You don’t need to be hungry…
A now famous study on “willpower” asked two groups of people to do a task and then go outside into a lobby to have a snack. The first group got easy, fun tasks that took no effort, and the second group were asked to do more difficult things like solve math problems or pay focused attention for a long time.
In the lobby were waiting a few different kinds of snacks: some healthy and some very, very unhealthy. The first group came out and, compared to the second group, chose more healthy snacks and got on with it. The second group, frazzled from the effort, reached for the pastries and fattening goodies instead. Why?
The researchers theorized that when it comes to the precious resource of your attention and will, people can run out, just as they run out of physical energy. In other words, the second group had spent all their effort and attention trying to complete their difficult tasks that when it came to making more effort to resist the unhealthy snacks, they simply couldn’t. The first group, still fresh and cognitively charged up, could look at the options and make the better choice.
This basically shatters the idea that people overeat because they’re naughty little piggies who can’t help themselves. In the same way as you wouldn’t expect much physically of a person who’s just came home from a marathon, you can’t expect the best decisions from someone who’s had a long, stressful day at work exerting themselves mentally.
Researchers have found that stressed people have less empathy, slower reaction times and more nutty ways of processing risk. If you have a friend who routinely apologizes for the things they said when they were stressed, you’ll know this all too well.
What on earth does this have to with hunger? Well, ironically, avoiding food to the point of hunger can actually sabotage your efforts. The cognitive stress of turning food down eventually taps you out. Evil, terrible, no good marketers know this well – that’s why they put candy at the checkout tills. They know that after the effort of shopping and making millions of tiny decisions in the rest of the store, you just don’t care as much and can’t resist your brain when it tells you, “don’t forget we need chocolate, too!”
Culturally, many people perhaps unconsciously want the overweight to pay for their sins a little and be hungry. We see hunger pangs as noble, moral. Well, that’s lame. Chances are you live in a thriving, modern, first world nation where food is abundant – so cut it out. Keep your mind calm and your blood sugar stable and you won’t ever find yourself in the position of making that impulsive 4am 7-11 hotdog run that makes you cringe in the morning.
To get the most mileage out of your meals, choose carbohydrates that are unrefined and slower burning (sweet potatoes, brown rice, whole meal bread, beans and fruit and veg with lots of fiber). A meal with all three macronutrients will feed your bloodstream a steady and non-crazymaking stream of energy. A Danish pastry with black coffee at 4 in the afternoon feels good for about 10 minutes and then awful for the 8 hours after that.
… but a little hunger is good for you too
What’s so bad about hunger? What many religious traditions know is that there’s something kind of special about temporarily going without satisfying every little urge that pops onto your field of awareness. You won’t die if you skip a meal here and there. It’s not the end of the world if you eat less than you technically could in a sitting.
A little bit of hunger now and then reminds you exactly what your body does when it’s hungry. It’s like a reboot button for your appetite. And I guarantee that it’ll make your next meal about 25% yummier. Never mind about “cleanses” and detox diets …take a moment once in a while to rest your digestive system and just fast for a while. It can be very liberating to know that no matter what anybody says, your body knows what’s best for you, if you’d only just tune in and have a listen.