Let’s play a game. We are going to imagine you are you, a long-ago you. I want to recapture a feeling from your childhood. We are going to focus on remembering how you felt when you were hungry.
I want you to think of an afternoon when you played through lunch without eating or snacking, and then, an hour or so before your usual dinner, suddenly felt hungry, so you asked your mom (or whoever was in charge of feeding you) for something to eat. On this occasion, your caregiver didn’t offer you anything . Instead, he or she told you, “If you eat now, you will spoil your appetite for dinner’. Maybe you moped about that for a minute, but, it wasn’t long until you totally forgot about feeling hungry and immersed yourself in a new game or new project. Even though you were cut off from all external calories sources, you nevertheless had plenty of energy for the rest of the afternoon. (You get extra points if you also remember that when you finally did sit down to eat, the food tasted especially good.)
Most of the people recall their childhood hunger experience as something temporary, a minor nuisance quickly melted away with simple distractions. Their hunger did not control their mood or energy level; they controlled their hunger, pushing it aside and remaining fully able to function- play a game, read a book, finish their homework, or otherwise focus on whatever new task came up.
That’s how hunger is supposed to be when you are a kid. If food is unavailable when you are hungry, that just shouldn’t be a big deal. Children who are well nourished and healthy can play through lunch and, when their hunger pops up a few hours later, be able to push it back down if they are not permitted to eat and dive right back into playing games, doing homework, finishing chores, and so on.
So now, let’s think about the present. Consider whether your hunger experience as an adult is any different from what it used to be when you were little. By “different” I mean are there additional feelings with your hunger that you didn’t used to have ? If you get hungry mid- morning because you were forced to run out the door without breakfast in your belly, how did you feel when the hunger kicked in? Were you sleepy? Irritable? Depressed? What happens to you in the afternoon when you didn’t get to eat lunch or any snacks or caloric beverages or energy drinks ? Do you still have the concentration you need to pull a meal together?
Believe it or not your experience of hunger as an adult should be brief and self- limited, just as it was in childhood. Adults should be able to knock back their hunger, knuckle down, and all the while remain focused and levelheaded.
But most of us can’t do that . Most of us don’t have control over our hunger – our hunger has control over us. Not only are most of the unable to skip meals, many tell me depend on snacks to sustain their energy between meals.
When these people are asked, how they feel when they are hungry but don’t get to eat, the vast majority relate some sense of desperation. They tell they can’t function at their peak. They get brain fog or feel drowsy or even nauseated and dizzy. And their coworkers or family members may notice a change in mood as well; they will get noticeably cranky- kind of like a child who doesn’t get to sleep at their usual nap time.
It has become so commonplace for adults to regress to a childlike state of irritability when they don’t get to eat at their usual mealtimes that we have a new word to describe it: “hangry” ( an amalgam of “hungry” and “angry”). We are in the midst of an epidemic of intolerance to going without food for more than a few hours.
The magnitude of the hangry epidemic was first evidence during the 2010 Super Bowl. A halftime commercial comically depicted candy bars as performance- enhancing nourishment. It went like this : Eighty-nine -year -old comic actress Betty White is playing a game of pickup football with a bunch of fit twenty- something athletes. Betty is slow, cranky, and easy to take down. Thankfully, a young female friend on the sidelines rushes into the field to hand over a Snicker bar. After just one bite, the little old lady is transformed into a tall, muscular, muddy- uniformed stud. The punchline of the commercial is “You are not you when you are hungry”.
That is a surprisingly perceptive health claim. Because if you relate to the idea that your mood, ability to concentrate, attitude, energy level, and so on are transformed with a bite of a candy bar, then you are not, physiologically speaking, the person you are supposed to be.
In spite of what the snack food industry wants you to believe, improving performance with sweets – or any blood -sugar-elevating food- is not a good long-term solution.
This may shock you, but these physical changes and dips in your performance both cognitively and emotionally do not represent hunger. They represent a severe energy deficit occurring in your body and are not a normal accompaniment to hunger. And if you have been snacking to alleviate these symptoms, you have been making the problem worse.
