A more serious thought on being hungry

In The Hungry I talked a little about why it’s bad to ignore being hungry.  Being hungry is a natural body function that tells people that we need more fuel.   Hunger comes before other things like the inability to concentrate, weakness, fainting, and in extreme cases, starvation.

So, why is this a good thing?

Caution:  the following may be triggering.  I don’t know how to cut some of this and put it so you have to click on a link.


When I was a kid, I had to learn all sorts of tricks to deal with being hungry constantly.  Like I’ve stated elsewhere, it’s not that I was fat as a child, but that my parents (in the 1970’s) bought into the “you can never be too thin” ideal.   The things I did to ignore my hunger can all be found on pro-ana and diet boards now.   But no matter how much I tried, the hunger never went away.

I just learned to accept the fact that I was always hungry, and go about my day.

Yes, there were times I snuck food at home, times I stole candy from the local corner store (pre-cursor to today’s convenience store).  I was always so desperate I would do anything for extra food, including risking jail — or worse, the owners of the store calling my parents when they caught me.  Even when given the ability to have some extra food (a friend offering me some of their cookies or a piece of candy), I had to balance it with not eating too much or I’d gain weight, and get in trouble.

So, to say my relationship with hunger was a bit estranged would be an understatement.

Until a couple of years ago, I could go for days on end without eating (and did at times) without realizing I was hungry.  The pangs were just “normal”, and if I ignored it for a half hour, it’d go away.  Right?  When it didn’t, I’d give myself another half hour and then start doing things.  Eventually, I would forget about being hungry. 

When I went to live with my grandparents, things got better, but I still never listened to my body, or it’s needs.  I would eat at a certain time because that’s when dinner time was.  It didn’t matter if I was hungry or not.  And then there were my attempts to diet as I started gaining weight.   One time, for a month, I tried to become a vegetarian.  Only, I didn’t know the first thing about nutrition.  So, my whole intake for the day would be a glass of milk with Carnation Instant Breakfast (TM) in it for breakfast, nothing for lunch, and a plate full of whatever frozen veggie Grandma was having with dinner that night.  I was ravenous all the time, but it didn’t matter.

I was so used to being hungry after all.

As an adult, I had times of being with somebody and being alone.  Whenever I was with somebody, I’d eat semi-normally.  At least, I’d have one real meal a day, and maybe a snack during the day.  I fueled my body on diet Coke (TM) and that’s about it.  

By this time, I don’t even remember being hungry at all.  I’d learned so well to ignore hunger, I never even felt it anymore.

It wasn’t until I met my husband that I started to realize something was wrong with me ignoring my hunger.  Conall would get worried about me when we were apart, because he knew I’d usually not eat.  If I was going to be away with friends for more than a few hours, he’d make sure they knew I needed to eat.  It was annoying, because I was never hungry.  It was more annoying when those friends saw how little I’d eat and insist I eat more, and at more intervals.

You’d think with how little I ate (how few times a day) that I’d not be fat.  I mean, if it really is as simple as “calories in/calories out”, right?

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I was prescribed metformin for my PCOS that I started realizing I needed to actually eat.  Only, now it became even worse.  Not only was I conditioned from years of practice to ignore my hunger, one of the side effects of metformin is lack of apatite.  I pretty much stopped eating, and had an excuse.   I wasn’t hungry at all.  Obviously my body wasn’t needing the food, because I wasn’t hungry, and if I ate more than a few bites, I was way too full, nauseous even.

That worked until the day I was at an SCA camping event.  I was setting up the table with water, Gatorade, oranges and pickles (so nobody would get dehydrated) and started getting shaky.  I had no clue what blood sugar bottoming out felt like, because I’d never felt it before.  (Another side effect of the metformin, I guess, was making my body actually utilize the insulin and therefor make it so I had to eat, even if I wasn’t hungry.) 

I ignored my shakiness, like I used to ignore my hunger.   It was just a weirdness, and I had a job to do. 

