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Your Appetite is Your Superpower!

To start, I’d like to reiterate what I discussed last time and that is that the appetite is a series of thoughts and brain signals. It reflects the past, which we cannot change, and it reflects our current nutritional status and our current wanting. Our current wanting level is sometimes completely independent of actual hunger. In my opinion, it all counts. It all matters. 


“There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is depth of thought untouched by words and deeper still, a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.”  Zora Neale Hurston 


This quote by author Zora Neale Hurston, illustrates what I mean when I say that a large part of the appetite is subconscious to – or underneath – our awareness. Her quote, in my opinion, helps describe the appetite system. She is providing us with a description of our entire subconscious, but the appetite system is deftly described by her definition. The vast majority of our appetite happens in a way that is deep to our awareness. And because of this, it’s largely genetically determined. Some of those genes were flipped on while we were in utero (while we were gestating in wombs) and some of those genes have been flipped on for generations, and stayed on. Our appetite is always trying to help us. The appetite, even if we aren’t aware of much of it and much of how it works, is always trying to keep us alive. 

If you think about our current food environment, where there’s food everywhere, compared to  most of human history where our goal has been to eat enough to stay alive, we can start to see some connections. For most of the history of our species, eating enough to stay alive has been hard. People have died because they haven’t had enough to eat. That still happens in some parts of the world but it is less common, and so our genes and our brains are always preparing for the next famine.  And this is happening deep into our subconscious. So, it doesn’t matter that our thinking brain, our awake brain, sees that this is 2022 and knows that there’s enough calories to go around in many places. It knows that many of us have never actually been starving. Our subconscious brain is always aware that we are connected to a lineage of a species for which famine has actually been the greatest threat, and that is where our appetite is coming from. It’s always trying to save us. If we can reflect on that and be grateful for that, it is the first step in recognizing that your appetite is actually your superpower. 

One of the ways that I have worked really hard to conceive of my appetite and to be gentle and loving to it, even if sometimes it’s very annoying, is to name it. Yes, I’ve given my appetite a name and a personality because that’s allowed me to build on my appetite literacy skills and build on my skills of resilience when I’m not reading my appetite very well.  It’s also helpful for eating experiences that aren’t super aligned with my values but eating is happening anyway. 

I’d like to introduce you today, to my appetite. 

“Hi, you look great.”

This is Olaf, you may recognize him from Disney’s Frozen.

He’s a magical snowman and he’s wonderful. Olaf is a bit distractible, kind of all over the place. But, he’s very loving and always trying to help. Sometimes he’s very annoying and gets in my way, but most importantly, Olaf has three parts as you can see:

Homeostatic:

  • He’s got a bottom. This is the bulk of my appetite. This is the heavy subconscious basin of appetite thoughts here at Olaf’s bottom. This is the homeostatic system. It is our air traffic control. The homeostatic system is constantly looking around in our blood and sensing levels of nutrients, calories, fats, carbs, and proteins, and a million other molecules that describe whether or not we are fasted or fed or somewhere in between. This is the guy that really responds to the stuff that we can’t notice. We can’t tell if we have a B12 deficiency. We can’t always tell if we are not putting enough glucose in our brains until we are really hangry. 

Hedonic:

  • We have Olaf’s middle. This is my appetite’s hedonic system. This is the reward and pleasure-driven system. These two guys are both subconscious to our aware mind.  

Executive:

  • The top part is Olaf’s head. This is the executive system. This is where we have thoughts we notice. This is where we have experiences we recall and contemplate. This is where we are aware of the decisions that we make and the memories that we hold, and this is where we spend most of our time. Most of what happens in the executive system is learned and most of it is automatic. For example, you don’t think too much about tying your shoes in the morning because you just know how to.  It wasn’t always the case but you definitely don’t need to think about it now. 

Whenever I am working through a process of trying to understand an eating experience, whether or not it’s already happened, or if I’m trying to put together why an eating experience went down in a certain way, I need to look at whether or not that eating experience was particularly disconnected from my values. I need to go back and do an assessment of my appetite, which we now know is both subconscious and conscious. 

I used to think that my desire, my powerful wanting, my curiosity, my fearlessness, was a lack of impulse control. 

I used to think “I’m just too big.” My wants are too big. My desires are too big. My ambitions are too big. I’m just too big for this world.

And I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience, but it’s a pretty alienating one. The idea that the things that I want are too much.  I shouldn’t want those things. I need to be more modest. I need to be less desirous of all things. This is a position that I agreed with for most of my life. And when that translated into food and eating, I was constantly in restraint mode. I was constantly restricting myself and what I ate. I was constantly imposing limits on myself because if given the chance, I told myself I would eat everything, and that was a shameful experience. I asked myself, “will I ever learn to be less big?” The process of living through an eating disorder and living through one’s teens and 20s, in addition to the process of living through medical training, was focused on one thing. Be smaller. Be less conspicuous. 

And the reality is I just can’t. 

I’m just not. 

I’m six feet tall and I’m loud. It is hard for me not to share my opinions.  Where I’ve arrived in my life, my meaningful successes, has been because of that hunger, because of that wanting. I’m here because I am willing to leap when others won’t. I am willing to leap when I’m not sure where I’m going to land. I am willing to make brave choices. I’m willing to put myself through experiences where I don’t have a certain outcome and where I know that I’m going to have to really step into it to make this work. I have always been that person and my appetite for food is connected to my appetite for life. 

I can see that now. That’s how I’m wired. That is my hedonic system being a very dominant part of how I experience this world. And if I look back on the success that I’ve had, it’s never been because I’ve played small. It’s always been because I risked it all. And that is something for which it has taken me almost 40 years to understand. It has taken a lot of rejection of past stories about who I am. “Ashley, be quiet, Ashley, sit in the back, Ashley, bite your tongue.”  A constant pressure to want and be less. 

 A lot of holding back and learning that when I hold back, it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel content. There’s something wrong, and learning that my desire to eat is connected to my desire to live, that has transformed me. That has transformed me into someone who gets to roll with the discomfort of being a big and problematic woman in this world. And when I say big, I don’t necessarily mean size because my size actually changes all the time. My size is constantly up and down, but I mean big as in… Olaf. I mean big as in experientially big. I am a big experience and it is important to me that if you identify with this experience, that you stop problematizing yourself as a result, and that you allow yourself to live in that bigness.

Make it acceptable in the world that you’re in, and to continue to leap because your appetite is your superpower!

With love, 

Dr. Ashley White

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