One of the earliest entries I wrote on this blog is titled Eat Only When Hungry. The concept is very simple: eat when you feel the physical need for fuel, and stop eating when that need subsides. It is the basic foundation of a healthy and balanced relationship with food. It's one of those concepts that, along with "everything in moderation" has been so overused in the discourse about health and fitness, it has been reduced to mere platitude, despite its incontrovertible validity.
Anyone who has sought to heal a damaged relationship with food has some understanding of the damaging effects of eating for reasons other than hunger. We also understand how eating solely to refuel is extremely challenging in a society in which gratuitous eating is ubiquitous, and eating exclusively to meet the body's energy needs is considered nothing short of quaint.
The part of this equation which is seldom discussed is the not always obvious corollary of always heeding the presence of hunger.
Our society is afflicted by an attitudinal paradox when it comes to eating. Everywhere we turn, there is the perceived obligation to consume food at times other than when our bodies require refueling. To name a few: the birthday cake for the office colleague, the second and third trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet, Halloween/Valentine's/Easter candy, the proverbial "holidays," and even regular meals on an arbitrary schedule.
And, although eating seems to be a ubiquitous, sine-qua-non element in all sorts of social and antisocial situations, eating as an operational priority in the management of our everyday lives has actually been relegated into a very low rung indeed.
We all have been guilty of claiming ourselves "too busy to eat." Every single person I know has said this at some time or another. Skipping breakfast on account of "no time" is a popular mantra, regardless of whether hunger is present or not. Working late into the evening, not responding to the body's call for fuel until it becomes a full-throttled scream that goes beyond the form of a grumbling belly and eventually morphs into our inability to continue that which was keeping us from eating in the first place. "I have a job, I have kids, I have..." Sound familiar? We let our perception of being "needed" by things and people outside of ourselves interfere with the primary form of physical sustenance that enables us to meet those requirements. We conveniently forget that, if we don't give our bodies adequate fuel, the job suffers, the kids suffer, everything suffers.
So, we are pulled in two directions:
- The social imperative to constantly eat for a myriad reasons, all of which are dissociated from the body's physical needs
- The de-prioritization of refueling ourselves within the hierarchy of our daily activities.
Not content with eating for non-fueling reasons, or with disregarding the body's cry for nutritional replenishment, we often combine the two, in an unabashed orgy of misguided behaviors. We decline to eat all day in order to "save room" for that special food or event later in the day. We skip lunch because we're going out for burgers and drinks with the colleagues. We survive all day on black coffee in anticipation of date night at a fancy restaurant. And, of course, we endeavor not to eat at all for about nine days prior to Thanksgiving.
What these two tendencies have in common is that they are both manifestations of disrespecting both the absence and the presence of physical hunger, in favor of societally or circumstantially imposed factors.
I wholeheartedly believe that this ubiquitous disconnect from our bodies and our sense of genuine hunger/satiety is at the root of the epidemic of obesity and associated diseases that plagues the Western world.
Most of the health, nutrition, and fitness literature which deals with appropriate eating (in the presence of hunger) versus inappropriate eating (in the absence of hunger) focuses solely on how detrimental it is to eat in the absence of the need for fuel. On the flip side of the issue, only the "Intuitive Eating" movement (with which I have a love-hate relationship, for reasons that I won't expound here) is the ONLY source where the concept of paying attention to hunger promptly and appropriately is even examined. "Honor your hunger," is what they call it. I feel that the sentiment needs slightly stronger language. "Respect your hunger," or even better, "OBEY your hunger."
I can't emphasize enough the importance of this much-neglected matter. It is an issue of basic self-care, and sensible operational logistics. You don't hear anyone saying "I have to drive from New York to Chicago by tomorrow afternoon, but I don't have time to stop for gas." If you tried that, you just wouldn't make it. It's that simple. And yet we have no compunction about pushing our bodies to run on fumes until that project is completed, or until we have gotten to Chicago after a 16-hour drive (during which we *DID* feed the car proper fuel, but we made do with a bag of chips). Why do we treat our objects better than we treat ourselves?
We should respect our hunger, because it is not only the kindest, but also the most efficient and healthful way to treat our bodies. And, if self-love and self-care don't resonate with you, then consider this: ignoring hunger costs you money and makes you fat.
How so? you may ask. I'm eating only one meal a day! Doesn't that limit the calories I'm consuming? Well, not really (even if you do indeed believe in calories in/calories out):
- Neglected hunger escalates and becomes increasingly difficult to satiate with an appropriate amount of food. We've all been there. We have waited too long to eat, or eaten too little beforehand, and we arrive at the table ravenous, unable to stop shoveling food in until we are uncomfortably stuffed.
- We become indiscriminate in our food choices, and our sense of physical urgency often leads us to eat whatever is closest at hand, which is likely to be overpriced restaurant or convenience store food.
- We are inclined to buy excess food which, if we don't end up overeating, ends up in the trash. More wasted money.
- It unleashes a hormonal reaction in the body which prompts it to lower metabolism and increase the percentage of fuel that gets stored away for future famine.
Yes, famine. Even if you have extra fat on you, every time you experience hunger and do not address it promptly with appropriate fuel, your body goes into a state of elemental panic. It slows down energy output, and it opens up the fat-storage gates in order to receive new deposits as soon as you eat again.
Now, I am not one of those science-wanking bloggers who can quote all sorts of studies and data to support such statements. I don't need to, because there are writers aplenty out there who already do this, and I know well enough to leave that kind of thing to the experts. All I know is that the most fattening thing I've ever done in my life is to go hungry without eating. Hands down the most fattening, far above binging on Häagen Dazs, or the entire period between Halloween and Valentine's Day on any given year.
An occasional, sporadic "got too busy and skipped lunch" isn't terribly damaging. It is the ongoing pattern of daily disregarding the body's call for fuel that is the real problem. Neglected hunger ends up escalating into a bottomless, insatiable pit, and a lowered metabolism, which delivers a double whammy of driving us to eat way above our body's needs, and decreased metabolism, which turns that excess into twice the blubber it could have been in the case of a mere occasional overindulgence. And I'm not going to go into the physical and emotional fallout from becoming overweight and obese. There's plenty of writing out there on that.
If we use a 1-10 hunger scale, in which 1 is "about to eat the cat" and 10 is "so full I can't even breathe," you should never let your hunger reach below a 3 (Very hungry). Ideally, you should start procuring food when you are at a level 4 (starting to get hungry but patient enough to take the time to seek or prepare food). And, as stated in "Eat Only When Hungry," stop when you reach a 5-6 (neutral, wouldn't stop what I'm doing in order to eat).
In this age of round-the-clock access to food, avoiding excess hunger should be nigh on impossible. But, the reality is that it does take some forethought and planning in order not to allow ourselves to be caught short on the go. The first thing we need to do is to prioritize fuel for ourselves. We need to accept that, if we aren't operating our bodies effectively, we won't be able to perform optimally in any capacity. On the practical level, this means making time and room in order to eat promptly and appropriately. If you know that you're going to be on the run, bring a portable meal or a substantial snack along, so that you can respond to hunger, even in the whirlwind of other activities. Prioritize eating regular meals rather than pushing off refueling until the end of the day (or the completion of XYZ).
When we work in harmony with our bodies, rather than fight against them, we will find that many things in life go a bit smoother. We manage stress more easily when we are adequately fed. We have a decreased tendency to become ill. We have more physical endurance. And we are more likely to maintain a healthy physique.
So, next time you are about to say to yourself "I don't have time for lunch," think again, and have a sandwich.