Open the fridge > Consider the options > Close the fridge > Open the pantry > Survey the snacks > Close the pantry > Open the fridge. In my house we call it “food seeking behavior,” and it’s a behavior pattern that all of us can relate to. When we feel hungry, instinct kicks in and we become preoccupied with the mission to find something to eat. Most people have a no-questions-asked relationship with hunger: they feel it, and they go find food. On the surface, this food seeking behavior is a perfectly sensible reaction to hunger… or is it???
Merriam-Webster Dictionary has several definitions for hunger. Two of them include 1) “a craving or urgent need for food or a specific nutrient,” and 2) “an uneasy sensation occasioned by the lack of food.” It’s this uneasy sensation that we’ll be exploring here today.
At its core, hunger is a straightforward physiologic cue that tells us that it’s time to eat. In fact, hunger is actually a lifesaving feeling when you consider what it meant for thousands of years of human evolutionary history. Throughout the majority of human history, our ancestors woke up every day wondering if they were going to get enough to eat that day. Death by starvation was a real threat in daily life for our ancestors (and still is in some places), which means that hunger was always a critically important message to heed.
In addition to hunger activating a behavioral response… it is also a powerful emotional trigger. Hunger is a warning. Hunger is a threat. Hunger sets off an emotional alarm, and our response is… FEAR. Eating enough calories and maintaining stable blood sugar are vital for life, and that’s why we are genetically programmed to fear hunger. We know that if we starve, we die… and hunger is the early warning signal. When food was scarce, those who paid the most attention to hunger were the ones who were the most likely to survive… and we are all the offspring of those hungry neanderthals.
It’s a pretty safe bet that nobody reading this article will ever have to worry about starving to death because of drought, famine, or lack of access to food. Farming, agriculture, food processing, preservation, and transportation have come a long way in the last few hundred years… and we have now reached a point where most of us have access to more food than we could ever consume in a lifetime. We should be grateful… we have come a very long way indeed.
Despite the blessing that most of us will never have to worry about starvation, hunger remains a powerful force in our lives. It still triggers fear, and it still motivates food seeking behavior just the way it did when food was scarce. For many people, hunger is so disruptive that they will go to great lengths to avoid it. Others get upset, irritable, grumpy, and short tempered… and the new term “hangry” has become one of the internet’s favorite words.
The lesson here is that the strong emotional reaction that we have to hunger is grossly out of sync with the reality of modern-day food access. We don’t need to fear hunger anymore… because we just ate a few hours ago, and we’re going to eat again soon. Hunger is no longer a threat to our existence. You’re not going to starve… trust me on this one.
In fact, people in the industrialized world today are far more likely to die of over consumption than starvation. We are now overfed… and overweight as a result. These days, hunger is actually more of a blessing than the curse it once was — and that’s the frame shift that I have used to help many of my patients get on the road to better health. If you are overweight… being hungry is okay. You’re not in danger. If you’re trying to lose weight and you feel hungry, that’s your signal that you’re on the right track. Hunger is your friend.
I want you to re-frame and reconsider your relationship with hunger. It doesn’t have to control you. Shift your focus away from the hunger and direct your effort at eating a whole food plant based diet. I can assure you; not only will you survive… you’ll thrive.
– Dr. Joshua Levitt