuming two glazed doughnuts every evening at around 10PM!  An enterprising fellow student made the doughnut rounds in the dormitory and I found them to be an irresistible and soothing tonic to the stress and anxiety brought upon by the first semester in college and a demanding premedical curriculum. My nocturnal habit of regularly downing these gooey, sticky, sugary treats contributed towards my gaining 20 lbs or so by winter break.

The following is a breakdown of the behavioral chain of events in psychological terms: The prompt to eat was stress, the impulse to eat led to the act of the doughnut consumption and the compensation was the stress relief derived. Fortunately, I was ultimately able to give up this seemingly innocent but pernicious behavioral pattern that was not doing me nor my waistline any good at all. I came up with the following thought process: doughnuts have more than 500 calories; they make me feel disgusting; my weight gain, which I find abhorrent, is in a large part on the basis of these late-at-night unnecessary calories; my tight pants repulse me; I went jogging in Florida with my brother over winter break and could not keep up with him because I was so out of shape. This is opposed to the following lines of thought that goaded me to consumption: doughnuts taste great and are something to look forward to after the tedium of studying for hours on end; they soothe, calm and sedate me; I owe myself this reward because of my hard work; I do not wish to deprive myself.

Mindfulness is a useful tool when applied to figuring out what drives internal prompts and how to deal with them in an appropriate and healthy manner.  So, the concept of mindfulness disrupted what had become an ingrained pattern of behavior. Essentially, in psycho-speak, mindfulness functioned to de-condition the link between the compensation and the prompt, to disrupt the cycle.  Both the internal prompt of stress/anxiety and the external prompt of seeing the tray of doughnuts being paraded around the dormitory helped drive my behavioral pattern.  The stress and anxiety from the change of life of moving away from home and starting college, as well as the intensity of studying, etc., drove the desire for “compensation.” As we all have to adapt in response to changes in our environment, so would I adjust to this new life, and I would need to learn to deal with my emotions in a healthier and more appropriate fashion. I substituted swimming for the doughnut habit, a much more suitable activity! Once again, it came down to the mindfulness of swapping an alternative behavior—exercise—equally effective as a doughnut or two in terms of dealing with stress and anxiety, believe it or not. An additional effective tool is that in knowing how we may succumb to our weaknesses, we can limit our exposure to such external prompts, which in my case was by purposely avoiding the doughnut vendor.

Whether the prompt is “managed” by comfort foods or exercise, the same “cocktail” of internal chemicals, including endorphins, is released into our bloodstreams, resulting in compensatory relief of the altered emotional state. We are all stressed to some extent, and one thing for sure is that stress is unlikely to disappear any time soon.  If it is not one source of stress, it will be another. So when the root cause is not necessarily remediable, the next best bet is to deal with it in a healthy way—healthy in terms of psychological, emotional and physical health. So why not seek relief with the more appropriate and healthy means? I could also have had the mindfulness to trade the doughnut consumption for a healthy replacement food item such as an apple.

I realized that by giving in to my impulses, I merely received the benefits of a short-term and temporary reward that did not truly address the problem at hand. In psychological terms, this enabled and facilitated a vicious cycle and a dysfunctional habit and thus the creation of a secondary problem . . . .now I faced stress over school as well as new stress over my unseemly weight gain. By actively not indulging my impulses, I managed to weaken the behavioral pattern that had been established, helping to break the cycle. I did lose those 20 lbs., but by no means was that an easy feat.

Andrew Siegel