Learning to Listen to Your Body 

“What does it mean to listen to your body?”

“Listening” can mean hearing sounds like a growling stomach, but what it really means is overall surveillance of our symptoms, feelings, patterns, and reactions that we notice.  In your everyday lives, it’s easy to get busy and disregard your body’s needs. But if you stop to focus on it, you may find that these messages are easier to detect and react appropriately.

I heard the term “listen to your body” many times growing up, but I didn’t fully understand or appreciate it until I went to nursing school.  I learned so much about all the systems and organs functioning together, and this led to an appreciation of the messages our bodies send.  Medical professionals receive a lot of training to learn what these messages mean and how to respond. You should know yourself better than anyone else, so getting to know your body is important wisdom to possess.  We should be aware of various symptoms, patterns of behavior and overall mindsets that we may not realize are biological and natural.

“What does obesity tell us about the human body?”

I am always puzzled when patients tell me they “hate their body,” mostly because of excess fat.  Your body is a sophisticated biological machine designed to adapt to whatever is thrown at it.  So, if you eat more food than your body needs at one time, your body responds by processing the food and storing that energy for later in the form of fat cells. So, even when your behavior isn’t appropriate, your body will respond with an adaptive action in an effort to maintain balance. This state of balance in medicine is called “homeostasis.” If you can learn to adjust your habits and behaviors in response to what the body tells us, then we wouldn’t really have the need for restrictive diets or counting calories.

Diet culture makes incorrect assumptions about weight loss that are just not true.  Many weight loss programs focus on calorie intake, calorie restrictions and ignoring certain signals from our bodies and resultant behaviors.  If your body continues to tell you that you’re starving and you continue to ignore it, the body will respond by slowing down overall metabolism. This process is a function of homeostasis called “metabolic adaptation,” and it’s the primary reason that restrictive plans only work in the short term. In listening to our bodies, there are some things we need to un-learn to improve our listening ability and adjust our responses accordingly.  The ability to listen to and respond to the body appropriately can take some time and focus, so have some patience with yourself while you learn the process.

Beginning a weight loss journey can be very daunting, and you may not even know where to start.  What about starting by tuning in to messages your body is sending you? When you are hungry, your body sends certain cues like a growling tummy or a dip in energy.  Ideally, you would respond by going for some food, and the hunger is satisfied. That sounds pretty simple, and it should be. However, diet culture teaches that you should restrict yourself from your favorite foods, even when you are hungry! Sometimes entire food GROUPS are restricted, such as ketogenic diets that tout a no-carb existence. If you fail to follow the restriction, the diet plans blame YOU for failure and NOT the plan.  So, that leads to more self-criticism, more restriction, more diet failure, and more weight regain. Once you suffer from your weight regain for long enough, you go out looking for the next restrictive plan. And the next, and the next.

“So, if unrealistic diet culture isn’t the answer, what IS the answer?”

 The primary reason that commercial weight loss plans don’t tend to work is the one-size-fits-all concept.  They advertise using testimonials from some successful customers (sometimes even famous ones!) with the promise that IT WILL WORK for you, too!

How could they promise this without even knowing you? Do they know what you like to eat? Do they know what you’ve tried before? Nobody knows this but you! So, if you go into the journey thinking that the plan has all the answers, then what choice would you have than to blame yourself when that “perfect” plan falters?  This self-defeating experience will most certainly affect your ability to be consistent with future efforts.  

You should be telling yourself that you need a plan that works for YOU, because it was created FOR YOU and WITH YOU, and you should only be comparing you to yourself!

“What happens when we DON’T listen to our bodies?”

