Our culture has at least three very dissimilar ways of understanding the idea of hunger.
First, we think of hunger as a part of poverty or famine, usually in far off places like a foreign country or an inner city neighbourhood. In this sense, hunger is a social problem that needs to be eradicated, preferably without actually involving us very closely with the people who are hungry. We’d rather send some money or attend a rally or something and feel like we’ve done our part. Meeting any hungry people in person would just be uncomfortable.
Second, we think of hunger as our own physical need for food. Again, we want to be rid of hunger in this sense as quickly as possible. The moment we feel a hunger pang, we start rooting in the fridge for a snack, looking for a fast food joint along the edge of the highway, or heading for the vending machine in the staff lounge. We almost always look at this kind of hunger merely as a problem to be fixed, and expeditiously if possible.
Third, we think of hunger in a more metaphorical way, as a drive or a need for something that isn’t actually food. We talk about an athlete as being hungry for winning or about an executive as being hungry for success. In this sense, we use the term a little more positively, with the implication that it’s good to be hungry for these things. The idea is that staying hungry results in greater amounts of fulfillment. Even here, however, the assumption is that the ultimate goal is to satisfy the hunger. The hunger is only good to the degree that it results in greater satisfaction. It’s the food equivalent of not eating all day so that you can get your money’s worth at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Understanding hunger in these ways, our culture ends up having a strange relationship with the idea of fasting, something that my doctor is now having me do regularly as a way of regulating my blood sugars. Because we’ve trained ourselves to think of hunger as a sign of poverty and failure, or as problem to be swiftly eliminated, or as motivation used to achieve greater satisfaction, the idea of a hunger remaining deliberately unmet – not so that we can consume more later, but just to be endured – is difficult for us to understand.
And yet, there’s all sorts of evidence that our culture not only eats too much but also too often to be healthy, that it’s not good for our bodies never to be hungry. Quite apart from the emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits that people have touted for fasting over the centuries, there are real physical benefits to allowing our bodies to be hungry on a regular basis. Among other things, it helps improve insulin sensitivity (which is why I’m required to do it), metabolism, brain function, and immune system.
I’ve only been eating in an eight hour window each day now for almost a year, fasting for the other sixteen. For the first three months (now only maybe once a month), I was also fasting one entire day a week. I’ve also cut out added sugars and big chunks of easy carbs. In just three months my bloodwork had improved dramatically. I also lost almost thirty pounds, stopped getting acid reflux at night, and am noticeably less tired and sluggish.
My point isn’t that you should take up this diet yourself. In fact, on principle I wouldn’t recommend that you take up any diet you found on some non-nutritionist’s blog, not without first chatting with your doctor about it.
My point is that in order to change the way I was eating, I first had to change my relationship to the idea of hunger. I had to stop looking at hunger solely as a problem to be eliminated. I had to begin welcoming it (in defined circumstances) as a sign of my body’s healthy functioning. Rather than looking always to fix my hunger, I had to begin embracing it. I had to start saying to myself, “This hunger is good.”
Just to be clear, not all hunger is good. Some hunger is starvation. Some hunger is lust for ever greater consumption. But neither is all hunger bad, and we need to be better at allowing ourselves to be hungry, not as punishment, not as incentive, but just because sometimes it’s good for us to be hungry.