Toxic Hunger: Why You Aren't Actually Hungry
Kasey McClurg, PhDS, CPT, CNC
My goal is to convince you that you are not really hungry, but that you are caught up in a toxic cycle of avoidance and addiction that are skewing your reality. You’re a food junkie, your hunger can’t be trusted, and here’s why:
As I sit here writing this, I am experiencing just how annoying hunger symptoms can be. The birds are pecking through the snow in the feeder outside my window, gorging themselves on the buffet of seeds. And I’m sitting here, stomach interrupting me with grumbles every few minutes, hating the fact that I promised to write this while feeling what I will explain later as “toxic hunger.” I’m equipped with all the knowledge I am about to share with you, a practitioner of “good” food, and I’m still getting whooped by this phenomenon.
I was wrapping up some work this week when my colleague, Dr. Werner Absenger, shared a paper by Fuhrman, et al. called Changing perceptions of hunger on a high nutrient density diet. (1) In a nutshell, our bodies are so screwed up with poor nutritional habits that we don’t actually know when we are really hungry. So what happens? We eat because we are “listening to our body” and the mysterious “they” say we should eat our 3 meals and 2 snacks a day. Yeah, great advice, considering over 42% of Americans are clinically obese(2)…
This is usually the point in a conversation where someone enlightened by the whims of the Internet interjects and has some notion that what I just said was an unfair statement. So let me paint you a bit more of a picture of situation.
The average American has 5.7 “eating occurrences” a day, with an average between 2.3-2.8 snacks per day (including children). Looking further into it, snacking accounts for 23% of the average energy (from food) consumed per day (3). Dude, when the average America is eating over 3,600 calories a day, that’s 828 calories from snacking or 414 calories per snack (4). That’s way more than your 100 calorie snack packs. No wonder we struggle to maintain a healthy weight! But get this, the USDA still refuses, in the year 2020, to make any statement regarding the relationship of “eating occurrences” and our waistlines. In fact, it was just this year that they acknowledged it *might* be important to examine eating frequency as a nutritional health outcome measurement (3). Your tax dollars at work right there. But I'll hop off that soap box...
We obviously (as a whole) have no idea when we are hungry, because we just keep on eating regardless of our need. And we keep blindly following “hunger” guidance without any basis in--yes, I’ll say it--reality.
So let’s explore this notion of “toxic hunger,” shall we?
We start out by addressing the fact that the most common barrier, arguably the biggest barrier, to weight loss and maintenance is the uncomfortable sensation of hunger (1). In Fuhrman’s descriptive study of 768 participants, they described their experiences in their typical diet compared to adjusting to a high-quality diet. The study particularly evaluated the expression of various feelings of hunger. Here’s where things get interesting.
Wouldn’t you know it? On a typical diet, participants “knew” they were hungry when they felt hunger symptoms in their upper stomach or head. Guess what else they felt when hungry?
· Stomach Cramps
· Mood Changes
Sounding familiar? Maybe a lot like those Snickers commercials that are all too relatable. So get this: these typical diets were low quality (AKA, little variety, low micronutrients, high calorie). Upon close evaluation, Fuhrman and crew found these unpleasant hunger sensations started when digestion stopped, not when nutrients were needed by the cells. Getting more geeky, they found this typical diet increased intracellular waste products, halting or impeding other important cellular functions, and in turn, causing these hunger symptoms. Hence the inspiration for the term "toxic hunger."
Now for my usual, unrelated example: How many times has your garbage disposal backed water up into your sink, but you knew there wasn’t anything in there. You stare confused at it, slightly intrigued but also afraid that maybe it’s a spoon or something lodged in there. But you watched too many horror films and you aren’t going to stick you hand in there blindly. You eventually get up the courage to just hit the switch and you hear nothing but water swishing around before it goes down the drain. What gives? You chalk it up to some residue and waste in there and think nothing else of it until it happens again.
Going back to the cells on this typical diet. They get so backed up with waste and residue that they aren’t able to flush out the waste and byproducts efficiently anymore. This causes waste products to get backed up all up in your body system and create subsequent symptoms. This is where I love how Fuhrman’s crew explains this "toxic hunger" phenomenon. Because the typical diet isn’t giving the micronutrient diversity necessary for proper cellular function, they term the resulting symptoms manifested as hunger sensations as “toxic” because of the waste buildup that occurs in the body. We interpret these “toxic hunger” sensations as being hungry and needing to eat, when it’s actually just a backup of dirty dishwater in our body. No duh, this leads to the cycle of eating and then overeating. The only way to stop the hunger pains immediately is to eat, which stops the late-end digestive process we discuss in a second, and causes the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms to subside. Do you get why I called you a food junkie earlier?
So now we switch to a micronutrient-dense, high quality diet and see what happens to this group of brave participants.
After an understandable adjustment period (this is where most people end up failing because it isn’t pleasant), these symptoms of hunger overwhelmingly became unintrusive and obsolete. Their physical sensations of hunger were no longer unmanageably unpleasant, they stopped having “hunger” mood swings, and THIS PART IS TRIPPY…
WHERE THEY FELT HUNGER WAS TOTALLY DIFFERENT!
Yeah. Because the cells were given the dietary tools they need to be effective, hunger sensations were not felt until much later in the digestive process. Like, at the end phase of digestion where the nutrients are broken down into their smallest forms for storage. They only really experienced hunger once they depleted glycogen stores and the body was triggering the need to eat to protect lean body mass from being used as fuel. So guess where they felt hungry?
Not in the stomach.
Not in the head.
In the throat and mouth!
Whoa, right?! This micronutrient rich diet, after initial adjustment, decreased hunger sensations, decreased food cravings, and decreased overeating behaviors. On this note, subscribe to see how my research on strategies to overcome toxic hunger emerge.
Have I convinced you? Are you really hungry or are you, like me right now (stomach still rumbling), just caught up in this cycle of toxic hunger?
The recover won’t be pleasant, but it is so very possible. Especially because now you know what's really going on!
So what can you do right now?
· Eat your damn veggies
· Be mindful of the experience of hunger you are having
· Stop eating 414 calorie snacks twice a day
· Sign up for nutrition coaching & more with us at www.endurancesportcenter.com/nutrition
(1) Fuhrman, J., Sarter, B., Glaser, D., & Acocella, S. (2010). Changing perceptions of hunger on a high nutrient density diet. Nutrition Journal, 9(1), 51. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-9-51
(2) Center for Disease Control (CDC). (2020, July 29). Adult obesity facts. Accessed December 11, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
(3) US Department of Agriculture. (2020) Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Chapter 13. Frequency of Eating. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-07/PartD_Ch13_FreqEating_first-print.pdf
(4) Gould, S. (2017, May 10). 6 charts that show how much more Americans eat than they used to. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/daily-calories-americans-eat-increase-2016-07