You’ve probably been in a situation at work or home that required so much focus and energy that even though you felt symptoms of hunger, you dismissed it while you focused on and finished your work.  By the time you finish your project, which took longer than necessary because the hunger was distracting, you have a headache, and your body feels exhausted. You head to the kitchen with only one thing in mind: FOOD! And by this time, you simply CAN’T ignore the hunger signal, because you now have physical symptoms of headache and fatigue.  Since you didn’t have a meal planned, you open the fridge and grab the first 4 or 5 things you see and devour them without even really tasting them. You’re still hungry, so you get online and order a pizza. While you wait for the pizza, you snack on an entire bag of tortilla chips.  By the time you’ve finished your pizza and the night is over, you feel like a complete disaster.  You go to bed stuffed and disappointed in yourself.

If you were to go back and honor the initial hunger, then the rest of the day would have gone differently.  If you had stopped to have a quick, nutritious snack, then your focus would be better, and you could make a mindful lunch choice once you got to a stopping point on your project.  Your energy, mood and hunger would be so much better for the rest of the day.

“So, why do we keep doing this to ourselves?”

We continue to make the same mistakes mostly because we’ve been conditioned to believe that restriction equals weight loss. So, if you skip a meal, then it will be a good thing, right? You’ll be eating less, so it SHOULD result in weight loss. That’s another myth that diet culture teaches us, that if you’re not losing weight, then it must be because you’re eating too much. In immediate response to a severe energy restriction, the body will burn some of its fat stores to meet energy demands. However, if the energy restriction is too severe and too prolonged, the body will respond again by reducing it’s burning (or metabolic) rate so that it can meet long term energy demands that are not being met by food. In order words, when we are listening to the body’s messages, we should make sure we hear the WHOLE thing! If we respond to only the initial message of quick weight loss then we miss out on the message that it’s only temporary.  If you want LONG-TERM weight loss, you have to find a LONG-TERM solution. Nobody ever REALLY wants short-term weight loss. I’ve never met a patient who told me they were so happy when they re-claimed their previously lost weight!

“How can I learn to listen to my body?”

Start with a food and activity journal. This can be a written journal or a smart phone app like My Fitness Pal.  When you are recording your nutrition, make sure you’re noting how you feel that day or any occasions or events that occur.  This will help relate your food behaviors to your other behaviors and feelings throughout the day.  Once you have several days of activity tracked, take a look at the patterns that emerge.  For instance, if you note that you tend to binge on Tuesdays, take a look back at the day and see if something else occurs on that day.  Maybe there’s an event that’s stressful or time-consuming that distracts you from eating during the day, and in the evenings you lose control of food choices and portions. Or maybe there’s a stressful meeting every Tuesday that triggers an emotional reaction in the evenings. Maybe your favorite show is on Tuesday so you tend to indulge while you enjoy it. Be very objective about the patterns so that you’re not being too self-critical while you’re examining your habits.   Be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling and behaving. 

I recently met with a patient who expressed a lot of frustration about her own ability to stick with her nutrition plan.  At the beginning of each week, she would take the time to shop for and prepare healthy meals to consume throughout the week. She had a busy schedule and lots of physical activity, so she devoted herself to this routine each week to keep her nutrition on track. However, by Thursday or Friday, she would abandon the food she had prepared to eat and felt like she “lost control” over her food choices and portions. She expressed frustration over her inability to control her appetite and her own behavior, but she had not stopped to examine why she experienced this cycle every week.

What was her body telling her? Since it was happening on Thursdays and Fridays, we talked about what happened leading up to those days. She taught an exercise class a couple of times per week, and she requires a LOT of energy on those days.  By the time Thursday would roll around, she would get home from work feeling “starved,” and she would indulge in a heavier meal and then snack throughout the evening until she finally felt satisfied. But, by the time she went to bed, she would feel stuffed and sluggish.  Over time she began to gain weight even though she was exercising regularly and practicing some healthy habits on the other days.  Instead of honoring what her body was telling her, she would ignore it and then criticize herself for lack of willpower or control. 

