Thoughts About Hunger

- POSTED ON: Dec 26, 2012

What is hunger?

We grow up thinking that hunger is our body’s way of telling us that we need food, but that isn’t usually the case for most of us. Very few of us are so fit, or have so little body fat, or are so active that our bodies start calling for energy if we miss lunch.

We feel hunger when we haven’t eaten for a while. We may feel hunger if the food looks good; or if we are in a social situation in which eating is going on; or because we think it’s time to eat.

We tend to identify a feeling that comes along with eating behavior as the cause of the behavior. But “hungry” only means we are in a situation in which we are used to eating. It doesn’t mean that feeling hungry will make us eat, or, more important, that we have to eat.

 Hunger is a sign that we are used to eating in a particular time or situation. We are not required to answer the signal.

Some of us are familiar with the statement: “We eat too much because we are fat.” Currently, there’s a strong tendency to think of hunger in terms of hormones, emphasizing the body regulates hunger like it regulates body temperature. While there is truth in this concept, thinking like this can lead to confusion because … ultimately, Behavior trumps hormones. The hormonal causation analogy isn’t really all that helpful, because we humans don’t regulate our temperature merely by hormonally means. Our major control of the body’s temperature is behavioral. We put on clothes, and we hide in caves.

It has become popular to focus on an error in the statement: “a calorie is a calorie.” A critique of the energy balance model is: 

             dietary carbohydrate = insulin = +other hormones = increased appetite = greater consumption.

This explanation is limited because it mixes up metabolism with behavior, and implicitly accepts the idea that the effect of macronutrients on one’s body affects how much we choose to eat. Specific macronutrients clearly have different effects on satiety. However, no matter what our hormonal state, if there is NO food, we will not increase consumption. Although we have no choice in our genetics, and the way our metabolism functions is not within our control, our eating Behaviors are ultimately still a matter of personal choice.

It is helpful to figure out what kind of hunger we’re talking about.
Behavioral psychology stresses the difference between “tastes good” and “hunger” which really only means that eating good-tasting food increases the probability that we will eat more of it than the body needs.

No matter what our calorie eating allowance is when we are working toward weight-loss, it seems like bad advice to eat if we aren’t hungry. We frequently hear nutritionists say that “everyone needs to have a good breakfast”. Why we would specifically want to have a “good” anything if we are trying to lose weight is not easy to answer.

Nutritionists say that this is true because this will cause us to eat too much at the next meal ….
 as if, in the morning, we can make a rational decision to eat breakfast in the face of not wanting to eat  but, at noon, we are suddenly under the inexorable influence of urges beyond our control.   It would be more reasonable to add the condition … “if you find that you eat too much at lunch when you don’t eat breakfast…,” Many people have the opposite reaction to eating breakfast -- sometimes food can be more reinforcing than satiating.

Semantics … the words that are used to present a diet concept tend to influence our food choice behaviors. For example, nutritionists like to say that diets are high in fat, but alternatively, say that they are rich in whole grains. Portion Control actually means “don’t eat too much”, but the term is used by nutritionists as though it was a great new scientific principle.

 Hunger is a feeling or a signal. We get to choose how we respond to it.

It’s simple, but not easy.

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Existing Comments:

On Dec 26, 2012 wrote:
My belief is we are conditioned to eat from the time we are infants. Nutritionists, working hand in hand with the food industry tell our parents who learned the spiel from their parents, that we must start the day with a 'good breakfast'. What defines a 'good breakfast'? Ask the nutritionists and it will most likely be a bowl of some kind of grain...with milk, and plenty of sugar...oh yuk! unecessary evil; but the bell rings in school or office and all work stops and it's off to the lunchroom or fast food joint for an hour. Then it's home again, home again, jiggity jog and a meal called DINNER is served whether we want it, or need it. Honestly we are just like Pavlov's different. Told what to eat, and when to eat by an outside source interested only in having you spend more $$$ for their products even if you don't need them. I say if your going to eat something, you choose when, what, and how much.

On Dec 26, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Yes John, all good points.

On Dec 26, 2012 jethro wrote:
I read someplace that you have to be on a week fast to experience real hunger. BTW, the blue Pac Man is's eating dietary myths.

On Dec 26, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Jethro, "dietary myths" I like your analogy. My own experience with fasting, is that the feelings of hunger are strong at the end of the first day, and grow stonger during the next few days, but by the end of the third or fourth day, all feelings of hunger disappear. Hunger feelings return after one eats again. I've read that those hunger feelings also return after 40 days or so, AFTER a person's body fat has been greatly depleted, and actual starvation is imminent... however, opinions seem to be divided about whether or not that actually occurs.

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