Yesterday I attended a kid’s birthday party, the son of a friend. The party was organised at noon in an indoor soft-play area. The kids played for over an hour and then they had a choice of chicken, fish, burger or sausages, and chips, and ice cream for desert, and then cake. Unfortunately for me, there was no such thing prepared for adults. By the time I got home, after the party was over and after we visited my parents in law, I was so hungry I was shaking. So I overate. I binged. I’m not feeling particularly bad about it because this was not fuelled by emotional triggers but by the very physical fact that I was starving. In any case, it has inspired me to write about the importance of avoiding hunger if we are to overcome eating disorders and, particularly, BED.
Now, understand me well, it’s my own fault if I got that hungry. To start with, I hadn’t had my mid-morning snack because I was getting ready. And once there, nobody stopped me from getting a sandwich. Still, nobody was eating anything else than coffee and I didn’t feel like being the only one sitting at the table eating lunch. I did have something, though. I had a mocha and a bakewell slice but that was around half twelve and I didn’t get home till about half four. With no protein in the mix and fast burning carbs, it wasn’t going to get me far. By the time I put food in front of me and I lifted the fork, I was shaking all over. Now, this is very unusual for me, especially in recent years, since I don’t have a habit of going hungry, but I remember having this problem back in the early 2000s when I went through my most successful bout of dieting in which, you probably guessed it, I went hungry quite a lot.
And hunger is good, you’ll argue. No food tastes better than when you’re hungry. When I had my daughter, over four years ago, I was told to have breakfast at 5 am because they were going to take me to the labour ward and they wouldn’t feed me once there. I didn’t give birth until midnight and didn’t get breakfast till 7 or 8 am the next day. I don’t remember breakfast, but I remember the Irish stew I got for lunch and, believe me, that’s the best Irish stew I’ve eaten in my life. And it was hospital food, so you can imagine how hungry I was.
When you’re hungry, it also means you’ve run out of sugar in your blood and it should force your metabolism to burn what you have in storage, right? That’s how you lose weight. Whatever you might say about that, it does actually work, although plateauing will eventually become a problem.
In any case, no, going hungry is not good for you and it certainly doesn’t help you if you have BED and you’re trying to overcome it. I can tell you that if I went to bed hungry, I felt a sense of achievement. Then I would eventually feel ravenous and, as the cravings peaked, gave up and binged.
But that’s not the only problem of starving. If you don’t eat properly and you let your body starve, depleting your blood sugar levels, your metabolism enters into what’s called starvation mode (also known as survival mode). Your body starts responding as if there was a reduced availability of food in your environment and makes it harder and harder to burn the fat storage, because it considers holding on to that fat will keep you alive longer, hopefully long enough for food to become available again. Your metabolism doesn’t know about supermarkets, as you can see. It also didn’t get the memo that this is what Brain wants, so it does what it has been trained to do for thousands of years, tough it out.
Now, understand me well, I am not here to address normal hunger, the one you get mid-morning or mid-afternoon, or around lunchtime. I am talking about the hunger you get once you’ve ignored that other, milder one. The starvation one. The one that makes your stomach grumble in desperation.
Our bodies, in fact, were not made to eat breakfast lunch and dinner. Our bodies were made to eat when you’re hungry. And I mean when you’re hungry, not dying for a crumb!
Our bodies were also made to stop when you’re not hungry anymore. Satiated is the word for that and it’s not the same than full or stuffed or ‘help, I’m going to die, my stomach is going to explode’.
At this point you’ll say that this is all fantastic, but what’s the problem. The problem is that we have become very disconnected with our bodies. Part of the reason for that is modern life. If you are in a meeting that’s been going on for an hour you can hardly stand up and leave because you’re getting the call from Stomach.
Family is also a contributor. You’re not going to have dinner on your own at 5 pm, you’re going to wait for your partner/parents/children to have dinner with them. You might be in the cinema and half way through a movie and don’t want to miss what’s going on. Or you might be like my friend, who would rather read than eat, tells herself she’ll finish the page before going for lunch and then forgets all about it. Society has different nutritional demands than biology, it seems.
Now, what’s going to happen is that extreme hunger will eventually make you binge. This is normal and nothing to worry about.
Except if you have BED. If you suffer from this eating disorder, this binge, which hasn’t even been triggered by any emotional factors, will make you feel as lousy, defeated and self-deprecating as any other. It will trigger the all-or-nothing behavior I’ve talked about in the past. You might try to take control again in the morning or you might find yourself in a cycle that lasts till next year.
There is, however, a light. Getting in touch with your body and listening to its signals is what you’re aiming for. It is not easy at first. It’s very confusing. It helped me to keep a journal of my meals. This was a step recommended by the therapist and one of the first steps of recovery. There was a lot of detail in my journal, but for the purpose of reconnecting with your hunger levels, you can just keep it short and give yourself a score from 0 – 10 of how hungry you are, where 10 is ‘I’d eat a blue whale’ and 0 is ‘not for the life of me’. The goal here is to get a feel for your hunger levels, to force you to listen to your metabolism so you can get to a stage when you can act in consequence. Once you are confident in your ratings, I’ll recommend you do what my therapist recommended me to do, when you feel your hunger levels are around 5, eat something, don’t wait for it to become overpowering. And the good news is, once you’re an expert in your hunger levels, you will also be an expert of your satiation levels, making it easier to judge when to stop eating.
So disentangle yourself from the embrace of hunger. You don’t need to break up with it, but your relationship will be the stronger if you just hold hands for a while.