Her body was telling her that she was not getting enough nutrition for her current activity level.  She could keep her appetite at bay for a while, but after a few days of high physical activity, her hunger could not be ignored. She blamed herself for not being able to be “good” for the whole week.  I pointed out the pattern to her, and we discussed packing extra food for herself during the day when she was exercising a lot.  She pushed back a bit and asked if that were true, then why did she skip the food that was already prepared and opt for browsing the pantry?  This was another message she was missing, and that is that our bodies AND minds NEED variety.  She was becoming bored with eating the same thing 5 days in a row, so her inner hunger rebelled and sent her on a hunt for something indulgent. Relying on yourself to make a healthy decision when you’re starving is not realistic, but neither is expecting yourself to never have any joy or fun with eating. We discussed having a planned carry-out dinner on Thursdays that she can look forward to enjoying after her exercise class. Because she was planning it ahead of time, she kept her choices on track, and her anxiety and self-criticism went way down.  On Fridays, she would have the leftovers from her carry out dinner. She was able to enjoy a favorite food again and control the portion by dividing it in half. She would snack occasionally in the evenings if she was still hungry, but she was slowing down and choosing healthier foods. Also, she wasn’t being self-critical about still feeling hungry, instead she was honoring the increase in hunger created by the increase in activity.  After a few weeks of this, she began to lose weight, and more importantly, her eating behaviors normalized because she was listening to the needs of her body and addressing appropriately.

“If I’ve reached my calorie goal, then why does my body still feel hungry?”

Many people become very focused on calories when they are trying to lose weight. The idea that you can lose weight by reducing the input of food to be lower than the output of energy is a pretty well-accepted concept, but it is not the ONLY thing that should be considered with weight loss.  The idea of calorie conservation arose during the first World War when Americans were concerned with rationing foods. When food was more scarce than it is today, Americans WANTED to eat more caloric foods because it meant they could eat less and thereby promoting overall food conservation.  The concept of the calorie being a unit of energy was never initially meant to address obesity.

The major problem with the idea of simple calorie deficit in weight loss is that each person’s calorie needs are highly variable.  A person’s rate of energy metabolism is largely associated with genetics, but there are also other factors that can influence it throughout the life cycle such as nutritional habits, physical activity, body weight, age, menstrual status, pregnancy, disease, injury, etc.  When a person is following a calorie-controlled diet, many times they are assuming that the calorie goal they are provided by either a tracking app or other online estimators is accurate.  Calorie goals are only guidelines to start with, but there is a lot of other information that needs to be considered.  When working on weight loss, listening to your body is the only way to achieve sustained results.

Many times, people who are trying to lose weight assume that if a small calorie deficit is good to affect some weight loss, then restricting it even more should be better, right?  Wrong! If you have a sustained calorie deficit that’s too extreme, there will be initial weight loss, but after a period of time, homeostasis takes over and a frustrating weight stall will occur. Relying on an extreme calorie deficit as a lifestyle is not only ineffective, it’s a good way to actually cause your body to regain more weight than was initially lost and negatively impact your metabolic rate. 

Homeostasis is a powerful force that must be honored if long term health will be achieved.  I hear patients blaming themselves for having low motivation or poor willpower when they are not able to sustain a restrictive nutritional plan.  It’s like asking someone to drive a car everyday that pulls strongly to the left.  You could likely get away with driving the car like that for a few days, but eventually, your arm will get tired and weak, and the car will end up careening into oncoming traffic!! That’s what it would be like if you asked a person to live their lives every day and every night while their hunger is raging beneath the surface.  Just like in the example of the car, a person could likely be strong enough to sustain it for a while, but eventually, homeostasis takes over the wheel!

The one thing that humans have in common is that each one of us is unique! Why would a STANDARD plan work when we all know that each human is biologically UNIQUE? Rather than focusing on forcing your body to respond and comply with unrealistic numbers and restrictive expectations, you should tune in to the messages you may be overlooking while you’re focused on meeting your calorie goals.  Accept that your body has something to say, and make sure you’re a good “listener!”  Once you can tune into the messages, you can then respond with what your body is really asking for.