When I ask my clients what their body really need, I see mainly question marks in their eyes.
Cellular hunger is one of the most complex signals the body might sent and also one of the most challenging to respond to for the majority of people.
What kind of cells tell us about hunger?
First, there are our own body cells, ranging from organs, muscles, to brain cells.
Every cell in the body wants to grow and to multiply. For all these ingenious processes the body needs rich sources of energy and complex food molecules such as sugars, fats, and proteins. Additionally, cells can perform their work optimally thanks to vitamins and minerals, sufficient moisture, and a healthy balance between rest and activity.
Interestingly, besides the human cells, there are also non-human cells. Human cells make up only 43% of the body’s total cell count, the rest are trillions of micro-organisms. Michael Pollan describes the body as “a bacterial locomotive machine”. The greatest concentration of this microscopic life is in the oxygen-deprived bowels. There is an estimate of ten thousand different bacterial families and they all thrive on certain food groups. It would be naive to think we carry around so much microbial life without having any effect on our bodies at all. Each cell is hungry. A diet of sugar-rich foods will feed happily a certain family which might be different than the veggies-loving bacterial tribe. What we feed will grow, whether it is the bacteria who thrive on chocolate or those who love fibers and fermented foods. With other words, more family members means more hungry mouths to fill and more cravings for specific foods.
But bacteria will tell their hosts what to eat. In this bottom-up pathway, microbial derived metabolites carry information from the gut to the brain. By suppressing or increasing cravings, microbes help the brain decide what foods the body “needs”. In this sense, it is confusing for many people which part is actually communicating. Is it the gut calling for certain foods or is the mind –with its preconceptions- telling the host what it should or should not eat?
A desire for high-fat foods can be a real cellular need with the aim of protecting the body against cold weather. Unfortunately, people with years of dieting history might feel a lot of resistance for this approach. The mind has a difficult time of letting go control and therefor trusting unfamiliar body signals. It is a radical shift from making top-down rules-based food decisions to mindfully and quietly scanning the inner physical landscape for guidance.
What prevents people from listening to the body hunger?
– Years of disconnection with the body because of negative experiences that are stored psychosomatically in the physical human cells (trauma and unprocessed memories)
– Never having learned to view the body as a wise mentor due to lack of role models as a child
– Limited attention span capacity to tune into the more slowly paced rhythm of the body
– Living in a society with a deep-rooted distrust of physicality
– Ethical beliefs or anxiously clinging to dietary rules
– Confusing physical hunger with emotional hunger. A craving for black chocolate might indicate a magnesium deficiency but can also be the perfect comfort food when feeling distressed.
How can we help our participants to listen better to their cellular needs?
This means shifting our attention from thinking to feeling. First, we can start with neutral physical sensations such as the breath or soles of the feet. The next step is scanning the body and asking with kindness if there are some specific physical needs. Our allies in this journey are patience, curiosity and trust. It is perfectly normal that it might take some weeks before the body responds. Daily repetition and strong determination are the keys. Also mindful eating teachers do need to be in peace and at ease with their bodies in order to share this bottom-up approach in an authentic way with others.
The art of mindful eating helps us to deeply care for each cells of the body, without judgments, guilt or doubts. May all experience trust and kindness to take the leap and letting go the seemingly safe dietary rules to give room to inner wisdom and psychological freedom.
When was the last time you experienced cellular hunger? How does cellular hunger feel different compared to emotional hunger?
Caroline Baerten, Belgium