Humming, Beckoning or Phantom Food: Why You Need to Know the Difference

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Our last meal in Italy started (as usual) with some great Italian bread, olives and salami……….

What do you do when you go out to eat, and the waiter or waitress bring a nice basket of hot rolls to the table? What do you do when you walk into your office and someone brought a box of donuts from your favorite bakery? What about when it is 9 pm at night and you just can’t get chocolate off of your mind? Or you have planned a nice healthy dinner for your family, but you are not in the mood for it at all?

We have to make so many decisions every single day about what to eat. It is complicated and stressful even to those who don’t think about their eating or weight. We all have to eat. Unfortunately, most of us are not millionaires, and so there will be no cook preparing our favorite meal every night (getting tired of the joke “if I was Oprah, I would be healthy because I would be able to hire a chef!”). Unless you love to cook, planning and preparing meals can be a pain. Add to that a concern about weight and you have a recipe for anything but intuitive eating. What I mean is that for those who are always dieting or dissatisfied with their weight, there seems to be a constant war going on when it comes to food choices. It is not about what is available and what tastes good or you are in the mood for, it is about what is on your diet plan. The food rules are in full force and the food police loud and clear in some people’s thinking.

Although I am a big believer in “intuitive eating” and “listening to your hunger and fullness” I also know that most people are not that aware of the forces that pull them in all directions when it comes to eating and food. What made a lot of sense to me was from a book I may have mentioned before that I read way back in the 70’s. It was written by two psychologists (“The Psychologist’s Eat Anything Diet” by Pearson, et al) and had an approach that was not founded in science at the time, yet years later, we now know they were right. The book was one of the first to advise us to “listen” to your food cravings because your body innately knew what it needed. Now we know that there are numerous neurochemicals, or messengers that tell our brains what to eat based on what we need. For example, if you go without adequate carbohydrates for a period of time, your brain serotonin levels will drop and this will trigger you to want something sweet. There are many more, but the bottom line is there is a physiological reason we sometimes really crave something. Also, the authors of the book were the first to coin the term “beckoning” food verses “humming” food. I love those terms because if you understand them, it really can help you to become a more intuitive eater (and less susceptible to environmental triggers).

So what about those humming, beckoning and phantom foods and why do I think it is smart to know the difference?

First,let’s talk about “beckoning” foods. These are the foods you were not thinking about at all until you saw them or smelled them. For instance, you are at the mall, you ate before you went and you are not hungry at all, but you walk by that Grandma’s Cookie place and the aroma overwhelms you.  Or, you wander past the McDonald’s in the mall, and the smell of french fries permeates the air (your favorite fries of all, nobody can make them like the Ronald). Maybe you are in the grocery store after work, a bit hungry and you see the pizza counter with a great looking meat lover’s pizza. That, my friend, is a beckoning food. It is the food you really don’t crave at all at the time, but you see it, smell it, and then want it. The fact is that a beckoning food is probably not what your body wants or needs. It is a trigger in your environment that if you manage to ignore, you will forget about it in short time. But what if you are at a party or social gathering, and someone made something you absolutely love, and even if you were not craving it, you hate to miss out? For example, yesterday I had to teach a class to a group of nutrition students. They had put together a smorgasbord of snacks such as veggies and hummus, fruit and also some very yummy homemade cookies. I was hungry for food, not sweets, but I don’t often get a chance to have good cookies like that (I hate baking, it is way too specific). So I took a plate home because I always want something sweet in the morning (yes, a cookie and coffee makes me happy at 6:30 am-and I am prepared for the crash at 10 am). So the message is, you don’t have to miss out when there are beckoning foods around, but you should not eat them at the time when you really did not want them. Save them for when you really do. That is intuitive eating.

Secondly, what do I mean by “Humming foods”? Have you ever, out of the blue, had a very specific food craving? Once in awhile, maybe every three months or so, while I am at work, getting hungry later in the day, I get an intense craving for some very specific buffalo wings. It does not matter if I had a meal already planned, I change it. I call my husband and tell him “I am stopping at Buffalo Wild Wings, what do you want?” I just save whatever I planned for the next day. No, half my plate is not “colors” the way we dietitians like to teach. Most of the plate is brown that night (well, they do give you carrot and celery sticks).  I figure my body knows what it is telling me. Maybe I need more fat or protein or whatever. Maybe it is a need to treat myself. Whatever it is, if we listen to our cravings (remember, a true craving comes from your body, not from the smell of french fries or the visual trigger of a giant cookie in a store window), we will likely be so much more satisfied without overeating. So pay attention to specific food cravings, a feeling of needing a specific food without ever seeing or smelling it.

Finally, we have “phantom foods”. I do not remember where I first heard this term, but I think it was when I was working at a college with college students who were restrained eaters. The dietitian I worked with was very used to working with these “sub-clinical” eating disorders but I was new to it. I remember her using that word and it made a lot of sense to me with what I was seeing. A great example is a student I saw back then who was binge eating on healthy snacks at night. It was funny because she was somewhat of a “health nut”. She did not eat much meat or any unhealthy foods. Her dorm room was stocked with rice cakes, sugar free jello, and fat free granola bars. She would eat just a salad for lunch, and then again for dinner, and after dinner she would have an apple, then a fat free granola bar, and then another, and another, and then some sugar free jello, and then another apple….and on and on. When I asked if she craved anything, she said she craved cheese burgers. I asked her to experiment just one week with eating what she wanted instead of making herself eat the foods she was making herself eat because the were healthy (also know as Phantom Food). She came back a week later and said “I can’t believe it! I have been having cheeseburgers for dinner, and I am not eating all those snacks anymore! I am actually satisfied and feel so much better!”. That student was able to eat what her body really wanted, and she was no longer forcing herself to eat just the “healthy” snacks-the phantom food that does not satisfy, but that the “diet mentality” says is the only thing that is not bad. Unfortunately, what I have seen in my years of working with people with eating and weight issues is that trying to eat only phantom foods-foods that you think are safe and ok but that really do not satisfy you-leads to overeating, weight gain, and dissatisfaction.

So there you have it. Can you take that chance and really let yourself eat what your body is telling you? Can  you satisfy your hunger and then move on to all the more interesting and fun things in your life to do? Can you stop forcing yourself to eat those phantom foods that you really don’t want? Can you walk past those good smelling food places, and tell yourself that when you really want that, you will go get it? Can you ask for a doggie bag and take those cookies to go so that when you really want them, they will be there? (You can freeze stuff too, you know).

Some people may find this very hard or impossible-that is ok! My goal is to help you be reflective and think about yourself, not to turn you into an intuitive eater overnight. I just hope to open your eyes to a different way of looking at eating and food, with the hopes that you will take just one more step to being happier with your relationship to food. Or at least understand yourself a little bit better.

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My husband’s last meal in Italy, same restaurant with the bread in the bag

So that picture of the bread and salami and olives? Totally beckoning foods before an amazing dinner in Milan. Of course I tried that bread. Sometimes, if  you are in Italy for example, you know you won’t get to have that again for who knows how long. And we had no freezer.  So Joie de vivre ! Enjoy life : )

IMG_5681The Italian Restaurant outside of Milan, Italy

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