The Importance of being hungry – the science of hunger

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Ever wondered what it is that makes you hungry? A lot depends on the time of day, what you’re doing and, of course, the last time you ate.

Surely, I’m only hungry because I haven’t eaten in a while?

Hunger isn’t only triggered by a lack of food. It also has to do with the time of day and what you’re doing – we tend to eat more when we’re sitting watching television, for example, than if we were eating at the dining room table. Which is why cinema complexes supply a steady stream of popcorn. We also snack because we’re bored.

When you feel hungry and when are the proper times to eat is conditioned into us by our parents from the moment we begin eating solids. This has an enormous impact as it trains your body and your mind that there are only certain times to eat and certain foods to eat at those times.

Hunger is important and here’s why

Most scientists agree that hunger is governed not by your empty stomach, but by your brain. Specifically, the Hypothalamus. This is the part of the brain which regulates appetite along with other autonomic processes; thirst and body temperature, for example.

When the body is running low on food, the Hypothalamus secretes hormones into the bloodstream which in turn tell your stomach and your intestines to be more active. As a result, you experience hunger contractions and ‘the tummy rumbles’. These last around 30 seconds and generally will continue for an hour or so. Interestingly, most scientists agree that these contractions then subside for a number of hours.

So,  how do we make the ‘the tummy rumbles’ and ‘I need a snack’ feelings stop?

If the Hypothalamus can tell your body it needs food, can it then send another signal telling your body it’s now satisfied, even though you haven’t eaten? Put simply, yes.

The ‘Psychological Conditioning’ of food

One of the reasons we eat, apart from needing to in order to stay alive, is the fact that we have a psychological relationship with food. Hungry, bored, watching television, feeling sad? Ever heard of ‘comfort eating’? That’s the psychological relationship we’re talking about. There’s a lot to be said for the emotional reward we get from food. As with many experiences, it’s the emotional attachment we have to situations which creates pleasure, sadness or fulfilment. Yes, we eat because food is delicious and enjoyable, but we also tend to eat more when we’re with certain friends, in certain situations, when larger portions are available to us, and especially for comfort.  

The ‘Family Conditioning’ of Food

When we eat, how we eat and what we eat become part of our psyche from the moment we start eating solids. Our personal experiences of mealtimes as a child and a teenager mould how we think about and how we approach food as an adult. As with any repetitive behaviour it becomes a habit – even if those experiences are unhealthy. Our mealtime experiences as a child create both positive and negative emotions which in turn affect our eating patterns.

Take for example someone who eats because they’re bored. How can an unrelated emotion like boredom be mistaken for the urge to eat? It’s simple, really. We are sad, but we don’t want to be. In most cases, mealtimes or time spent with food as a family, such as celebrations, birthday parties, anniversaries etc, hold special meaning for us. They were times when we felt loved and were happy. Our brain tells us if we are sad that to get happy again we must recreate those times. But, it’s a lot easier to simply open the fridge and eat food we associate with those times, like cake and ice cream than it is to throw a party and invite other people around. We want to feel happy now, and as far as our minds are concerned, eating food equals happy times.

Real hunger is good, emotional hunger not so much

The key to controlling pangs is understanding the difference between real hunger and emotional hunger. Here are some excellent tips on how to make hunger work for you and not against you.

  • Slow down when eating. There’s no rush. Enjoy the meal. Savour every mouthful.
  • Put your cutlery down between bites. That stops you from loading your fork while you’re still eating the food already in your mouth.
  • Take time to chew your food properly. If it’s handheld food – like a sandwich – put it down between bites. The longer you take, the less you will eat. The time between the first signal from the Hypothalamus which tells you you’re hungry and the second signal telling you you’ve had enough decreases and you end up eating less.
  • Try and eat at the same time every day. Training your body to eat at the same time every day encourages your metabolism to automatically process what’s still in your stomach in anticipation of the next meal coming in. If your metabolism hits the ground running, you’ll burn more calories.
  • Never eat in front of the TV. With your concentration elsewhere, you become a ‘subconscious eater’. Try to eat at the table, with as few ‘away from the table’ distractions as possible.

Building a healthy respect for food and mealtimes is vital in controlling your eating habits. Understanding the importance of hunger and recognising the signs of real hunger, as opposed to any other emotional feeling, will give you the confidence to ignore the cravings, the hunger pangs and the rumbling tummy when necessary. It also frees you up so you can recognise any emotional issues. When you do recognise a problem seek help from a professional and stop using your fridge as your psychiatrist.