Isn’t this the most basic of all beliefs about food? If you’ve read magazine articles or medical literature that discuss the difficulty people face losing large amounts of weight and keeping it off, the subject of hunger almost always comes up. And how many advertisements have you seen for the latest and greatest diet breakthrough telling you how, on their plan, you can lose weight without feeling hungry? It’s a given that if a person on a diet is hungry, then the diet will probably fail.
Of course, hunger is not as simple as it seems. When I was losing weight five years ago, my nutritionist said I needed to learn to distinguish hunger from other sensations. For example, if it was nine in the evening and I had a sudden craving for, oh say, massive quantities of crackers and cheese, she told me to use a technique called “HALT.” HALT is an acronym for “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.” In other words, was I really hungry, or was something else at play? This was pretty useful advice, but it begs the essential question: what should I do if I am truly hungry?
One of the reasons that programs like the Atkins Diet or the South Beach Diet are so popular is that they deal directly with hunger. These types of diets recommend a low-carb approach to eating and it’s been empirically confirmed that low-carb equals less hunger. I can attest to this from personal experience. The diet that I followed to lose 100 pounds was a low-carb variation on South Beach and I was not hungry very often while I was on it. So is that the answer? I suppose it could be, if your plan is to never eat another high-carb food again. I’ve found that’s pretty hard to do in practice, in this bread and pasta-crazed world we live in.
But still, my question has not been answered. If I’m hungry, does that mean I should eat? To put it another way, is being hungry a bad thing?
As is true for most serious questions, the answer is: it depends. If you’re so hungry that your physical survival is in doubt, I’d say yes, being hungry is a bad thing. If you’re so hungry that you feel dizzy and faint, then again, yes, being hungry is a bad thing. If it’s three in the afternoon and, knowing you will go out for “Italian Night” at your favorite diner in a few hours, you feel a slight rumbling in your stomach, is being hungry really a problem?
For some reason, we treat hunger differently than other physical sensations. How many of you have had the experience of feeling a little tired, but you stayed up anyway to see the end of the movie? Have you ever had an ache or a pain somewhere, but went out dancing anyway? We often have no difficulty ignoring all kinds of minor discomforts, but when it’s hunger, all bets (and bacon bits) are off. One little rumbling in the belly is a call to immediate action.
It’s puzzling to me, in a country where as many as 17 million children go to bed on an empty stomach, that the rest of us are so squeamish about the occasional minor hunger pang. I’ve actually found the experience of being slightly hungry to be liberating. I’m not glorifying an eating disorder, just suggesting that allowing yourself to coexist with mild hunger from time to time can be an invigorating thing.
So, what should you do if you’re hungry? You tell me.