Understanding hunger

  What makes me hungry?

Hunger is a funny thing really. Its pretty common knowledge that the body can last for around 2-3 weeks without food before it gives up, so why does it only take 3 hours after having lunch for you to be thinking about a mid afternoon biscuit? This stems from evolution and how we needed our body and mind to behave thousands of years ago when we were hunter/gatherers. Thousands of years sounds like a long time, but in evolutionary terms, it’s nothing, and we haven’t quite adapted out of some of those traits from our ancestors.

Back when we were competing with sabre tooth tigers, food was a lot harder to come by. The chances of getting 3 square meals a day were pretty slim, so being hungry all the time would have been counter productive. We all know when we get the thought of our next meal in our head it can be genuinely difficult to focus on anything else. So when food is scarce, or unavailable, our body can turn off that feeling.

Fortunately we live in a time and environment where food is highly available and  easy to get hold of. Unfortunately, our caveman instincts still subside in us, so our minds (actually, our hormones, but we will get to that) have a field day. It will try and persuade us to stock up on calories to survive if food becomes scarce, which was a distinct possibility as a hunter gatherer, but much less likely today. This is why we are currently in, and probably will continue to remain in, an obesogenic environment. Simply put, our innate behaviour and our surroundings are conducive to making us overweight, as opposed to under weight. This can be seen by statistics that say there are more overweight than healthy or underweight people in a lot of developed countries, and the UK is no exception.

So what is our mind up to when it tells us ‘yes, go and eat right now, please!’? We have 2 main hormones at play, Grehlin, which tells us we are hungry, and then leptin, that controls our feeling of satiety (how full we are).

These hormones are important, and whilst we can’t actually stop them being released, understanding them can help a bit in how you make dietary decisions. Ghrelin is quite a fickle hormone, and quite in tune with your thoughts! Avoiding the big sciency bit behind it, we are effectively ‘conditioned’ to be hungry at certain times of the day, and when we are feeling certain ways. At the typical meal times of the day, we start to feel hungry. You would think, ‘its lunch time. I’ve not eaten in 5 hours, I need food!’ But do you? Your body can go for more than a fortnight without it! So what is actually happening? You’re thinking about food. And you usually eat at that time so ghrelin is released and the signal it sends to your brain is one of feeling hungry.

This is just your body looking out for you, but it can be difficult to suppress this feeling, or take command of it. The very simplest answer to this is to eat little and often. Speak with any nutritionist or dietitian and most of them will create diets that are based around having a light snack in between meals that is pre planned, so you aren't given as much chance to let the feeling of hunger take over.. Another good way to avoid impulse eating is to avoid situations or locations that encourage it. When was the last time you were in a coffee shop, or even in some clothing shops, and found that whilst waiting to make a purchase there was food of some description right there? Companies are aware of this connection you make with thinking about food and getting hungry, and they will always try and exploit it. If you are someone not very good at resisting temptation, it is worth making conscious decisions to avoid these situations. Further to this, if you find yourself craving an evening snack, just try stocking the cupboard with healthy alternatives, and certainly don’t ever go food shopping on an empty stomach!

The next part of hunger is how you can improve your satiety and keep yourself feeling fuller for longer. There are a few things that can be changed in the types of foods you eat, and the way you eat them. Having a diet that is higher in fibre will help boost the volume of food, and therefore the sense of fullness, and it will slow release of sugars into the blood keeping your energy levels more constant over the course of the day. Good foods to try are brown alternatives (bread, pasta, rice) and keep the sugary snacks and drinks to a minimum. Ever had your mum tell you ‘chew your food properly!’, well there is actually a two fold benefit to this. Chewing the food longer and to a smoother texture means more nutrients are able to get into the blood over the course of the foods digestion. It also adds the benefit of slowing down the eating process. It takes around 20 minutes for the stomach to tell the brain it is filling up so eating slower will help to lengthen the meal, and give you a chance to get the full satisfaction from your food. Another little tip is to make time for the activity of eating. Don't eat your meal in front of the tv or at your desk as the distraction can often make you eat faster, and pay less attention to the sensation of filling up.

So there you have it. Hunger is effectively psychosomatic (in your head) and a product of our ancestors instincts combined with our current environment. While you cannot turn it off that easily, you can strategise your habits to minimise its impact on your day and your dietary habits. So plan meals ahead, eat your fibre, and don’t have crisps and biscuits in your cupboards.  Oh, and your stomach rumbling isn’t from hunger, its dehydration, so drink your water too.

Written by Joseph Parker (BSc (Hons) Dietetics)