This website is now published on my mobileme account. Any opinions expressed, however, are totally my responsibility.
The original website was published through the courtesy of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Jim Andris, Sept. 17, 2003.
On hunger and satiation
Hunger can be used as an effective tool in dieting. There are several reasons why this is so. Probably the best way to begin to appreciate this fact is to remind ourselves of what exactly hunger is. Most people experience hunger when their stomach is empty for a period of time and when, consequently, their blood sugar level drops below a certain point. Hunger starts out gently, but if the stomach stays empty of food and the blood sugar level drops even lower, hunger can become more uncomfortable. Some people experience contractions of the stomach during hunger, which sometimes causes audible noises, called "growling." Hunger had, and continues to have, a very important role in survival. Hunger is mother nature's way of saying to her children, "You need to eat something." Parallel to the feeling of hunger is another natural sensation which has been called satiation. It is the normal termination point for a period of eating. People say things like, "I'm full now" when they reach satiation. This is mother nature's way of saying to her kids, "Ok, you've had enough now. Stop!"
You can imagine that in the wild many hundreds or thousands of years in the past, hunger and satiation worked very well for keeping people nourished. Food was often quite scarce then, and hunger motivated people to find and eat it. In fact, some day in the future, if we continue to live in a society where food is abundant, we may evolve a stronger reaction to overeating. This is because overeating kills people, and they have less of a chance to survive than the people that eat a healthy amount. Or, we could simply get smart and stop overeating before such a response evolves. That is always a possibility.
Granting at the outset that hundreds of millions of people throughout the world continue to starve, food is so abundant for most people in developed countries that they have lost touch with this normal cycle of hunger and satiation. Mother nature also made eating a pleasant experience, so the temptation to eat even when full is there. Many people never experience this cycle because they not only eat at each meal until they are full, but they continue to snack, often on the so-called "junk food." This is actually unfortunate, because these people are silencing a crucial message from their body.
Hunger is the dieter's friend
Anyone who promises you a diet that is going to keep you free from hunger is really misleading you. The purpose of hunger is to let you know when it is wise to eat. I've spent some time getting to know and appreciate hunger, and I have discovered several things about it.
I went through a period of many years where I did not monitor my eating. It would be fair to say that I simply eliminated all but the briefest flickers of hunger from my experience. And, not surprisingly, over a thirty year period I gained thirty pounds. Not steadily, because I would go through periods of watching what I ate. So I ended up at age 65 on the day I retired facing the fact that I had moderate pulmonary hypertension and I had gone from a size 34 waist to a size 40 waist. Not to mention that I now had a pot belly with love handles to boot. I also had begun to take several medications over the last few years, a calcium channel blocker and a beta blocker for blood pressure, an acid pump suppressant for stomach acid, and a gout medication. It is at least probable that all these medications were indirectly required by my weight gain and sedentary lifestyle. I discussed this matter with my physician, and we decided that I would loose from 20 to 30 pounds if I could.
When I first began to diet, using the controlled calories approach I described earlier, I immediately became aware of my hunger again. And I didn't like the experience. I was severely tempted to eat each time I became hungry. But somehow, I managed to resist the temptation, and I began to get acquainted with this feeling of hunger. One thing I did was to say to myself and to others things like "Hunger is my friend," and "Hunger is nature's way of telling me that I am losing weight." I also noticed that I could live with hunger for an hour or two. The longer I dieted, the less debilitating the hunger became. I could simply go on with my day and my work, living with the awareness that I was hungry. And then, after a while longer, it stopped being an issue at all. I was on a schedule and I stuck to it. The weight dropped off.
This is not to say that there were occasional periods when I didn't experience severe hunger and weakness. One thing I noticed was that some days I really would eat too little. Maybe I would have 900 to 1200 calories. I would wake up in the middle of the night, and now my body would be telling me strongly, "You need to eat, this is too hard." So I would go and have something to eat. But I kept my wits about me, and I didn't go down to the kitchen and gorge myself on leftovers and junk food. I reasoned it out.
For one thing, I knew that eating sugar when you are hungry will backfire on you. This is because the body produces what is known as the insulin spike. A hit of sugar is met with a spike of insulin, which not only converts that sugar, but even more sugar that wasn't in the original snack. The the blood sugar really drops, and you are hungrier than before. So, I reasoned, I would eat something that was mainly protein, or at least protein mixed with carbohydrate and/or fat. Two examples are yoghurt and peanut butter. Sometimes I had a couple of spoonfuls of cottage cheese mixed with applesauce. The point is, I had my 1/2 to 3/4 cup of snack, and then I stopped. The hunger would be there still, but in a few minutes it would begin to subside. After 20 minutes or so, I was usually ready to go back to bed. And, even more surprisingly, often when I awoke the next morning, I was still not overly hungry.
Get in touch with your satiation point
There is no one right pattern of eating. You must discover what works for you. Some people can successfully graze throughout the day, some need to eat several small meals (especially true for people with some medical conditions such as hypoglycemia), and some can just stick to the breakfast, lunch and dinner routine. However, there will be those times when you are confronted with the prospect of eating a lot of food at one sitting. Family gatherings, company parties, church potlucks, holiday meals, and eating out at restaurants are all occasions when you could simply blow your diet. And, I would say that blowing your diet on infrequent occasions isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as you keep the long view in mind.
The first thing to remember when you are in such a situation is to eat slowly enough to allow your blood sugar to rise. Then, see if you can get in touch with this natural point of satiation. New Year's Day of this year gave me a chance to try this myself. My partner and I decided that we would try following the old rule that my mom had taught me: Take a bite of food, put your fork down. Chew the food and swallow it. Occasionally say something. Then pick up your fork again and take another bite. So we tried this. Much to our surprise, it took about an hour to finish dinner, and we didn't overeat. We had a salad, and then we had a plate of food and some wine. I noticed that about 25 minutes after I had started eating that I definitely felt full. I took another bite, and then I stopped eating.
I could have continued to eat, and even forced dessert down at that point, but from the standpoint of good health, and even of comfort, it would have been unwise. But more than that, by continuing to eat after I was hungry, I would have been undermining my body's own defense system against overeating.
Are you too busy to eat right?
I can hear some of you saying right now. Well, I don't have the time to spend an hour on eating. I only get a half hour for lunch. My kids and I don't even eat supper together half the time. And breakfast, what is that? Ok, you can do that. It is exactly your life, and you are free to lead it on any path. That's what's so good about living in a free country. But are you too busy to add years to your life? Really? Are you too busy to avoid heart attacks and diabetes when you are in your fifties and cancer when you are in your sixties?