Humming and Beckoning

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Patients working with me on intuitive eating inevitably hear me use the terms humming and beckoning in the context of eating dynamics. Based on the feedback I receive, being able to differentiate between humming and beckoning is one of the most helpful skills for an aspiring intuitive eater to develop. So, what do these two terms mean, and why are they helpful? Let’s discuss.

Humming occurs when we are internally inspired to consume a food. Unprompted by anything external, we just feel that a particular food would hit the spot. Maybe you are sitting at your desk in the late afternoon, and as you begin to look ahead to dinner and consider what to purchase or make, you think to yourself, “Man, I could really go for [insert the object of your food craving].” Organically and unprompted, you just really want a particular food.

Beckoning happens when we are externally inspired to consume a food. We are not thinking about a given food, but circumstances unfold that result in us wanting it. Maybe brownies are not on your mind at all, perhaps you are not even hungry, but you walk by the break room, spy that someone brought in a pile of the homemade goodies, and suddenly you think, “Oh, hey brownies!” and take a couple back to your desk to munch on while you work.

Whether a food is humming or beckoning is not directly based upon a food’s nutrition profile, our ability to obtain the food, our beliefs about its appropriateness for the meal/snack at hand, our feelings about the food, or where it might fit on our good/bad food dichotomy (if applicable). Rather, humming and beckoning are directly based upon the source of our motivation – whether internal or external – for wanting a particular food.

Indirectly, however, our relationships with food can certainly influence our humming/beckoning dynamic. Going back to the brownie scenario I previously mentioned, someone who restricts their intake of sweets will likely experience a stronger pull towards the brownies than somebody who has a healthier relationship with such treats and knows they are free to have brownies at any time. The brownies might still beckon to both people, but the intensity of the sparkle differs, as might their responses.

Eating in response to humming has its upsides. From the standpoint of satisfaction, foods that we are humming for are more likely to hit the spot and leave us feeling content. In contrast, if we are humming for one food but eat something else for whatever reason, we might overconsume in an effort to make up for quality with quantity, or we might scrounge around going from food to food in search of satisfaction. Think of someone who really wants ice cream but gets frozen yogurt instead because they believe it to be healthier. They might overeat on the yogurt and perhaps eat another dessert or two afterwards, whereas if they had just had a little bit of ice cream in the first place, it would have hit the spot, and they could have gotten on with the rest of their day having found contentment in their eating experience.

Sometimes we do not give enough credit to our bodies, which are pretty good at directing us towards what we need. Think of how water tastes so much better and is that much more satisfying to drink when we are thirsty versus when we are already well hydrated. Someone with anemia might not know that red meat is high in iron; they just know that they could really go for a steak, as their body increases its perceived appeal of high-iron foods. Personally, I discovered that salted crackers and pretzels were particularly satisfying during and after marathons long before I understood that my body was trying to replenish its sodium and carbohydrate stores.

While eating in response to humming is typically a positive, beckoning is often viewed as a negative phenomenon, something to be resisted. However, I believe that beckoning gets a bad rap, and sometimes letting it guide our eating decisions is actually both sensible and helpful. Consider the following examples.

Rarity: My first job as a dietitian was a research position that had me flying all over the eastern United States examining food and eating behaviors in elementary school cafeterias. Every night, I went out for dinner at local restaurants. In Philadelphia, I ordered a steak and cheese. A few weeks later in Tennessee, I made sure to get barbecue. My last trip took me to Tampa, where I ate plenty of seafood. These were not cases of humming just so happening to coincide with popular regional cuisines. Rather, these foods beckoned to me because these locales were known for them, and I wanted to take advantage of my rare opportunities to experience authentic fare.

Similarly, you likely find yourself in situations on occasion in which you have an atypical opportunity to try a particular food. One of my patients, for example, told me that his co-worker makes amazing Chinese dumplings every year for their office holiday party. If he passed them up one December, he would have to wait another year for the opportunity to come around again, so of course he partakes in the dumplings whether or not he is humming for them the day of the party. Letting a rare chance slip away could leave one feel like they are not living life to its fullest

Deprivation: For someone still working to improve their relationship with food, especially if they have a history of dieting or other form of restriction, denying themselves a beckoning food can trigger feelings of deprivation that can have ramifications, such as subsequent overconsumption. Someone might decline the cake and ice cream at a birthday party and then rebel against their self-imposed restriction by consuming an entire pint of ice cream later in the day. In this example, the person would have been better served to remind themselves that they have unconditional permission to eat whatever and whenever they want and then celebrate with the other partygoers by having a little dessert.

Uncertainty: Sometimes our humming signals are just not that strong. We know we are hungry, but identifying the best fit proves a challenge. We might ask ourselves matching questions regarding what taste, color, temperature, or flavor food we feel like consuming, yet come up with limited criteria that still leave us feeling directionless and frustrated. In such cases, beckoning can be our friend by helping us to resolve the uncertainty and make a decision. For example, you might be gazing at a restaurant menu in frustration, unsure which entree to order, but then you glance at another patron’s meal, think to yourself, “That looks good,” and suddenly you have your answer.

Other times, not responding to beckoning might be the best move. The person who walks by the break room and spies the brownies might decide, “You know what, those brownies do look good, but I was not really feeling like having brownies; I am only interested in them because I saw them, and they are probably not going to hit the spot as they would if I were humming for them. Besides, I have unconditional permission, so I can make or buy brownies anytime I want. So, I am going to pass on them for today.” Five minutes later, they could be back at their desk and engrossed in their work, having totally forgotten about the brownies.

In my view, eating because of either humming or beckoning are both morally neutral actions, and there are no absolute right or wrong responses. However, understanding the dynamics behind our draw to a food can help us engage in whatever eating behavior we feel like is in our best interest at the given time.

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