What is Hungry?

What is hungry about in your body? Is it mental, chemical, hormonal, physiological, or just plain habit? Actually, it is a combination of reduced food intake, desire for more food (or a certain type of food), low blood sugar, elevated insulin levels, and an empty stomach, to name just some of the factors that influence the level of hunger. To that end, it is a necessary sensation which our bodies have as part of our self-preservation and biological stasis. If we did not have this, we could just continue our activities without eating but not sustain our necessary level of caloric intake.

In past Tidewater Women articles, we have explained that your body depends on glucose, which it burns (like firewood) to sustain body heat and maintain basic metabolism. We all accept the fact that we need to be hungry as a stimulus to eat and keep our glucose levels up. The questions are: How do we manage to deny “learned” or habit hunger, how do we modify the level of hunger with our dietary intake, and how can we use hunger as a stimulus to healthier eating and even an improved activity level?

A few years ago, I performed a survey of my patients regarding how they were able to overcome fatigue at the end of a workday or active days. The answers varied, but clearly the majority stated that not eating combined with exercise helped overcome the fatigue. Some stated that rest and a snack helped them back to a better level, and some stated that a “drink” was the choice for them. This is a good example of how activity plus accompanying hunger motivated the majority of the respondents.

There are two sides to the coin. There is the possibility that being a little hungry might be good for you and eating enough (or more) to appease your hunger might lead to lethargy and inactivity. If you respond to slight hunger or a special hunger for sugar or bread, you are more likely to gain weight.

As you know, obesity causes inflammation in the body with resulting increase in heart disease, arthritis, stroke, cancer, and other problems. If you stay thinner, maybe never gain another pound, you may avoid most of those diseases or modify the severity.

Eating low-glycemic carbohydrates reduces your insulin levels and blood sugar levels. That approach tends to make you stay less hungry, especially if eaten with food in the same ratio of carbohydrates/proteins/fats, as in the Zone diet. Eating foods in this ratio does not give you the abrupt rise in blood sugar, especially over the long period of several hours after eating. The hunger comes on more slowly and is more visceral in that you feel a slow buildup of hunger, which tells you that you need to eat. If you follow this pathway, the hunger stimulates your activity and tells you that you need another low glycemic, balanced meal.

There is a popular diet in England based on the book Fast Diet 5:2, which includes two days of fasting and five days of eating a regular diet. The diet is very effective and includes as one of the components two days of relative hunger, which when associated with decreased caloric intake causes good response in the body, both for increased energy and hormonal response. The hormonal and body response even to short bursts of fasting includes lower insulin levels, increased plasma corticosterone, and lipolysis (fat loss).

When insulin levels are low, we increase carnitine levels and HSL (hormone-sensitive lipose) and burn fat at a higher rate of speed. Fasting and exercise also increase HGH (human growth hormone) which, if taken by injection rather than by natural stimulation with diet and exercise, can cost up to $15,000 a year! HGH can help build muscle mass and decrease fat in the body.

The benefits of using mild hunger become obvious when you realize that metabolic and physical changes occur that are to your advantage. When coupled with increased exercise, there is also an increase in mental acuity as well as a decrease in cancer risks. If you begin to feel a little hunger as part of the fasting/exercise routine, you can begin to think of it as your friend, helping you achieve health for your mind and body to your advantage. Neither hunger nor fasting will harm you, even if you are a diabetic or have heart trouble.

Try to imagine yourself like the lion who makes a kill during his hunt, eats and sleeps for days, and after that he fasts until he gets lean and strong enough to repeat the cycle to maintain his family’s well-being. You should also stay strong, lean, a little hungry, and in motion a lot. All of this will result in a healthier body and a sense of well being and accomplishment.

Dr. James Carraway is a plastic surgeon at the Cosmetic & Plastic Surgery Center of EVMS. Call 757-557-0300 for more information.

James H. Carraway, M.D.

Dr. James Carraway is a full-time academic and practicing clinical plastic surgeon.  He is Director of the Cosmetic & Plastic Surgery Center of EVMS, is board certified in surgery and plastic surgery, and is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.  Dr. Carraway has been teaching and practicing for 30+ years and has been director and chairman of residency training programs and fellowship programs in plastic surgery.
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