Have you ever had a gnawing hunger that was so profound you could swear that you were starving? Yeah, me too. It’s embarrassing to feel this way because I have in no way ever experienced food scarcity. I live in a part of the country where cheap food is abundant. The city I live in, Owensboro, KY is rumored to have more fast food restaurants per capita than any other city in the world. You could literally walk from joint to joint without getting out of breath. Cheap food is everywhere. How about those times when I had eaten lunch a few short hours before but would be so hungry that I became irritable and cranky? Heck, this happens to so many of us that we now have a word for it, being HANGRY. And don’t get me started on the irony of feeling hungry when I was overweight. I mean what the hell is all that stored fat for if not for helping me survive a famine and I couldn’t even survive until lunch. Hunger is for real and if it is intense enough it will drive us to seek out whatever food is available. So why does this happen?
Our species has dealt with the specter of famine and starvation since the beginning of time. We still have areas in the world where people starve to death. Our bodies have gotten incredibly good at recognizing when we are eating excess energy and we have a whole mechanism of storing this energy as fat. It’s easy to store sugar as fat but much harder to metabolize fat into a form of sugar that can be used for energy. Let’s also face the fact that we are all overeating. As humans we have never needed to eat 3-6 times a day and this has only been a practice over the past 100 years. Snacking, something we all love to do, is a recent phenomenon, basically since the 1980s. Now I’m not talking about children y’all so don’t be sending me nastygrams about how your children need to eat after school. I’m talking about grown adults who can choose what, why, when and where to eat.
So why do we get hungry when our weight makes it abundantly clear, we have stored energy? Every time we eat, insulin is released. Insulin is our fat storage hormone so high levels make it easy to convert sugar to fat. When we overwhelm our system with processed flour and sugar, our brain does not recognize the already stored energy that we call fat. Our brains just see extra food as protection against starvation. As long as we continue to eat frequently and with easily metabolized ingredients, our bodies will preferentially use this as a fuel source because it requires less energy to process. The only way to convince the body to use our stored fat is to lower our fat storage hormone, insulin. The only way to lower insulin with nutrition is to cut out flour and sugar. Once our levels are low enough the brain will receive the signal to start using our adipose tissue as energy. Getting rid of flour and sugar will help you use your already abundant energy store.
Getting rid of flour and sugar in your diet has an incredible side effect:less hunger. As your hormones become more balanced, and insulin is lowered, you can go for long stretches without feeling hungry. And when you do get hungry, you can generally ignore the feeling until food is available. THIS, my friends, is freedom from the tyranny of food.
Now I’ve been talking about the physical sensation of being hungry. There is another kind of hungry that has nothing to do with procuring energy. Sometimes, when we are feeling hungry, it is because our brain is telling us to obtain food to feel better. The crazy part of this is we might not even be aware of it. See, when we eat certain foods like junk food, our brains can get a little increase in the neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine makes us feel really good and calm. Think about the last time you had some kind of traumatic day. You might have gotten a snack when you got home or cruised through the DQ for blizzard (mini of course, because you know, you are on a diet) or even gotten something from the vending machine. We have learned to do this automatically and it is always associated with a feeling of hunger. Seriously, our brains are smart enough to replicate the chemical reaction that results in physical hunger to make our stomachs feel hunger and that we need to eat chips or cookies or candy or even nuts to produce the dopamine that the brain wants.
Next time you feel the four o’clock hungries coming up and your belly starts growling and all you can think about is a candy bar from the downstairs drug store, stop yourself and realize that this is a chemical reaction that is generating a feeling of hunger because the brain wants to feel good. All of our feelings are driven by what we are thinking so ask yourself is this truly energy seeking hunger or is the outcome of what kind of day you are having. This is no easy task. Your brain will insist on trying to convince you that you are hungry. Here is a quick test that I am borrowing from Katrina Ubell MD, and that is: consider a food that you would not eat unless you were truly physically needing food say a cold piece of unseasoned tofu. I don’t like tofu on a good day so NO WAY would I eat it cold unless I was desperate. Ask yourself if you would eat it as is to relieve that feeling? If the answer is no, then you are emotionally eating which is a primary driver that leads to overeating.
In my program we work on combatting the feelings of physical hunger and emotional hunger. Doing that work can result in amazing weight loss. Better yet it can free you from the shackles of the Hangry Monster and let you get back to living your life instead of living for food.