Hunger largely comes down to perceived energy and/or nutrient insufficiency. Your body thinks that it needs more calories and more energy, and hunger sets in to get you to eat the food that contains those nutrients. Now, if perception matches up well with reality – if you truly do need more nutrients – things are good. You need some food, you eat some food, and you stop when you’ve had enough. In this situation, listening to your body is a good idea. That’s what all those Primal people (including me) are talking about when they tell you to “just listen to your body, maaaaaaan,” because for those people, it truly is that simple. Eliminating the excess carbs, the refined sugar, the grains, and the processed seed oils while adhering to the other Primal laws regarding exercise, sleep, stress, sun, and all the rest was enough to right the ship.
But that’s not everyone. Sometimes perception does not match up with reality. Sometimes your body thinks it needs more nutrients when it really doesn’t, for a variety of reasons. This isn’t actually an example of your body lying to you, since your body “believes” what it’s saying, but the end result is the same: you eat something that you really don’t need. It’s a bit like how your friends and family who worry about you eating all that fat and protein try to push bran muffins and whole wheat pasta on you. They’re operating under a fundamentally broken set of assumptions, but they mean well.
So, why does this happen? What’s going on when someone’s sense of hunger is broken? When doesn’t listening to your body work?
When you can’t access your stored body fat.
Body fat is stored energy; it’s long-term, slow-burning fuel that our bodies love to use, and should be able to use very well. But what happens when you can’t burn it very well?
You burn sugar instead. After all, you need energy from somewhere, and research shows that those who have the most problem with hunger – the obese and the formerly obese – burn more carbohydrate than fat, whereas those who generally don’t have much of an issue with hunger – the lean – burn more fat than carbohydrate. Problem is, our ability to store glucose as energy is inherently limited and dwarfed by our ability to store fat as energy. We can store pounds and pounds of the latter, while the former is perpetually scarce. We can keep only around 100 grams of glucose on hand in the liver and 400 grams in the muscles, depending on their size. That won’t last very long, and once it’s used up, you need more food – especially if your ability to burn body fat is impaired. When you need more food, you get hungry. If your body is used to burning sugar, you’re going to crave sugar. The resultant sugar craving is very real, because sugar is what you “need,” but it’s not what you need.
So, if you’ve had success losing weight with Primal eating, but still have trouble curbing your appetite, this could explain why – you may not be totally fat-adapted. You can, and likely will, but it will take time.
When you’re insulin resistant.
Remember how I said insulin is an indicator of nutrient availability in Monday’s post on carb feeds? Heck, some have even gone so far as to call insulin a “satiety hormone.” After all, it can cross the blood-brain barrier into the brain, where it interacts with various systems to tell the body that food has been ingested and is currently digesting, and that maybe you don’t have to eat for a bit. Of course, that’s only the case if you’re insulin sensitive. If you’re insulin resistant, your body/brain won’t get the message that insulin is trying hard to convey.
Thus, insulin resistance promotes hunger. You eat, and insulin is released, but your body tells you to eat some more despite the much-ballyhooed ability of insulin to act as a satiety hormone.
When you’re addicted to junk.
What if you weren’t actually even phsyiologically “hungry”? What if your body didn’t think it was missing nutrients or fat or carbs – but rather it just wanted another hit of that sweet, sweet junk food? Last week, I showed how our brains and bodies respond to pleasurable, tasty foods by secreting endogenous opioids – brain morphine, really – that, together with dopamine, cause you to want more of whatever food triggered those secretions. This wasn’t a problem back when we only had access to real, whole foods like meat, plants, fruits, nuts, and roots, because those foods didn’t act as hyperstimuli of our reward systems. They caused modest, appropriate opioid and dopamine responses in the brain, promoting repeated consumption but not compulsive overconsumption. Fast forward to today and it’s a very different world full of people doing odd food-related things that make absolutely no sense:
People eat cans of Pringles and become immediately disgusted with themselves for doing it. They’re repulsed by the Twinkie even as it makes its way into their gaping maw. They throw up in their mouth at the thought of McDonald’s “chicken” nuggets, yet find themselves in the drive-thru after work, ordering a value meal despite themselves.
