Hunger is a primoridial emotion. It is one of the basic emotional states hard-wired into every human being, like love anger, happiness, fear and anxiety. LIke these other emotions it is rooted in our physiology but mediated by our psychology. Your body produces a hormone, ghrelin, when it wants you to eat, but looking at pictures of pizza - especially picture of people enjoying eating pizza - can make you hungry too.
Misplaced love can become obsession, anger can motivate you to change the world. No emotion is all good or all bad, and like all emotions, hunger has both positive and negative sides to it.
Clearly if you are starving in a famine stricken village or struggling to feed your children, then hunger is one of the most demoralising and despiriting of emotions. Yet when faced with extreme starvation, the body can put hunger aside, perhaps a defense mechanism to ensure the individual can focus and better survive to the next meal.
But what could be positive about hunger?The problem, is that modern society, freed from the need to work physically for a living and faced with a super-abundance of affordable (to most) calories is vastly over-consuming food. In our past, hunger wasn't a message saying 'eat now' it was telling us to strat thinking about the next meal. A meal that might take hours to gather, hunt or prepare.
Jonathan Swift famously wrote "Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."
Ironically our modern attitude to food, rather than solving hunger and famine in the less fortunate parts of the world, has conspired to direct the energies of food production to doubling and quarupling the amount of food on our plates. Ironically combined with a casual attitude to waste society is struggling to come to terms with the concept of obsesity as the new normal, challenging our aesthtics and our attitudes, whilst simultaneously driving up rate of heart disease and even disability. Our society has become shape-concerned and food-obsessed driving bullying, bullimia and anorexia as a curse on the lives of too many young people.
I don't want to rail against anyone who is happy with their body; I wish everyone of every shape, size colour and form could be comfortable with the way they are. But true happiness with ourselves needs to reflect not just how we look and feel but be integrated with how we feel about our impact on the Earth and our physical and mental health.
Faced with the treat of statins and dire warnings of heart disease I decided to lose weight. My BMI is now at the top end of the 'healthy' range and I feel healthier, have become more active and most importantly I feel far more positive about myself. As for what other people think, I'd love to say I don't give a shit, but secretly it's great to have people saying I 'look well'.
I learnt an important lesson over two and a half years that started with six months of strict dieting, then adjusting and finding my new lifestyle - and battling with the ocassional relapse. And that lesson is that people who promote diets are keeping a big secret. It's simple, and yet something they really don't want you to hear.
If you want to lose weight, you need to feel hungry. The plain truth is that hunger is your body telling you you have run out of food energy and it's having to switch to using up your deeper reserves of carbohydrates and fat.
You can trick hunger with salads, diet drinks and protein shakes. But the problem is that while restricting your calories you are still keeping the habit of responding to hunger by filling your stomach. So when the diet ends and you reach your target, what happens? You go back to eating just like you always did.
What I discovered was that, for me, the best way to lose weight wasn't to count calories. It was three simple rules:
- Don't eat as soon as you feel hungry. Pick your mealtimes and stick to them. Don't snack! Allow yourself to feel peckish, or even genuinely hungry, for an hour or two before meals.
- Portion control! Use smaller plates. Put half that curry you made into a takeaway container and pop it in the freezer. Have one slice of bread, not two! Eat slower! Eat enough to satisfy your hunger, but don't try and stock up to bridge the gap to the next meal.
- Choose healthy food. Eat lots of different things but try to avoid things that are clearly laden with fat or sugar. Use yoghurt not cream.
Over time, your body will adapt. Feelings of hunger will become just signals that you are getting ready for the next meal. You will apreciate and enjoy that meal more. If you do feel peckish enough to get distracted, have a tea or coffee - without sugar! Your body will get better at mobilising its reserves and start tiding you over between meals.
I started dieting with a fairly agressive approach to losing weight, but when I was two-third of the way to my target, I eased up. I started to eat a bit more at each meal. I slightly overshot my target and found staying there left me feeling like I was still working at weight control. I let myself drift up to my target weight and found I could happily keep myself there without having to make myself feel hungry every day. I've had a couple of times where I have put on a bit - I'm human, stuffing my face on holiday or in a great restaurant is hard not to do! But I know I can get back any lost ground if a few weeks just by letting myself get hungry.
Let's be clear know there's no answer for everyone, but let's be honest, for many of us eating has become a habit. We live to eat rather than eat to live. If you want to lose a modest amount of weight and keep it off, learning to understand the messages your own body is sending you and how to respond to them may be the way for you.
Finally, I desparately don't want to create the impression that everyone should be starving themselves to feel good. That's one of the routes to anorexia, and despite being a middle-aged man my experience of coping with even modest weight has given me a glimpse of some of the demons and temptations. I shouldn't have eaten that, should I try to sick it up? Looking at shelves of chocolate just to feel good about not eating any. Don't flirt with those thoughts, and if your objectives start to become about not eating trather than aiming for a healthier, happier you - talk to friends, your doctor, your family. Today.
But we need to start accepting that hunger is neither a ticking time-bomb in our bellies nor a shrieking alarm call that should have us running to the fridge.