The short end of the story is that I almost fainted while providing people water and Gatorade, because I’d not had enough food to fuel me for the exercise I was getting.  I was unable to focus, shaky, and completely refusing food.  I kept insisting I’d had enough water (which I had, after all, it’s bad form for the woman pushing others to drink to fall out from dehydration).  It took a man who had EMT training and who was diabetic to put the pieces of the puzzle together and force me to eat.  And not only eat, but eat a bunch of carbs.  Oh, and he pulled rank and prohibited me from returning to my job. 

So, I learned that eating is something I have to do.  If I’m going to exercise more than usual, I have to eat more than usual. 

The thing is, I still don’t always recognize my hunger when it happens.

About a week ago, I was talking on IM’s with my made sister (as opposed to family of origin), and kept talking about all this food I wanted to make.  I started off with wanting something really small, but we didn’t have here in the house.  And we went on, as conversations do, and talked about other things.  Then I brought the conversation back to food.  And how I wanted to make something else.  And we went back to the other topic.  And I brought it back to food again.  I did this about five times, the last time was wanting to make homemade cinnamon rolls, but I couldn’t do that, we didn’t have enough flour in the house.   Besides, it would take about 4 hours for them to be done and it was evening when I wanted to make them.

It was at that point I realized I was hungry, and had been for a while.  Yes, I went and got something to eat.

I’ve learned that hunger is the proper cue my body uses to tell me that it needs more energy.  Unfortunately, I don’t always feel it, or when I do, I don’t always realize what I’m feeling is hunger.   I don’t know how to get that back either.

So, Weight Watchers telling people to ignore the hunger?  Is really setting them up for potential problems down the way.  Besides the whole dysfunctional eating behaviors, it could have serious repercussions if you get to the point where you just never feel hunger again.  Weight Watchers really don’t know what’s best for your body.  Your body does.  And when it needs fuel, it lets you know by being hungry.

It’s simple, really.  Too bad it’s not easy for me.


16 Responses

  1. Except that it’s not uncommon for normal body processes to become dysregulated. In fact, it’s very common. It’s entirely reasonable to postulate that some people experience hunger in excess of what their bodies actually need. In such cases, it is not only reasonable, but desirable, to ignore the hunger.

  2. I just wanted to say thank you for this post. My background is a little different but I can sure relate to your experiences — especially the discovery that “hey, thinking/fantasizing about food probably means that I’m actually hungry”. When I start idly browsing allrecipes.com or wishing that I had a chocolate cake in the kitchen, that’s a sign.

  3. Thanks for this post. When I was a child, I was lucky enough that I was allowed to eat when I was hungry. However, when I was fifteen, I started to ignore those cues on purpose. I rewired myself sufficiently so that if I didn’t go to bed hungry, I felt weird. Additionally, hunger was tied into an extremely emotional feeling of success – I think that was part of my coping strategy. Even to this day, if I go too long ignoring my hunger pains, that feeling of “you’re a better person now that’s you’re letting yourself go hungry” will still reappear. I have no idea what to do about it, and how to make it go away — it’s completely not under my control. What I’ve done is to make sure that I’m not hungry often, and especially not on purpose.

    Oh yes, and tied with the “successful” feeling when I’m hungry is the feeling of “failure” when I am full. So I have a tendency to snack instead of eat huge meals. I really wish I could just eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner like my fiancee does, but it doesn’t happen. I’m not sure if I can rewire myself again — I think it takes about the same time to unwire what you previously wired. That is, if it took 10 years for you to learn how to successfully ignore hunger, it would take another active 10 years for you to learn how to unwire it. But that’s just a fuzzy, layperson, non-neurologist guess. 😉

    Again, thanks for the post. I agree, ultimately: hunger is important, and the “white noise” this culture feeds into the hunger/full response is the root of unhealthy relationships with food. (white noise being diet products like appetite suppressants, unreasonable physical trait expectations like “never-too-thin,” and so forth).

  4. I have to say I find this post really depressing. It’s just so…sad…

    …sad that you were brought up to think so little of your own body, if that akes any sense?

