In the struggle against gaining too much weight, hunger has been demonized. Don’t trust your hunger, we’re told, count the calories you eat. Keep your portion sizes in check. This is very unfortunate because what we really need to be doing is listening very carefully to our bodies, not ignoring them in favour of some distant expert’s opinion.
Hunger is an exquisitely tuned signal. Our hunger is exactly proportional to the number of calories we need. If we exert ourselves, our hunger increases. Everyone has experienced the intense hunger that comes after working hard, and the pleasure of satisfying that hunger.
It is difficult to describe the feeling of satisfied hunger. It’s the point where your stomach feels pleasantly full, not painfully so. It is the point where you could fit another bite in, but you would rather not. On the other hand, being overfull is distinctly unpleasant.
When hunger is absent, it is usually because of an illness. Cancer sufferers notoriously lose their appetites. Appendicitis, gallbladder problems, depression: many diseases can cause a lack of appetite.
Use your hunger to your advantage; work up an appetite for healthy meals. Over the holidays, we were given lots of snack food: trail mix, chocolates, candies and crackers. Usually we don’t have anything around the house that is ready to eat. In contrast, over the holidays, we grazed on snack foods all day. When a mealtime rolled around, we really didn’t want anything. So we ate a lot of processed, low-nutrient food instead of the healthy stuff we usually prepare. It is best to eat three square meals a day rather than graze constantly. By the time a meal comes around, you should be hungry for it.
Avoid becoming ravenous. If you skip a meal, chances are you will overeat at the next opportunity. Skipping meals is not a good weight-loss strategy.
It has sometimes been suggested that eating five or six smaller meals in a day is a good way to lose weight because you never become overly hungry. This theory has been disproven. People attempting this strategy tend to eat more throughout the day rather than less.
Be alert to the false hunger of functional hypoglycemia. Functional hypoglycemia is when your body reacts to falling levels of blood sugar. Your blood sugar levels are still in a healthy range, but it is the drop that the body detects, and that sends it into a panic. Anyone who has experienced functional hypoglycemia before will recognize it: intense hunger, craving for sweets or carbs, sweatiness, shakiness and irritability. The perfect term has been coined to describe it: angry and hungry — hangry. If you develop functional hypoglycemia, it will be next to impossible to wait until you have healthy food available. You will satisfy your cravings with candy, or chips, or some other high-carbohydrate food.
You may be protesting — ‘Andrea! I have always listened to my hunger and stopped eating when full but I am STILL overweight! What am I supposed to do?’ If this is the case for you, then it is most likely the type of foods you are eating that are causing your problems. Every person has a certain degree of carbohydrate sensitivity. Some people are very insensitive to carbohydrates and can eat all the bread and rice they want without any ill effects. Other people are very sensitive and have to monitor and restrict the amount of carbohydrates they eat. Carbohydrates are found in grains, beans, nuts, vegetables, fruits, dairy products and sugar.
Take your hunger as a sign that you are healthy, even if you are overweight. Being overweight isn’t actually a disease itself; it is a risk factor for future diseases. If you have the feeling of hunger, your body is working the way it is supposed to.
Experiment — pay attention to when your hunger feels controllable and when it gets to the point where you feel desperate for food. When you eat, pay attention to the point when you start to feel satisfied. What types of foods leave you feeling satisfied longest? What types of foods leave you feeling hungry again half an hour later?
No book, nutritionist, website or naturopath can tell you better than your own body how many calories you need in a day.