As a clinical psychologist working in a bariatric surgery department, I decided to attend one of our patient education seminars. Our department had been unusually busy and I hadn’t taken the time to meet new people coming to the seminar for some time.

In these seminars, alongside the “golden rules” on when and what to eat, people are advised not to “graze”, a term which refers to a pattern of eating small amounts of often high energy food throughout the day, frequently “on the go” and not related to physical hunger. This pattern can, the group was told, lead us to eat more energy than we really need. As this was discussed, there were many nods around the room. “I’m a terrible picker,” one woman said.

As I listened to the emerging discussion about picking and grazing, my curious mind suddenly engaged. Many people who consider surgery had become experts in following external rules for eating. But often this diet mentality makes us lose our ability to tap into our own internal wisdom.

What’s underneath grazing and picking?

What was the energy behind grazing, I wondered? What was the need or desire?

“So, what makes us eat in this way?” I asked the group.

“For me, it is definitely boredom,” one man said.

“And which part of you is bored?” I asked, genuinely curious.

This took a little more thought, but eventually the answer came, “I don’t know, I just like to chew. I don’t really like my mouth to be empty. I used to suck my thumb as a child too.”

“I am like that in the evening,” another woman jumped in. “I might just have eaten, but as I am watching TV, I can work my way through a bag of Minstrels. I’m addicted to the crunch and the chocolate inside.”

Listening to these insightful reports, it seemed to me that the group had begun to talk about “mouth hunger”.

lips biting into a chocolate barIn her book, “Mindful Eating: A guide to re-discovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food”, Jan Chozen Bays discusses “mouth hunger”. The mouth, she tells us, is a “sensation junkie, an organ of pure desire” and a part that is “easily bored”.

Indeed, I have seen mouth hunger in many different guises myself.

Can we be full but not satisfied?

As a child, I recall hating Monday evening stews. They were cheap filling meals that would leave you full and with a stretched stomach. However, I recall feeling full but dissatisfied; there was no chilli, no spice, “no party in the mouth” on Monday evenings. Mouth hunger also pitched up recently on a long car journey, when I noticed the urge to pull into a garage to buy some sweets. This was a combination of mouth hunger and happy memories of car journeys as a child, the time whittled away with songs and sweet treats.

I have, however, also witnessed mouth hunger being satisfied.

When my daughter was younger (before the pull of iPhones and technology took their hold), she was very particular about her food. She ate slowly, preferred different types of food not to touch (despite advice from a family member that it “all goes down the same way”) and would sometimes stop eating because she was full and the food “didn’t taste the same”.

I now look back and realise that this was a perfect example of her intuitively aligning stomach hunger and mouth hunger. However, it also seemed that eating slowly and with attention was required for this alignment to happen. It is the only way to notice that taste or texture, have indeed started to fade and become less interesting. It was only through attention that she could simultaneously notice fullness in the belly.

Maybe it’s not Mouth hunger?

Of course, not all “grazing” is about mouth hunger.  It could be one of the other 9 kinds of hungers that will pull for our attention and each occasion may be different. This conversation, however, reminded me of the book by Geneen Roth, entitled “when you eat at the refrigerator, pull up a chair”.

This week I plan to look out for mouth hunger in myself. And when the desire to eat from the fridge or standing up or on the run appears, I plan to pull up a chair, savour the experience and give myself time to watch it change.

Are there times when mouth hunger calls for your attention? How can you honour this desire and look after yourself at the same time?

Jacqueline Doyle, UK

N.B. Some details have been changed to protect confidentiality

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