What is Hunger? The Seven Hungers of Highly Stubborn Obesity

The book Cravings (see first ever post) brilliant idea is that when we have an addiction (reward pathways), our brain will lie to us to enable that addiction. We cannot trust our own excuses, rationale, logic or emotions. One such message is that when we are in the middle of a craving, it will seem as if some doom is imminent.

I have long thought that the idea of calorie balance must be wrong, for the ridiculously obvious fact that there are say 7 billion slender people on the planet who do not carefully calculate their energy intake and output, balancing it down to the minutest energy difference in order to stay slim. Clearly, they have an innate cue (let’s call it hunger), which flawlessly and unconsciously regulates weight. Hence obesity is a disorder of hunger signals.

Realising hunger is fundamental, after reading Cravings, I decided to reframe my hunger as addiction, and see where that took me.

When I was a kid I’d ask my friends, how do I know that the colour I see when I look at green is the same as the colour you see? We can never know for sure what your brain seess. I never thought to ask “So how do I know if my desperate hunger is the same as yours?” How do we know what is normal and what I am mistaking for hunger but is actually not hunger?

Here are some of the places this led me; the seven hungers:

  • false hunger (feelings that are mistaken for hunger),
  • addictive hunger (sugar, and food morphines from wheat and casein)
  • extreme hunger pains (cravings)
  • hunger to numb pain
  • Pavlovian mealtime signals
  • I dealt with blood sugar hunger in a previous post (the insulin-glucagon axis of evil: a flawed glycemic response, causes insulin spikes, then a few hours later blood sugar falls but without unlocking your cellular energy stores).

So false hunger eh? I was an overnight guest with a family, and the father said “I woke up this morning with that false hunger, so I had a cup of tea and waited for it to subside”. This family made a distinction between real and false hunger. He described false hunger as sharper; but because he had a large meal last night, he knew it must not be real hunger.

My family of origin never mentioned false hunger. How does a person know if they are hungry? Who teaches them to distinguish hunger from other pains in the abdomen? If pains (that are not hunger) go away when you eat, you might be forgiven for concluding that it is hunger if no-one tells you any different. And false hunger does go away if you eat.

I realised also that my hunger signals were not the mild hunger that slim people experience. For example the words “I forgot to have lunch” would never in a million years come out of my mouth…but my spouse says this often, as if it’s no big deal. But my family of origin would often utter the words “I’m so hungry I could eat the bum out of a rag doll”. And eat fast, a matter of life and death to inhale food quickly. And hunger pains so strong and urgent they’re saying “you’re at imminent risk of leaving the gene pool unless you find food NOW”. Extremely urgent hunger is not normal hunger, it is a craving.

Dr Manejwala in Cravings says evidence supports 12 step programmes work for addicts. For some reason our society the first thought is to refer someone with an addiction to a 12-step programme like AA; but never someone with a whose ‘substance’ is food. Why is that? Instead society blames and shames fat people for moral failing or lacking willpower.

The first step in a 12 step programme is to admit your powerlessness over your craved substance (food) because you can’t trust your own internal voice (hunger). You hand control to a Higher Power, and your plan of eating to a sponsor. My plan is a measured, satisfying amount of healthy food, three times per day. I avoid sugar, flour and trigger foods (for me wheat, chippies, chocolate). Addictive hunger, a quick Cliff’s Notes: Sugar, and elements in wheat flour, and some milks (A1 cow milk) stimulate opiate receptors in the brain, so are ‘no go’ for recovering addicts.

I know intellectually that I will not starve on this amount of food, and it is a sane amount, unlike the ridiculous restrictive diets I have suffered. I had always believed that to keep blood sugar stable, it was important to eat many small meals and snacks, so three meals a day and nothing to eat in between was a huge challenge.

In the rooms there is a saying: No-one ever starved to death between a good lunch and a good dinner”. That sense of doom is compelling but once you know it is the trickster, you can watch it twist and turn with a sense of curiosity.

And indeed, it was not long before I experienced a feeling of imminent doom. If I did not eat NOW, I would…what? Something awful would happen. I would faint. I would collapse. And having read Cravings, I knew that my brain could lie to me. I knew intellectually that the only thing likely to happen was that I might even lose weight, which would be a good thing. But the sense of imminent need was real. Watching your own brain try to run that line was hard.

One of the tools of the programme is to write down what is going on, and as I wrote I realised that I had just completed a difficult project, and that my brain was really tired. I needed a break, but for some reason could not allow myself to not be productive. I had started the next thing on my endless To Do List, without stopping. I went and had a cup of tea, and relaxed. I realised I was being brutal to myself, like flogging a willing horse. The only way to keep driving my brain was to give it more energy. So that day I learned to give myself breaks. It turns out that food and particularly sugar numbs pain, emotional or physical. I once saw my mother slam her finger in a window, and in agony, set about eating chocolate. And it works, so the body makes a link between feeling pain and hunger.

So the next time I felt hunger in the middle of the night, I thought; this is not really hunger. Even though it hurts, and it hurts a lot, and I feel like I am starving, it is false hunger. And as I breathed through it, and turned it over to my higher consciousness, after 20 minutes it faded and vanished. And using the 12-step tools, one day at a time, I conquer my Cravings. Those ‘hunger’ signals that are actually signals of pain, whether physical (sore liver or guts, needing time) or emotional (driving myself to keep going because I’m not ‘good enough’ to take a rest).

For some of you, this alone may be a key for you: recognising the lie of the urgent sense of doom, the false hunger the blood sugar hunger and the opioid addictive hunger. If you trust, and love yourself through it, the pain will fade and be gone like a wave on the shore.

Freedom from driving hunger and constant need is wonderful, and from food obsession driven by shame and self-hate. This is a major step forward in dealing with stubborn obesity. I am now 6 months abstinent on this definition: three measured sane meals per day, nothing in-between, no sugar no flour. I have shed 15kg over 9 months, almost imperceptibly and unnoticeably. It’s a way of life, its easy, and the result is fantastic; I am still obese; I have some 40 kg to go. It’s not the whole answer but it’s a big piece of this puzzle.

The next hunger, Pavlovian mealtime hunger, is the subject of  my next post.

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