Hunger - More Mental than Physical?
Forget the diets. Stop counting calories. Don’t fret over willpower. That’s not the issue.
When it comes to managing our weight, it’s all about your hunger mood. That’s the striking claim by Michael Graziano, neuroscientist and Princeton professor who insists that weight regulation is a matter of psychology, not physiology.
Graziano first points to the obvious: diets don’t work, and when they do, their success is short lived. In a piece published at aeon.co, Graziano argues: “The obesity epidemic is not an issue of calories or willpower. I began to suspect that our problem with obesity is a problem of poisoning the normal regulatory system. We possess a system that’s intricate and beautifully calibrated. It evolved over millions of years to be good at its job. It should work in the background without any conscious effort, but for more than two-thirds of us it doesn’t. What are we doing to ourselves to screw up the hunger and satiety system?”
Yes, Graziano acknowledges, if you take in fewer calories you will lose weight, but that’s not the point. The point is that we’re trying to “outsmart an effective, 50,000-year-old subconscious process,” and it’s not working.
Remember the diets urging us to cut out the fat? Says Graziano: “Cutting out the fat has led to a disaster. As numerous studies have now established, fat reduces hunger. Take it away and the hunger mood soars.” Remember the diets telling us to count our calories? Graziano explains: “Let’s say you decide to cut back on calories. You eat less for a day. The result? It’s like picking up a stick and poking a tiger. Your hunger mood rises and for the next five days you’re eating bigger meals and more snacks, perhaps only vaguely realizing it. People tend to judge how much they’ve eaten partly by how full they feel afterward. But since that feeling of fullness is partly psychological, if your hunger mood is up, you might eat more than usual, feel less full than usual, and so mistakenly think that you’ve cut back. You might feel like you’re making progress. After all, you’re constantly vigilant. Sure, now and then you slip up, but you get yourself right back on track again. You feel good about yourself until you get on a scale and notice that your weight isn’t responding. It might go down one day and then blip up the next two days. Dancing under the surface of consciousness, your hunger mood is warping your perceptions and choices.”
Graziano’s bottom line: “Take in fewer calories and you’ll lose weight. But explicitly try to reduce calories, and you’ll do the exact opposite.”
What’s the solution? Graziano says that we have to start paying attention to our hunger mood, becoming acutely aware of when our hunger mood is up (e.g., we arrive early at the deli counter) and when it’s down (we get caught up in our work).
Others urge us to learn the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger (or what some call “head hunger”). According to articles at the huffingtonpost.com and shapeness.se:
• Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, abruptly, and feels urgent. Physical hunger builds gradually, and can be postponed.
• Emotional eating causes specific cravings. Physical hunger can be satisfied with any type of food.
• Emotional hunger is mental, fantasizing about foods, and leads us to eat more than we normally would (often we end up feeling uncomfortably full). With physical hunger, once we’re full, we can stop eating.
• Emotional hunger is hard to satisfy, making it hard to stop. Physical hunger is satisfied, feeling full.
• Finally, emotional hunger often leaves us feeling guilty. Not so with physical hunger.
What makes us so hungry?
Ian Lang, writing for www.askmen.com, notes that “throughout [Graziano’s] observations, he found three reasons people get uncontrollably hungry: A diet that’s sky-high in carbs, which have been shown to encourage hunger, a diet low in fat (which actually reduces it) and a maniacal obsession with counting calories.”
Urges Graziano: Put yourself in position where your “automatic system can operate correctly. Don’t put a plastic bag over your head. Likewise, don’t eat the super-high death-carb, low-fat diet. Don’t micromanage your brainstem by counting every calorie. You might be surprised at how well your health self-regulates.”
And this poignant tip from thinfastmd.com: when you get hungry, “stop and think about why you’re ready to eat. Are you bored, or anxious or upset? Negative and complacent emotions can lure us towards food as a comfort.” In addition, “Pay attention to the time. Determine when the last time you ate was, and whether or not it is time to eat again.” Finally, and this is something we all know: “Drink lots of water. Sometimes, you may feel hungry if you are slightly dehydrated. Try drinking a glass of water and determine how you feel afterwards.”