Don’t Fear Hunger
It’s Not Always Bad!
By following the earlier principles of only eating meals and not snacking, the question always arises of hunger. “What if I get hungry”? Clients will ask, as though hunger is something to be concerned about, or routinely avoided. The truth is that in the modern world hunger is poorly understood by us fortunate westerners who live in a world of abundance. Many of us do not actually understand the feeling of real hunger, let alone the true nature of it.
The truth is that hunger is nothing to be concerned about, let alone feared. Let me be clear, I am not trivialising the plight of genuinely starving people. Or those in poverty who struggle to put enough food on the table. I wish to make a clear distinction here: There is a huge difference between a person who has abundant access to ample food, eats every day and has stability enough in their food supply to be unconcerned with famine in the foreseeable future, and a person living in poverty, famine, and starvation. Hunger means very different things to each of these people. It is what hunger means that is cause for concern. When hunger represents the voluntary absence of a meal, or a days food, or even a weeks food in a healthy, well nourished person it is not of concern. When hunger means a life threatening crisis, it obviously is. For the rest fo this principle, please make the distinction in your own mind that I am referring to the former.
Viewing hunger as something bad, something to be avoided, often leads people to make unhealthy food choices out of reactive decision making. I council my clients that if they are following these principles, they can use hunger as a guide as to when and how much to eat. But this does not mean that you have to eat every time you are hungry. Often, hunger may strike at a time where access to whole foods is not possible, or at least highly inconvenient. In these situations my advice is to deal with the hunger, allow it to pass, do not allow it to stress you, wait until you can nourish yourself with quality food, instead of resorting to junk and convenience food.
To help you with this, here are some facts about what hunger is and how it works.
Hunger is a chemical signal.
The hormone Ghrelin, released by the stomach, is the hunger hormone. The physical feeling of hunger is Ghrelin being released, that’s it.
This chemical signal can be released for a variety of reasons, many of which are not a signal of starvation, not an accurate sign of the need for nutrients or calories and not a cause for concern.
Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar).
Typically this is what is thought of as the cause of hunger. When blood sugar drops, the body senses this as a potentially dangerous state and takes action to raise blood sugar back to where it needs to be. One of these actions is to make you feel hungry so that you eat and top up your supply. There are a few things you should understand about this reaction, however. Firstly the response will be quite individual and is influenced heavily by your diet and what’s known as your metabolic flexibility (more on this coming very soon). Eating is not the only way to raise blood sugar back to where it needs to be and the worse your diet is, the more frequently and strongly this mechanism is likely to be triggered. Meaning that when your diet is poor and full of true wrong foods, you are more likely to overeat. A viscous cycle.
Time elapsed since last feed.
This is an obvious trigger because it leads, potentially, to low blood sugar. There is no direct “clock” so to speak that monitors how long it has been since your last meal. But rather, after each meal there is an influx of energy into the blood stream, when this energy come in the form of carbohydrate, blood sugar is raised and subsequently falls. The faster this happens, the more likely it is to fall slightly below baseline, triggering hunger. Again, the worse your diet the more hungry you will tend to feel. This response is dependent on two primary factors, the size of the meal eaten and the composition of the meal. A less acute faction is the overall composition of a persons diet, but for now we will assume that you are following the principles above. After a large meal of, say, a 12 oz steak and butter with broccoli, your hunger response will be suppressed for many hours, due to the high fat and high calorie content of the meal and the slow digesting nature of the meal. After a snack of a single banana, you are likely to feel hunger much more quickly, due to the fats digesting, carb dominant nature of the meal.
Poor metabolic flexibility.
Metabolic flexibility is a term used to describe the bodies ability to switch between energy sources. Namely fat and carbohydrates. In the faster state (first thing in the morning for example). The body will be getting between 60% and 90% of its energy from stored fats. If you infuse a high carbohydrate breakfast, fat burning will be shut down and the cells will switch to predominantly glucose, until the blood sugar has been returned to a low, fasting like level. At this point there is a fork in the road. In an individual who has high metabolic flexibility, the switch back to using mostly fats will be seem less and barely noticed. (Low hunger levels, no disruption to brain function etc). In an individual with very low metabolic flexibility, the switch will be difficult and slow, leading to low blood sugar and a strong hunger response. Typically a persons ability to burn glucose remains quite robust, but in the presence of a high carbohydrate diet sustained over a long period of time, the cells ability to utilise fats for energy is diminished, as is the bodies ability to mobilise fats from stored supplies. This is one of the key advantages of a very low carbohydrate diet, at least for a short while, as it will force the body to utilise fats for fuel and restore its ability to do so, returning metabolic flexibility, at least to some degree. Insulin sensitivity, genetics and stress levels also play key roles.
Usual timing of meals.
There is a phenomenon known as the chronological entrainment of meals. Simply put, your body knows when you usually eat and preemptively releases insulin in anticipation of a meal. Take an office full of workers who all habitually eat lunch at 1pm. Change lunch, arbitrarily to 12 noon and you will observe an interesting phenomenon, for the first week they will eat less, siting that they are just not hungry at 12:00. After two weeks of complaining you decide to switch back to 1pm. Everyone was just hitting their stride with the new time and so now you observe another phenomena, they are all ravenous by 12:30 and productivity is low for that hour. Often you will simply be hungry because it is the time that you habitually eat, nothing more. Again with good metabolic flexibility, you will be able notice shorter and less intense hunger pangs at these times. This will not occur in people who eat erratically with regard to timing.
This is simply low blood sugar caused by eating sugar, or simple carbs.
Some drugs, such as steroids (including those used for autoimmune conditions and asthma) can cause increased hunger due to increased metabolic rate. Even training can be included in this category.
Pavlov showed decades ago that dogs learn to associate triggers with food and begin salivating and presumably feeling hunger when exposed to those stimuli. This actually does happen in humans too. So certain places or habits may trigger hunger.
Lack of sleep.
It has been clearly demonstrated that after even just on night of bad sleep, Ghrelin and thus hunger levels are elevated. Couple this with the react that self control, will power and the ability to do the right thing when it is harder than the wrong this are compromised, and this factor can be particularly dangerous to your nutritional intake.
A word on hunger pangs.
A hunger pang is, actually a fairly short lived thing. 2-3 minutes on average, even for the most intense hunger pang. When you feel one, it can feel like eating your own arm is a perfectly reasonable thing to contemplate. But if you ride it Oura for a few long minutes, you will feel it pass over you.
I propose that you develop a better relationship with hunger. Instead of being at its whim, or worse yet fearing it and preemptively eating to avoid any chance meetings. I suggest you deliberately feel it at least every once in a while. Take it as a non urgent message that you should eat soon. If your diet is good, and broadly follows the principles laid out thus far, you should have a decent enough amount of metabolic flexibility to quickly tap into fat stores and mobilise plenty enough energy for your immediate needs.
Also consider periodic fasting, the next principle, in fact, to train your ability to deal with hunger well.