It’s crazy on its face, but it actually makes perfect sense at the same time, because our natural reward systems have been hijacked by a constant barrage of delicious (but gross) food. You want the stuff even if you currently have no physiological need for calories.
When you are compelled to eat junk, don’t listen to your body. Eat something Primal, something nourishing, something that approximates what you’re craving only using real food. So, if you want some Sour Patch Kids, grab some raspberries. If you want a Big Mac, go for a grass-fed burger over salad.
When you’re experiencing reactive hypoglycemia.
Normally, you eat some food, your blood sugar goes up, insulin rises to take care of the nutrients, the nutrients are partitioned to their respective holding places, your blood sugar normalizes, and all is well. You’ll get hungry again, only when you need the food, when your body truly needs an input of energy. In some people, however, eating food (especially carbs) causes the pancreas to secrete an inordinately large amount of insulin, way more than you actually need. Your blood sugar drops from its postprandial high, but the insulin goes above and beyond, and your blood sugar continues to plummet past “normal.”
Your body implores you to “eat, eat,” even though there’s no real need for added energy; it’s just that your low blood sugar is indicating a need for caloric energy. In people with well-functioning metabolisms, lower blood sugar generally matches up with a need for calories and nutrients. In the reactive hypoglycemic state, the two do not match up. Hunger is constant, but you’re not really nourishing yourself. You’re just eating to push up that blood sugar.
In one sense, listening to your hypoglycemic body is working, because eating carbs raises your blood sugar and you feel better. But in the long run, it isn’t working, because you’re eating more than you need to eat, you’re gaining weight, and you’re not fixing the situation. Sticking with foods that don’t elevate your blood sugar to such dizzying heights (protein and fat) should give you better control over your blood sugar.
When your sleep is bad.
I harp on the importance of sleep all the time, and I’m going to do it again here. Lack of sleep isn’t just bad for alertness, circadian rhythm regulation, stress hormone secretion, bags under the eyes, exercise performance, etc., etc.; it’s also a potent appetite stimulator. Furthermore, not sleeping also worsens glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, meaning when you do (inevitably) eat, it won’t sate you and you’ll be more likely to store it as fat. You’re also more likely to eat junk when you don’t sleep, because it increases the brain’s susceptibility to food stimuli.
When you’ve had a bad night’s sleep and your body is craving food, eat. Don’t fast, because that’s just heaping one stressor on top of another. Eat something you know is good – pastured bacon and eggs, a Big Ass salad, some sweet potato. And get some sleep, so it doesn’t happen again.
In all these situations, we are faced with a decision to make: do we listen to our bodies and feel “better,” or do we ignore them and do what’s “best” for us? There are no easy answers. If you’re not yet a fat-burning beast, you’re in for a rough time. If your blood sugar gets low enough, you might faint. Ignoring your body’s cries to eat something probably isn’t a good idea in that situation. If you haven’t slept, you should probably eat, but not junk. At some point, however, saying “no” to your body’s signals or figuring out how to fix the broken machinery that’s precipitating the messages is going to be necessary. That’s where something like the 21-Day Total Body Transformation, which removes the guesswork from all this so that you follow an established framework, or the 90-Day Journal, which provides a foundation for doing your own “formal guesswork,” comes into play.
Your body may appear to be working against you, but it’s doing it’s best. It’s responding to perceived physiological needs, even if those perceptions are misguided and confused. Whatever you do, don’t despair. Don’t give up. You’ve got a great community here, folks who’ve been there and back again, folks who can help you get things moving in the right direction.
In future posts, I’ll be discussing some other instances where the body’s messaging should be viewed with suspicion, so stay tuned.
Now let’s hear how you guys have dealt with confusing hunger messages in the comment section. Until next time, take care!