Why are we scared of being hungry?
One of the things many people say when you talk about Intermittent Fasting (IF) is, "I could NOT do that, I don’t have the willpower!” Or there is this one; “I can’t NOT eat, my blood sugar crashes and I get so HANGRY and I would end up eating junk”. Or my personal favourite, which often feels like being told off by your mum,“ You know if you don’t eat every __ (fill in the blank depending on what they think is true), your metabolism totally slows down and you will gain weight”. Before we get into the hunger issue, the answer to the last one is, No your metabolic rate actually increases when you are doing short term fasting so no, you won’t gain weight. If you don’t believe me, read one of the studies on it like this one here.
So lets unpack this hunger thing. Why are we so scared of being hungry? The obvious reason is being hungry is not fun and we live in a society that encourages us to avoid pain or even mild discomfort AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. But being overweight or having a host of current or future medical problems related to poor blood markers and diet is a lot less fun than a grumbly tummy. And here is a big tip, and I will tell you this one for free (I use that line with my kids all the time), HUNGER ACTUALLY PASSES A LOT FASTER THAN YOU THINK IT DOES.
Many people have not been hungry for a long time, maybe even years. I am not talking about that feeling like “hey, its 11am and I feel like a biscuit or some cheese and crackers right about now” kind of hunger. I mean the real hunger when your stomach feels hollow and actually growls. We have all felt it at some point in life, but many people don’t let themselves feel it regularly or often. They eat before they are ever truly hungry so they are scared of it. It’s like a big bad bogey monster under the bed that we don’t want to deal with (another mum reference). But why are we so scared to be hungry? Let’s dig into what hunger actually is and also bust a few myths.
Contrary to popular belief, hunger does not start and then swell and grow like a crescendo in an operatic orchestra. Think of it more like a wave that rises, it might even dump you and spin you around for a short time but then, as nature intended, the wave recedes and disappears not to rise again for awhile. And the important thing here is that you actually feel truly, physically hungry (in that hollow, growly way) for just a short time. That really, primal, empty sensation usually doesn’t last longer than 5 minutes. You have a glass of sparkling water or a cup of tea, you get back to work or jump in the car to head to the shops, or realise that one of your kids is about to bop the other one over the head with a cricket bat and all of a sudden, if you do happen to think about it again 10 minutes later, you realise that hard core hungry feeling has disappeared. It may revisit you again in a few hours if you continue to fast, but it doesn’t send big waves one after the other all day like a surfing set in Hawaii
So what causes that true “hungry” feeling? It is a combination of biochemical changes in the body related to hormones (somatic hunger) and psychological habits and stimuli (limbic hunger). Somatic hunger is caused by the complex interplay between the hunger hormone Ghrelin, the blood glucose-regulating hormone Insulin and other biochemicals that help you regulate hunger and satiety (feeling full). Limbic hunger, on the other hand, is habitual hunger or what I like to call head hunger. You see an ad on TV for salt and vinegar chips, you feel hungry, you pass by a bakery and smell the bread, you feel hungry. Even looking at your watch and seeing it is 7am, your regular breakfast time can make you feel hungry.
Even though one is in the head and one is in the body, limbic and somatic hunger are both real and hard to control (albeit somatic hunger is a little more biochemically driven). Because you can’t necessarily control when something happens, it doesn’t mean it is an insurmountable problem. If you have decided you want to try intermittent fasting for health or weigh loss reasons, you have to be confident of two things. 1: That a bit of hunger is worth it for whatever it is that your IF goal is (weight loss, autophagy, blood marker improvement, Type 2 diabetes management etc). And 2: The more often you fast, the easier it gets and the less all-consuming the hunger becomes.
The reality is, the mind and body form habits all the time that can be broken. You know, like that bad habit you had of dropping your towel on the floor and leaving it sopping wet so it stank the next day, the same habit that miraculously changed when you moved out of home and had to do your own laundry? So too you can train your body NOT to expect to eat every 3 hours. So, after awhile, your body will not punish you with overwhelming hunger when you choose not to eat breakfast when you are doing a 16/8 eating window fasting protocol. Or choose to fast for 22 hours a day (if you are following OAMD). And it gets much easier to do an extended fast of 36 hours if you are following a 5/2 fasting regime once you have a few weeks in the bag.
It is very hard to die from skipping a meal (or 3) unless you have some specific disease that you would definitely know about by now. (By the way, if the last paragraph reads like another language to you, read my Guide to Intermittent Fasting where I explain the different ways you can fast to suit your life, your health goals and personal preference).
It takes time, and the first few weeks of intermittent fasting are hard (OK they suck), but like all things actually worth something, if you stick to it, your body is an amazing machine and it will help you out. The simple way of saying it is that fasting gets easier the more you do it; you get better with practice. I am not saying you won’t ever feel hungry again when you fast, particularly if you are doing extended fasts. You might even get hangry on occasion. But once you get into the IF swing of things, the hunger will be less intense, less often and most definitely, a LOT less scary.