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

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.

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

Feeling “Full”

boy with cake

Back in the day when I was young, I am guessing it was easier to know if you were “full”. These days I find many of my patients are very confused about this. Now that we know a lot more about the physiological contributors to feeling both hungry and full it is easy to figure out why back then people didn’t struggle as much.

So what are some of the contributors I am referring to? This topic is so complex that I am going to only focus on three:

(1) Balanced Meals: we now know there are messengers that respond to what we eat that communicate to our brain that we got what we needed. For instance, if we do not include adequate protein with our meals, our belly may feel “full” but our brain will tell us we are not satisfied because of a messenger called NPY (Neuropeptide Y). If we do not consume adequate carbohydrate our serotonin levels will fall and likely trigger a craving for something sweet later on. Back in the day, getting “three square meals” a day was the norm (and you were very lucky if you ever got a dessert, and that was probably on holidays and birthdays!). Today, things are different. Family meals barely exist as families tend to be busier, children tend to be glued to computers and video games, and family meals have fallen by the wayside. A typical “meal” for many teens I have seen is a package of Ramen Noodles (not much protein there, more snacking will be needed).

(2) “Sensory Satisfaction”: research has demonstrated that when you eat while distracted (such as while watching the TV or on the computer) you do not get an adequate release of dopamine which tells your brain you are satisfied and can stop eating. Need I say more? With one small TV in the home, 3 channels to choose from, and the remote not invented yet, back then we all ate at the table.

(3) Fitness: studies show that people who are active are more in tune with their hunger and fullness. In other words,one of their fullness messengers (called PYY) works better. Back in the day, there was no choice but to be active. There was nothing to do in the house, so kids played outside. We had to walk 2 miles to school and then back home, etc etc etc.

So, feeling “full”, a very normal physiological function is no longer that easy. Working on having balanced meals, shutting off the TV and sitting at the table sounds like simple advice, but more important than most people realize. And getting outside to play now that spring is here is a good idea too!!


Is Pizza bad?


I find it somewhat funny when patients often ask me about a food such as pizza. “Is it bad?” Or maybe pasta, or bagels or potatoes. Why is it that some foods are so confusing to people? Why is there a need to classify foods as “good” or “bad”?

My simple answer is always “if you like it, it is good!”.

I think what people really want to know is “is this food good for me?”. The truth is there is a place for ALL foods in our lives. We all need to have a variety of healthy foods to feel good, stay healthy, and have energy. Yes, we need protein foods, fruits, vegetables, etc. But food plays a much more important role in our lives than just keeping us healthy. I am not a big fan of the slogan “eat to live”, because most of us have wonderful connections to certain foods and great memories around meal time.

For instance, being from an Italian family, holidays always came with specific foods. Easter breakfast had sausage and peppers, fried dough and ricotta pie. Christmas Eve had an assortment of fish dishes and Christmas day was always several gigantic pans of lasagna and eggplant parm. And sometimes, it is just simply wonderful to order a pizza delivered to your door on a Friday night after a long week at work when you are just too exhausted to even think about cooking.

Unfortunately we have been brainwashed to avoid carbs, avoid fat, avoid sugar, and that is why so many people are so confused. The diet industry relies on us to have these concerns, or how else would they be able to sell their products?

So instead of trying to judge if a food is “good” or “bad” why not try to eat healthy most of the time, but enjoy the foods you love, in moderation, listening to your hunger and fullness, eating so that you enjoy it and feel good afterwards;

In the end, you will be both healthy AND happy!

Hunger and Food Insecurity

full frogOne topic I discuss often is the concept of hunger. It may sound like a simple thing. Either you are hungry or you are not, right? Well, unfortunately, for those who diet and restrict, or binge eat as a result of this, hunger is much more complicated.

Today I was fortunate to have the opportunity to volunteer at a soup kitchen. It was quite interesting to see the different kinds of people come in. Kids and elderly and families. What struck me was how some people came up a few times and took second and third plates, and I am talking full plates. I wondered how they could fit that much food in their tummy in one meal! Then it struck me. “Food Insecurity” was what I was seeing. The feeling that you will not get enough food. It is a scary feeling many of us have never experienced.

Unless you have dieted. Then, maybe, that feeling is there. With a self-imposed diet, restricting many foods, you get the same mind set that those who truly do not have enough food have. And so the answer is, to eat as much as you can when you have the opportunity. When you break your diet (and know that you will start again tomorrow). Very similar to the person who gets to have a good meal once per week when the other days of the week are not so good. It makes sense.

But the reality is, for those of use fortunate enough to be able to buy the foods we need, we never have to experience this feeling. You can always have what you want. So why overeat when you break your diet? If you don’t diet in the first place, and instead try to listen to your “true” hunger (typically a meal time or snack time when you have not eaten for a few hours) you are more likely to avoid getting into this mind-set. Listen to your body! Easier said than done, but keep trying!!