by Heather Bell, MPH RD LDN
noun: appetite; plural noun: appetites
- a natural desire to satisfy a bodily need, especially for food.
- a strong desire or liking for something.
When we struggle with fears about weight gain or overeating, we can become mistrustful of our appetites and hungers.
We see or smell or taste something fabulous, and almost before we’ve had a chance to let our senses register the pleasure of it, we’re thinking, uh-oh, as if the very fact of our pleasure and excitement means that we’re somehow in danger. We find ourselves wishing that we didn’t find food—or at least, certain kinds of food—so appealing. We wish that we could feel about spinach the same way that we feel about a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, or that we could simply be less interested in food in general. “Eat to live, not live to eat.”
Sometimes, in an effort to be less interested in eating, we do things to confuse or dull our appetites. We fill up on water, caffeinated beverages, or diet foods that temporarily fool our bodies into thinking they’ve been fed. While this can work for a time, sooner or later we’re faced with eating again. Then struggle begins anew, only worse, because now we aren’t just hungry, we’re ravenous. Since we haven’t been fueled or satisfied, our hunger feels scarily strong and out of control—proof positive that it can’t be trusted.
Sometimes the opposite result occurs. By ignoring our hungers and attempting to dull our appetite for pleasure, we actually lose our sense of it entirely. We can’t tell when we’re hungry, or if we can, we don’t have any sense of what might please us; everything about eating has either become a chore or a source of guilt. And after a while, there’s so much distance from our appetites, and so much disconnection from our hunger, that we are honestly surprised when our bodies begin to rebel at the lack of nourishment. We think, “How is it possible that our physiology could need something so badly when we’ve learned to forget it so completely?”
Either way, we’re left feeling unbalanced and distressed. We suffer in ways greater than simply our experience of food and eating.
We’re meant to have an appetite for many things—for relationships, and adventure, and learning, and beauty…the list goes on and on. When we disavow or disconnect from any of our appetites, we affect all of them. All of our hungers, the ones that we are uncomfortable with, and the ones that make us nervous, teach us about ourselves and nourish us in some fashion. More than that, from our personal and specific craving for this person, experience, or taste, we learn about who we are. We need our longings and hungers; they keep us engaged with the world and with life itself, and they give us a sense of ourselves. Without them, we’d be diminished. As Anna, a young woman struggling with recovery from bulimia, shared recently, “I thought I was doing the right thing by staying away from all the eating situations that I found so tempting, but in doing that, my world got really small. I missed out on a lot.”
So what are the secrets to living well with our appetites? The first is understanding. When we understand what we’re hungry for, and why, we have a better shot at satisfying that need fully and without regret. The second is acceptance. We have to make peace with the fact that we have longings and hungers, because we can’t create balance around something we’re determined to deny. And the third secret is courage. We need courage to make the leap of faith and decide to be responsive and attentive to our appetites, even when they make us uncomfortable. When we understand, accept, and attend to our hungers, we discover that our longings aren’t so crazy, out of control, or incapable of being satisfied as we had feared. We can have the experience of craving something and having that craving be satisfied. Afterward, we may feel peaceful, strong, and happy because we are fulfilled.
So let’s take a moment as the New Year begins to celebrate and affirm our longings, and cravings, and passions. Let’s have some faith in the wisdom of our bodies and our hearts. Let’s commit to understanding and honoring our hungers in the healthiest and most joyous of ways in the next 12 months, and in all the years to come.
Happy New Year!