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Hunger, Cravings, Obession, and Food as a Utility

Posted Sep 28 2008 1:48pm

The ironic part of any diet is that so much of the focus is on food. For us low carbers, as well as for anyone following any sort of diet regimen, there is an almost all-consuming immersion in selecting, weighing, calculating, supplementing, hydrating, exercising, logging, and analyzing of just about every input and output our bodies have.

Many of us got fat in the first place not just because of unfortunate food choices, or because of an inherent tendency toward overweight, but also because of an obsession with food.

A diet replaces one obsession - overeating - with another obsession - regimented eating - which is a good thing in a way.

I’ve made the observation that it’s not easy to give up something like an obsession toward food. There’s too many psychological aspects to this. It plays to your strengths to feed your desire for a food obsession by channeling the energy into a diet regimen that allows you to obsess on that, so you trade a less healthy obsession about food for a more healthy one.

Let’s be clear: obsession in and of itself is not a bad thing. When I get on an airplane with my family, or ride in an elevator, I sure hope that the person who designed them was obsessed with making them safe.

I believe that this is a valid, and healthy way to lose weight. There’s a moral overtone to the word ‘obsession’ - one that connotes some sort of weakness or illness. That isn’t always the case. Obsession is just a stronger than average focus and concentration on a particular subject. If the result of this obsession makes you happier and healthier, then there is nothing wrong with it.

But as of late, I’ve been wondering if there is another way to think about weight loss.

As part of this, I first started thinking about the notion of hunger, and I believe that, at least in my case, there are 3 different types. They are:

  1. Cellular hunger. Your body is hungry from a genuine lack of food.
  2. Carbohydrate-triggered hunger. This hunger stems from eating too many carb-laden foods. Some time after eating them, you become consumed by a hunger that feels different that cellular hunger. It’s less reality-based, more irrational. This is about the time that an entire pint of Haagen Daz can disappear in a single sitting.
  3. Psychological hunger. This is where ‘comfort food’ resides. Food is fun, and our modern world has conjured up all sorts of goodies to indulge upon. Look at the commercials for food - eating to sustain ourselves is so old-fashioned - now it’s food as entertainment. This also encompasses our food habits - always eat at certain times, events, or locations when you’re not hungry? Clean plates so as not to waste food? These are all behaviors centered around eating food when not hungry.

Our cellular hunger should always be respected, the carb-driven hunger and the psychological hunger can safely be ignored.

Low carb folks can beat number 2 in the above list by avoiding carbs. This is, in my estimation, one of the big benefits to low carb lifestyles.

This only leaves the hurdle of psychological hunger to tackle, but the word ‘only’ is a misnomer, because psychological hunger can be a real bitch.

Part of the problem with psychological hunger is identifying it as such. How do we tell? And how do we deny ourselves?

Intellectually, a look back at what we’ve eaten and when can allow us to determine when psychological hunger strikes. Did you eat a properly-sized portion of healthy, low carb food just an hour ago? Then it’s probably some sort of psychological hunger. I’m not big into over-analyzing this - the why of this psychological hunger is really not all that important in this particular analysis. The thinking goes: I’m hungry. I ate an hour ago. It isn’t real hunger. End.

Great - you’ve intellectualized the problem - but you’re still hungry. What do you do except deny yourself food when you want it? And folks, there is so much psychological and sociological BS surrounding this denial that you can drown in it.

Hunger in and of itself is a form of discomfort in the body. We all live in a world filled with discomforts - my chair hurts my butt, the lighting in the room is poor, my knees hurt, etc., etc., etc.

The difference in hunger as a discomfort is that, perhaps more than other discomforts, the hunger can bring with it fear. Some people are scared of being hungry. They can’t allow it to happen. This conditioning probably goes back to the caveman, and gave him that extra something needed to take on that angry mastodon that didn’t feel like being a meal for a bunch of hairy ape-like human precursors.

Some of us - probably the thinner folks - don’t have this fear. These are the ‘eat to live crowd’. They get hungry, but they don’t have the same fear attached to the discomfort.

Do you think ‘fear’ is too strong a word? Maybe, but ask yourself this: have you ever stocked up on a food because you were afraid to run out? That’s the fear I’m talking about.

So, in this day and age, with our refrigerators stuffed with food, and the grocery store open 24 hours a day for some of us, why would we somehow have a fear response that would be more appropriate to a person cast adrift on a life raft with a few cans of beans?