  5. This was very interesting. I was not forcibly starved as a child–I did it to myself, starting at age eight. When I met my husband and started spending a lot of time with him, I finally started eating three meals a day for the first time ever as an adult. And suddenly, I had to start paying attention to when I’d last eaten before I went out for a walk or whatever, because if it had been too long, my blood sugar would crash.

    I have begun to recognize what hungry feels like, and like Daphne B. said, that if I am fantasizing about food it means I need to eat. For example, when I first went on blood pressure meds, I started having horrible cravings for salty foods. I was dreaming about salty foods. I once got up in the middle of the night to boil up some Top Ramen, just so I could drink the broth. I found out later that my potassium levels had plummeted dangerously (the leg cramps and pounding heart should have been a clue, too!).

    I’m finally learning to trust my body and to figure out what it’s trying to tell me, instead of thinking that ignoring hunger signals is somehow virtuous.

  6. Thank you for sharing, it’s important.

  7. Very good post. I’ve had some similar issues with ignoring hunger and could/can go from early morning after breakfast to quite late evening without noticing I’m hungry. I think it’s something I did to myself as a teenager, with only having a small breakfast before school and then not eating again before dinner (which could be either early or late), and I just got used to not feeling hungry.

    I have no problems feeling hunger as long as I have regular meals throughout the day since my body will automatically get hungry before the time it’s used to get food. But I do get periods where I do not have regular meals, which means I can then go for hours and hours and not notice I’m hungry and should eat.

  8. My mom gets really offended when I say I was hungry as a kid – she was less hung up on my weight than my dad but absoltely rigid about “eating schedules” and served a very narrow variety of foods – but I’d spend hours mooning over Figi’s catalogs and cookbooks and the like. And, yeah, totally out of contact with my hunger – the first time I house-sat, without my mother calling me to regular meals, I went days without eating.

    The pangs were just “normal”, and if I ignored it for a half hour, it’d go away. Right? When it didn’t, I’d give myself another half hour and then start doing things. Eventually, I would forget about being hungry.

    Oh, so very true. Jean Antonello claims that if you start consciously paying attention to your hunger, it’ll come back to the point where you can’t ignore it, but I have my doubts… Hasn’t happened yet, anyhow. Although I do now at least have times I’m consciously aware of being hungry, which is progress.

    After years of trying to re-connect with my hunger I still struggle. It’s a huge learning process. I think you’re right about the “thinking about food means you’re hungry” thing but I hadn’t consciously pinned that down.

    Thank you for articulating the experience of being out of touch with your own hunger. Seconding Piffle that “it’s important.”

  9. Maria: ” It’s entirely reasonable to postulate that some people experience hunger in excess of what their bodies actually need. In such cases, it is not only reasonable, but desirable, to ignore the hunger.”

    No, it is still not reasonable nor desirable to ignore hunger. If there truly is something physically wrong that a person keeps feeling hunger in excess of their bodies needs, they should go to a doctor and find out what is wrong with them.

    See, feeling too much hunger is also the body’s way of saying “yo! Something’s wrong! Fix me!” If it really is feeling too much hunger (and not the normal responses of a person starving themselves while on diets), then a doctor, if pushed to do enough tests, can find out what’s wrong.

    But no, it is not ever reasonable or desirable to ignore hunger.

  10. Thanks for sharing that. Ignoring hunger is definitely a bad thing. And so much diet stuff is about tricking yourself into thinking you’re not hungry: oh, it’s just emotional eating, I should go for a walk instead…..oh, I’m actually just thirsty, let me go drink more water.

    (As a side tangent, I **have** keeled over from dehydration while waterbearing (it was my second Pennsic). And yes, the medical personnel did give me a little bit of a hard time as “someone who should know better.”)

  11. See, feeling too much hunger is also the body’s way of saying “yo! Something’s wrong! Fix me!” If it really is feeling too much hunger (and not the normal responses of a person starving themselves while on diets), then a doctor, if pushed to do enough tests, can find out what’s wrong.

