We live in the most obese country in the world. Vast numbers of Americans either struggle with weight loss - or have simply given up. Over the last several months I've gone through a significant weight loss experience. Not the first time in my life this has happened, but it is the first time that I feel like I have achieved genuine and lasting control of weight. Along the way I think I may have learned a few things, especially about the nature of hunger and its relationship to weight control. So, for what it may be worth, I wanted to share those thoughts.
My own personal history: I was a fat child, and a fattish teen. Probably the second fatest person in my elementary school, at a time - the 1950s - when fat children were rather rare compared to today. In my early 20s I discovered endurance exercise, ultimately becoming a bicycle road racer, distance runner and triathlete - which enabled me to achieve normal weight without ever having to come to terms with my relationship with food. When you bike 300 miles a week, weight control rather stops being an issue. But eventually, from my mid-30s on, various factors cut back on the exercise and weight control became an issue once again. I went through the usual routine: periods of weight loss, followed by longer periods of gain, each one greater than the one before. Never grossly obese, but usually heavier than I was happy with. I'm now at the end of another of the periods of loss, at a weight I feel good about. This time, more importantly, it feels permanent, partly because of some things I have learned about hunger. Things I want to share:
If you pay attention to advertising for various weight-loss schemes, you will often see something like this: "Lose Weight Without Feeling Hungry!!"
Bullshit. In order to lose weight, you have to put your body into a catabolic state - where the body has used up its readily available stores of blood sugar and glycogen and falls back on consuming fat. And you can't get there without some hunger. AND THAT'S FINE! Hunger is OK! Hunger is a natural part of life.
I've spent quite a bit of time traveling in France. When a waiter brings you a meal in France, they always say: "bon appetit!" That is to say: "good appetite" Or, to say it another way, they are wishing you hunger. The hunger you need to truly savor your meal. The hunger that lets you know it really is time to eat.
Too many of us in the US - assuming we are in the comfortable classes - never really experience hunger. We eat for sensory pleasure, we eat from boredom, we eat to satisfy emotional needs. And in the process, we never really learn to have a relationship with hunger. And, when we don't get to know hunger, when we don't know what hunger is, we also don't know what hunger is NOT.
And here are a few of the things hunger is not:
"My that looks tasty - I think I'll have some" - is not hunger.
"I'm bored - wonder what's in the fridge" - is not hunger.
"I didn't sleep well last night, my energy is low" - is not hunger.
"I'm sort of full - but that was so good - maybe I'll have a little more" - is not hunger.
"Ooh! - I saw an ad for that, it looked so good - I think I'll try some" - is not hunger.
"I have this project to do that I really don't want to face - wonder what's in the fridge" - is not hunger.
But, here's the thing: If you never get to experience real hunger - the physical signals of low blood sugar that tell you you need food - it's is very easy to kid yourself that any or all of the above are hunger.
And the only way to break that habit is to get familiar with hunger, to make it your friend, to get to know it as a daily experience. Only by doing that does it become second nature to recognize that none of those other things are actually hunger.
The biggest learning from my recent weight loss experience is that hunger is not something to be avoided - it's the signal that tells me weight loss is happening, so I learned to welcome it. It is, rather, something to be managed, controlled, used. During my losing phase, I would often become hungry 90 minutes or so before a meal. For a limited time, I could handle that. But I knew I wasn't going to have to handle it forever - my weight loss phase was time-limited. Now that I'm into maintenance, I'm usually becoming hungry more about 30 minutes before a meal - much easier to tolerate, and just about right. And it is, genuinely, a feeling I've learned to welcome - it tells me that yes, it really is time to eat. I know that if the next meal time comes and I'm not hungry, the last meal was too large - so it helps me in learning to adjust my eating. But I don't want to be hungry for hours, so if I'm getting hungry too soon, the last meal was too small. Hunger has become a tool, a signal, a friend. It has become part of the toolbox of learnings that are going to make it possible to maintain my new weight longterm.