The word 'empty' has a negative connotation in today's consumer society. It is used to mean going without, absence, or even convey emotional meanings such as lack of value or loneliness. When we say we have an "empty belly" we're describing an unhappy state of hunger that we want to fix immediately. On the other hand, the word "full belly" has happier connotations of abundance, and a calm and comfortable state.
Most athletes and yogis find a benefit to having an empty stomach before they start their practice. It's very difficult to run and jump or do seated twists or forward bends with food sloshing around in our bellies. The active person has an appreciation of emptiness and in this sense it becomes a positive state.
As North Americans, we are not at risk of starving or going without food for any longer than a few hours. While pangs of hunger may come on strong, there is always something nearby to satisfy our appetites. With that fact in mind, does it make sense to eat the large quantities of food most of us do? Perhaps we could take a lesson from the pre-exercise state of being empty, which comes before hunger. The feeling of knowing you are not hungry, but nor are you full can be a pleasantly neutral place to be. To avoid the extremes of either a heavy, stretched belly or a raging hunger, we need to eat a number of smaller meals throughout the day. So much of what we do is ingrained, routine behaviour, and it takes practice to change the habit of eating too-large meals. The first step, as always, is becoming more aware of our current behaviours.
Here's an awareness exercise to try next time you sit down to a meal where you can control the portion size, ideally at home.
1. Take a medium-sized plate and place food on only half of the plate's surface. Do you feel anxious about the fact that your plate only contains a small amount of food? Tell yourself not to worry, that you can eat again in an hour if you are still hungry.
2. Take a deep breath and slowly breathe out. You will now begin to calmly eat.
3. Take a small bite of food and put down your fork/spoon/chopsticks as you slowly chew and then swallow.
4. Continue like this, chewing slowly and placing your utensil down between bites. It should take you at least 10 minutes to eat your meal.
5. When you have finished the food on your plate, push it away from you and take another deep breath. Feel the food in your stomach. Feel how you have nourished your body.
You may still feel hungry, because it takes a lot of chewing and sometimes about 20 minutes to feel satisfied after a meal. But you have just eaten enough food to sustain you for several hours, particularly when you consider what people in other countries survive on each day. And if you are still hungry in an hour, just eat again.
This is an interesting experiment to try occasionally, and it's a good way to avoid feeling overstuffed before you do a physical activity. It may also give you insight into why many of us overeat simply by default. By being more aware of our eating habits, we can build a healthier relationship with food, one that's based on what our bodies need, instead of what advertisers or our hectic schedules might dictate.