    Yes. Exactly.

    There might be any number of good reasons to ignore a bodily impulse once in a while, but I don’t think making a habit of it is ever a good thing.

    Take tiredness as an example. I might ignore tiredness sometimes because I really have to finish that homework assignment, or I need to get up early to go somewhere. But if I do it all the time, I’m training my body that feeling exhausted is “normal.” And I’m probably doing damage. Not only that, but if something is wrong (say my thyroid’s messed up), I’m not taking that “always tired’ feeling as the warning that it should be, and I’m not getting the problem treated.

    Hunger is the same way. If you eat a filling meal (an actual filling meal, not what you think you “should” need based on calorie count), and you’re still hungry, or you’re hungry an hour later, you shouldn’t ignore that feeling

  12. I used to faint as a teenager if I didn’t eat properly – and it always frustrated me, as I was deliberately TRYING to feel hunger pangs (for many of the same reasons expressed above). Recently I had the unsettling experience of fainting twice in one month (at work, no less!) because although I ate, it wasn’t enough and I was delaying doing anything about it. I didn’t feel hunger, but once I looked back on it, I did, but I was in a bad mood and decided to ignore it and “push through it”. Luckily, my body does not let me do that for very long before it takes matters into its own hands – I wish that I had not ignored its more gentle warnings before falling down a full flight of stairs unconscious (I am okay!). It was a good reminder that it is my job to feed myself, physically as well as emotionally and mentally, and that job is pretty important and not one that can be done by anyone else.

  13. This is so timely for me! I’m feeling particularly hungry today (I think as a result of a particularly tough bike ride yesterday) and you have reminded me that it’s ok to be hungry, and that if I’m hungry, I should eat! After all, my body probably knows that it needs extra food to rebuild my systems after the butt-kicking I gave it yesterday!

    Scuse me, I’m going to go find some more food…

  14. randomquorum: I’ll talk a bit more about this on Wednesday, maybe, however, I wanted to say something about your body needing more food. I was going to physical therapy after knee surgery last year, doing a lot of muscle building exercises. I kept getting extremely hungry (hunger even I couldn’t ignore) after each session. Finally, I talked to my PT about it, asking what I should do.

    After asking me what I usually did after PT (go to eat) and what I’d have (a hamburger and salad, some diet soda), he told me that I needed to feed myself more. He told me to eat a bigger burger, forget the salad and have fries instead, and (after finding out I like chocolate and have no problems with milk) to have a chocolate shake with my meal.

    Yes, a member of the health care profession told me 1) to actually eat and feed my hunger, and 2) to have ‘fattening/forbiden’ foods.

    His reason was that I was doing so much hard work, stressing my muscles to build them up, that if I didn’t feed my body, it would make me more fatigued, and that the muscles would make up the fuel deficit someplace if I didn’t eat enough to replace the energy lost exersizing.

    So, yeah, especially if you had a particularly tough bike ride, do what your body says. I’d even say drink a chocolate shake (if you like chocolate and milk products aren’t a problem for you)! After all, that’s what my Physical Therapist told me to do! 🙂

  15. Welshwmn3 I’d love to read some more about that. And 3 cheers (and a baby-flavoured donut) for the PT with some brains!

    I did end up eating more than what’s usual for me yesterday, and particularly more sugary stuff – a LOT of chocolate and some lollies and icecream that someone brought into the office. I’m feeling much more normal appetite-wise today!

    I did have a freak-out this morning because I couldn’t get my rings off, but that’s back to normal now too. I’m thinking maybe the excess sugar caused me to retain water.

    Whatever, I don’t think I could have avoided eating more yesterday even if I tried! It was very much an “eat everything in sight” day.

  16. I have a hard time telling when I’m hungry vs. bored. I also eat emotionally, so sometimes, I have to stop and check to see if I’m really hungry, or upset/happy/pissed off/whatever.

    My other biggest thing is learning the opposite of being hungry- when I’m full.

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