Hunger Is a Habit

Despite what your stomach may have told you, your body doesn’t need to eat right now or even in the next couple hours. Even if you don’t eat until tomorrow, your body will be just fine.

To be clear, in no way do I mean any disrespect to food here; being able to eat is objectively one of the best parts of living. But we’re trained ourselves to be hungry for a meal at least three times a day, while giving ourselves less and less time to prepare and enjoy it. And it means we end up making a mockery of our relationship with food1see: Soylent– prioritizing all the wrong things like convenience, portability, or shelf-life – all because we’ve learned to choose eating – often over eating-well.

Since we’ve learned to eat on this unceasing schedule, it is never more than a few hours between meals, or else our stomach starts to rumble and groan. And this means our cells are almost always living in the refined sugar-fueled good times, becoming so bored of the signal of plenty that they forget how to listen.2Persistently elevated blood-insulin levels, commonly caused by a diet of frequent meals of highly processed foods, are strongly linked to the development of insulin resistance; a condition that causes cells across the whole body to stop responding to the action of the hormone insulin.
Insulin resistance is often referred to as ‘prediabetes’ as it is a key risk factor for type-II diabetes, and is also associated with stroke, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
It is estimated that more than 120 million Americans are insulin resistant or have diabetes.
CDC Annual Report 2020 (PDF)
It means that the furnace is always burning so hot that there’s never time for it to be cleaned. It means there are so many new deliveries to your cells of sugar, so often, that no one stops to take out the trash or do the recycling.3Autophagy, one of the most important cellular processes for cleaning up metabolic and other waste products is most active during fasted states. The build-up of this cellular waste is thought to be a critical factor in diseases like Alzheimer’s. An excellent review is provided by Dr. Mark Mattson:
Mattson, M. P. (2005). Energy intake, meal frequency, and health: A neurobiological perspective. Annual Review of Nutrition, 25(1), 237–260.
We’ve gotten so used to this as ‘normal’ that we don’t notice it’s killing us, that constant easy energy is actually slowing us down, and then drowning us in the exhaust.4Another potential damaging consequence of insulin resistance is persistent low-grade inflammation throughout the body, which over time may lead to serious conditions such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Like so many of our modern problems, it comes from good intentions colliding with our world of instant gratification that neither our physiology nor psychology were really made to handle.5For much more see Dr. Stephan Guyenet’s excellent book “The Hungry Brain” Snacking at the slightest feeling of hunger – is like taking out your phone at the first hint of boredom – an incredibly easy habit to make and a very hard one to break. It’s an instantaneous and predictable relief to an uncomfortable situation, and even worse, we can trick ourselves into thinking it’s okay because we switched to the ‘healthy’ version (granola bars, unsalted almonds and only ‘serious’ news sites).

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But giving in to these urges and forming these habits keeps us trapped in the shallows. Constantly fluttering through content means we’re never getting deep into our own ideas because we’re always being spoon-fed new ones.6Just ask Nicolas Carr And constantly eating means our body is never building towards resilience or taking the time to repair, and we learn to be hungry for what is easy and what is in front of us, instead of what our thoughtful self would want us to eat.7If you have never heard about Daniel Kahneman’s model of our ‘fast brain’ and our ‘slow brain’, and the fantastically clever experiments behind it, I strongly recommend you stop reading this and go find a copy of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” right now.

The good news is that these are habits that can still be broken, and replacing them with good habits can breed better habits – in the same way, bad habits spiral into worse ones. And although changing habits around how you eat can be difficult, just simply changing how often you eat can be the best first step to improving your metabolic fitness and living a healthier, sharper, and more productive life.

Breaking through the habitual hunger that stands in the way might seem daunting, but we’re here to help. Take back control of your habits, take back control of your hunger.