Hunger is supposed to be something that guide us to nutrition and motivates us to get up and do something that will enable us to acquire nutrition. Hunger is not supposed to be something that makes us tired. If hunger made any species of animals so tired that missing meals by a matter of hours rendered it enable to get up and find food, those windows of opportunity would slam shut, ending the individual’s life. Imagine a pack of hungry wolves. Do you envision them lying around waiting for large slabs of meat to appear in their midst? Or do you see them tirelessly tracking fresh prey, relentlessly on the move for hours – or, if need be, for days?
If hunger made a species tired, then within a very short time the entire species would cease to exist.
Why should heathy hunger be easily suppressed by distractions? Because your biology is geared toward doing something about hunger. Shortly after a meal, while your stomach is full, most of us feel tired. This is partly because blood flow is diverted away from your brain and to support a sense of fullness and restfulness. Hours later , once your stomach is empty and the digestive system requires less of your body’s blood supply, your neurochemical balance shifts, the restfulness dissipates, and your mental focus comes back on line. This is one way your boy starts preparing you to go seek out more food; it’s preparing you for the physical work involved in hunting and gathering or farming and cooking. To motivate us to do all that work, our brain is equipped with an arsenal of feel-good chemicals associated with goal- oriented behavior, including dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and many more. In other words, hunger is supposed to be a high- energy state, not a low- energy state. Obviously, this does not apply forever, but it does appear that food abstinence supports an energized state of body and mind, thus enabling us to work hard, when necessary, to acquire the nutrition we need.
When you feel bad after going just a few more hours longer than usual between feedings, that is a red flag indicating metabolic damage. That feeling is not a need for nutrition. It is not healthy hunger. It is an energy crisis. And most people have learned to treat that energy crisis with something that will raise their blood sugar.
Nine out of ten adults in my practice no longer experience hunger the way nature intended. They experience hunger the way nature intended. They experience an unhealthy hunger, a result of altered brain function that occurs when an area of the brain is not able to support its needs for energy. The energy dip causes either cognitive dysfunction or emotional dysfunction or both. Energy dips may also affect the part of their nervous system that regulates heart rate, blood pressure, digestive function, and body temperature, causing palpitations, blood pressure changes, nausea, and sweats.
You may not have noticed the point in time where your metabolism first crossed over threshold from functioning normally to experiencing energy emergencies. If you have been dealing with symptoms long enough, you may have become numb to them, and it might take a little practice and learning to help bring them to your attention.
These energy crises cause symptoms in your nervous system that I want you to learn to recognize because they indicate desperation hunger. Until you can end unhealthy hunger, you are going to be driven to make unhealthy food choices. Let’s take a look at the eleven symptoms of unhealthy hunger.
I want you to look for them whenever you feel hungry. If you experience any of these symptoms when you are hungry and they intensify until you eat something and then go away after you eat, then they are occurring because of metabolic damage.
These same symptoms can occur for other reasons. That’s why it’s important to memorize them, and make a mental note to see if experience them when you are hungry. If you experience them at other times and they don’t get any better when you eat, then they may be occurring for another reason- and you want to bring them to your doctor’s attention.
You can think of these symptoms as a warning. Just as the warning light on your car dashboard signals that your car is low in gas, these symptoms are warning that your brain is on the verge of running out of fuel. Mind you, a person can have these symptoms for reasons other than hunger. But if you have any of these eleven symptoms between meals or when you are hungry and they go away when you eat something, that’s an energy crisis and the symptoms are your body’s attempt to warn you that your brain is not getting enough energy. Eating sugar might make you feel better temporarily, but don’t let that trick you into thinking you need sugar to solve the problem. What you really need is to heal your metabolism so that you brain can get energy from your body fat.
The reason your brain may not be getting enough energy at any given moment in time comes from fact that your body is overly dependent on sugar for energy. When you can’t burn body fat efficiently, your requirement for sugar goes up and can exceed your body’s ability to store and deliver sugar, so your cells don’t get enough. Running low on sugar makes you feel like your cellular engines aren’t firing on all cylinder. And that’s what causes unhealthy hunger symptoms.