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Why This Little-Known Sense Matters for Mindful Eating

September 30, 2018

As part of mindful eating, the first key is to know if you’re eating because you’re hungry, or for some other reason?

 

This seems like a simple question, and yet, it’s not always easy to tell if you’re hungry or not. I’ve known that for a while. You might be familiar with this challenge, too.

 

But what I didn’t know is that this is tied to a sense called interoception. Put simply, interoception is what allows us to sense what’s going on in our bodies. This includes noticing pain, temperature, breathlessness, thirst, and, of course, hunger.

 

I heard about this in a fascinating book called Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World's Strangest Brains by Helen Thomson. She mentioned it in relation to someone so out of tune with his bodily sensations that he thought he was dead!

 

But as with most things, this sense is on a spectrum. So some people might have a less developed sense of interoception, but not to that extreme.

 

And on the other side, those who have a higher degree of interoception are more in tune with their emotions. 

 

I started thinking about this in terms of mindful eating, and it began to make sense. After all, a lot of mindless eating happens for emotional reasons. But they’re not necessarily the emotions we first think of.

 

For instance, maybe you feel like you’re eating because you’re stressed. That might be true at a surface level, but stress covers a lot of things. Are you anxious about your job? Is someone in your family ill? Do you feel like you don’t have time for the things you really want to do?

 

You may not be able to immediately identify the emotion. Or maybe you’re afraid to delve deep. And then if you’re also less connected to your sense of hunger, you can see how it would be very easy to overeat. So it also made sense to me when the author noted that low levels of interoception have been linked to anorexia, as well as depression.

 

This also seems like it could easily become a vicious feedback loop. If you overeat on a regular basis, you may want to disconnect from your body.

 

But Thomson also offers some hope of how to develop that sense. She noted that although more research needs to be done, in some cases a very simple change has been shown to help in the short term.

 

The simple fix? Looking in the mirror or at pictures of yourself while focusing on your body’s sensations. 

 

Why is still not clear, but she notes that one possibility is “that focusing on self-referential images… may enhance the accuracy of interoception by shifting the brain’s attention from the outside world to the inside world….” (p. 188)

 

This also makes sense to me because I can see some of these connections in my past.

 

When I struggled with food and body image issues, I didn’t want anything to do with my body. I didn’t want to pay attention to it or think of it as mine, and I certainly didn’t want to see it. 

 

Having a dad who was a photographer meant I couldn’t avoid pictures, but I didn’t spend much time looking at them. Consider this one. Why would I want to look at an image that forced me to confront just how big my body was? It wouldn’t have occurred to me then to look at it from the perspective of compassion and acceptance, of trying to claim my body.

 

As for looking in the mirror, I avoided that as much as humanly possible.

 

I never considered that such self-avoidance might make it harder for me to recognize and deal with emotions, as well as confusing my hunger and fullness signals.

 

These days I don’t mind looking at photos or in mirrors, and I feel like all of these senses are much better connected. But I’m not perfect. So the next time I’m trying to figure out what’s going on internally, maybe I’ll look at a more recent photo, or find a mirror, and see what happens.

 

And if you try this, I’d love to hear how it goes!

 

But whether or not you experiment, I hope this gives you something to think about. And maybe feel about. 

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