I’ve been questioning this response as of late and it seems that one way to explore this is to treat food as a utility. Imagine food as utilitarian as electricity. You’d never buy gourmet electricity - it’s the energy for other processes and just needs to meet a few criteria of voltage, wattage, and amperage to power your electric gizmos.

What if, as an experiment, the effort was made to think about food in the same fashion?

What if we say to ourselves that food is energy for other processes, not an end in itself. It has to meet minimum criteria for nutrients and calories to ensure health.

Nothing more than that.

Food ceases to become all the things that have surrounded it for a few millennium: social ritual, symbol of abundance, sensual pleasure, all disappear, and food becomes once again what it was to Man before the invention of cooking - and to almost all animals today - just an energy source.

If you follow food as a utility to it’s logical end, your life would be much different. Shopping would be damn simple - a few primary foods that you buy over and over. Your condiment shelf would shrink to a few bottles. you’d throw out less food, try fewer recipes, spend less time in the kitchen, eat more leftovers, probably, as freshness of a meal is an aesthetic aspect of food - only after the first few days does the lessening of nutrient quality and the potential for contamination make the food inedible.

You’re probably thinking I’m nuts about now, but this thought-experiment shows very clearly just how much about food has little to do with sustaining our bodies.

All of these thoughts came to mind as I thought about the period of time that I lost the final 15-20 lbs. I had decided to lose when I first went on Atkins. I had stalled at about 200 and stayed there for a year.

Then my family and I started the process of moving to a new area.

I recall the time as being one where I was very busy. There was no time for much more than work, sleep, and preparing for the move. The time for purchasing, preparation, and eating of food had to be compressed as much as possible.

For a few months I had to ‘eat to live’ - and the weight that refused to budge for a year came off seemingly by itself in about 3 months.

Well, that weight came back soon after the hustle and bustle of the move died down and I had some extra time. I then bounced back to that 200 lb. setpoint and hover around that today.

So what strategies might come from reflecting on that ‘live to eat’ experience that I can put into place now?

  • Get busy. Honestly, there is so much I can do other than eating that food frequently becomes a form of procrastination. Clearly outline what these projects are, and get to it.
  • Enforce a personal ‘food austerity’ program. I am compiling a short list of simple, healthy, low carb foods that are quick to prepare. This list is of foods I like, and I can eat over and over - eggs, tuna, fresh meat and fish, romaine lettuce, tomato, squash, Brussels sprouts, cheese, mayonnaise, and nuts are some examples from the list. All fit my criteria for simple and healthy - and not one comes processed in a box with a list of ingredients that looks like an inventory list from a chemicals warehouse.
  • Eliminate as much food preparation as possible. I’ve already written about this, but instead of using these strategies only when time-starved, enforce them at all times. ‘Eat to live’ people don’t spend hours in the kitchen. Salads fit the bill nicely here - and up the healthy veggies. Broiled meats, which might take some time to cook, but little prep time - also work. If you cook for your family, you can still do this and cut the time in the kitchen.
  • Let food go to waste rather than eating it. I don’t know how many unnecessary calories I’ve consumed because a portion size was larger than I needed to be full, or because the kids left behind some food that would have gone to the dog.
  • Notice your ‘Inner whiny child’ - then ignore them. When you hear that voice whining how other people are eating pasta, or ice cream, or any other example of situations where you consider veering off course, step back and recognize that this is only a part of you - it’s not the you that set long-term goals to get healthy and slim. It’s a thought-bubble - a brain fart. Try ignoring it or dismissing it, and you’ll hear it say things like: ‘you are depriving yourself for no reason! You can have a little bit! You’ll feel left out - what if you’re hungry later?’ Etc., etc., etc. Tell your inner whiny child that you’ve set goals for yourself and that they are reasonable - and that there’s nothing to be scared about - getting a little hungry later doesn’t mean you’ll starve to death. It’s funny how easy it is to tell our children that they can’t have an ice cream cone because it’s too close to dinner, but we find it hard to do to ourselves without our minds having a hissy-fit in protest.

Some of you out there reading this might conclude that this would deprive you of food, of choices, and limit you to a restricted regimen. It’s the whiny inner child again saying this. If you base your food list on a limited variety of high-quality food, your food choices will still be far greater and more varied than mankind has had the opportunity to enjoy for almost all of history, and your food obsession is battling reason.

Your inner child is right, in a way: you are depriving yourself of food. But what the inner child, and their short-term interests don’t see, is that an obsession with eating what you want, when you want it deprives you of your goals.

Filed under: Food, Goals, Mindset, Personal Journal, cooking

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