Since I’ve lost some weight during my time here, I decided to make a list of different types of sensations of hunger. As people should know from personal experience and physiology, there are many ways to be hungry and that the term “hunger” is often used in ambiguous ways. A distinction between hunger and appetite can be made but it is not strictly enforced here.
The food here has been somewhat restricted but very regular. Most importantly, I am not bombarded by cues to eat in a rural part of a rural Chinese village just north from the middle of nowhere. Thus the relationship between man and food is very different here. I eat mostly twice a day but sometimes might only enjoy one meal. The same scarcity applies in case of social interaction and activities. Hence I’ve had plenty of time to introspect on different sensations that enter my consciousness. One of the many has been types of hungers.
The following taxonomical list considers both the etiology and phenomenology of the type of hunger. Each type is given a score based on the severity of the condition.
1. The Premeal Hunger
When you are always, or often enough, eating at the same time of the day, presumably your the internal clock prepares your body for the incoming meal. I would expect there to be other cues, like sounds and smells, as well that your mind subconsciously picks up on. Apparently in an effort to maintain the homeostasis (i.e. the balance) of your body’s energy levels, some insulin is secreted before the meal to get rid of the glucose in your blood stream and prepare for more energy entering your system. The etiology of the premeal hunger is far from clear though as many higher level psychological explanations probably have their role, as they do with all human behaviour.
Personally I’ve found my body’s ability to expect food to be quite uncanny. With the forced adoption of a regular eating schedule, I can pretty much tell when it’s lunch time (always 11.30) without ever seeing a clock. The premeal hunger often feels lightly in the stomach and its onset can be quite quick. This is especially so if one is concentrating on a task of some kind and is suddenly snapping out of it to realise that it’s chow time.
Premeal hunger is very tolerable though. It can briefly break one’s concentration but the brilliant thing is that it passes very quickly. If one chooses not to answer when the premeal hunger rings the bell, it will give up after 10 to 30 minutes. If I skip lunch, I don’t usually get disturbed by the need to eat again before dinner time.
H-Score: Due to it’s quick onset and the passing and overall mundane nature, I’d give the premeal hunger a score of 3/10.
2. The I’m-Actually-Just-Thirsty Hunger
As nutrition people everywhere will tell you, people might often mistake thirst for hunger. The same people usually blab on about everyone being dehydrated and that one should drink ludicrous amounts of water in a day just to be healthy. Which, of course, isn’t really true (as you’ll find from reliable and up-to-date sources). Why exactly do people mistake thirst for hunger is a mystery to me. My initial guess would be that those consuming a lot of calories by drinking liquids might have a connection between incoming calories and hydration. Additionally, those who don’t drink too much might get most of their water liquid intake from solid food, which is quite often containing a lot of water. I guess nobody really knows. Or at the very least, I don’t know.
The thirst hunger is slightly different from many other types of hunger. Obviously it can be easily eliminated by drinking some water. The onset of this type of hunger seems a little random and is difficult to track. Unlike the premeal hunger, the thirst hunger can make one feel a little sluggish and out of energy. This considerably adds to the severity of the state. Normally this very slight sense of hunger persists until action is taken.
H-Score: In mild cases this type of hunger can be dismissed but the persistent nature and the possibility of it causing the sensation of being out of energy add to the severity of the condition. However, all things considered, the thirst hunger is very tolerable: 3/10.
3. The Empty Stomach Hunger
Ghrelin, as I’ve learned, is one of the hormones regulating the energy homeostasis of the human body. It is secreted by our stomachs and induces a distinct feeling of needing to swallow some food. When one’s stomach is empty, more ghrelin enters the blood stream.
Interestingly, there might be a connection between the empty stomach hunger and thirst hunger. It seems that people who consume water before stuffing their faces, tend to eat less. This is probably due to the ghrelin signal cutting off sooner as one’s stomach fills up quicker. But then again, I really don’t know.
For me, the empty stomach sensation is a very visceral sensation, I can really feel it in my belly. As I stop eating at 17.30 every day, I always wake up with an empty stomach. However, since I’m not that huge on breakfast (which is a perfectly fine thing to be), I’m not expecting any food. Thus, I don’t feel full or sated but I don’t feel like eating anything either.
I could eat but for me, breakfast has always been more of a pre-emptive strike. In addition, if I start eating in the morning, I can eat quite a lot simply on account of having an empty stomach. Once I start eating, I’ll initially get hungrier as I go. When I wake up with an empty stomach, I easily go the next 6 to 12 hours without feeling any persistent urges to fill up the tank. It often feels quite good not to be “stuffed”.
Peristaltic sounds and sensations might be an issue. Sometimes, my stomach makes those rumbling sounds many associate with this type of hunger. The interesting part is that besides the physical sensations in my belly, I don’t really feel a very compelling need to eat. The rumbling is more like my belly just reminding me that its empty.
H-Score: The empty stomach hunger is a physical sensation. It should be accompanied by the increase in ghrelin and thus the need to eat. However, I’ve found this type of hunger to be extremely tolerable and habit dependent: 2/10.
4. The Munchies
Though I’m not exactly an expert what comes to cannabinoid induced cravings for food, I can note that a lot of it seems to be related to how one perceives food. Studies on rats have demonstrated that rats who are high are more sensitive to the smell and, by extension, the taste of food. It all happens with our own cannabinoids and THC somehow goofing around in the olfactory system or something. If one were to use the term “appetite”, then an increased appetite is what one would experience as the munchies.
To understand what I mean by appetite, you might imagine a person with anorexia (actually anorexia means “no appetite” in Greek). An anorexic person, as I’ve been led to believe, might be hungry. In fact some claim that anorexic people are almost constantly hungry. However, they don’t have any appetite for food (yes, a bit of a hellish condition…). Incidentally, marijuana has been used by some to help with their anorexic lack of appetite.
The etiology probably also has something to do with other mechanisms of producing hunger but I wouldn’t know about such things.
When experiencing the munchies (I’ve been told), food and the idea of food become extremely appealing. Eating something that tastes good has never been a better idea. This type of hunger seems to be almost purely “psychological”, i.e. it has little to do with the amount blood glucose or stomach contents and all to do with certain foods being irresistible.
H-Score: As this condition is accompanied by certain social settings, expectations and abnormal mental states, it is quite severe. “Ritualistic” hunger with a heightened appetite make for a probable binge: 8/10.
5. The Ritual Hunger
As is often the case with the munchies and the premeal hunger, certain habitual cues can trigger the need to eat. Different people have different rituals that might relate somehow to the sensation of hunger. It could be argued that the premeal hunger is a type of ritual hunger associated with the time of the day. The etiology of the ritual hunger is very similar to that of the premeal hunger, except it is not dependent on the human body’s internal clock.
One of my personal triggers for this type of hunger, that almost always causes me to eat something, is sex. I don’t mean before or during but after. Smokers usually need their cigarettes after such activities but I often want to have a sandwich. So back in Finland I’m eating three sambos a day, if you know what I mean, nudge nudge wink wink. Seriously speaking though, I find the hunger almost comical since it comes as inevitably as my partner (please somebody stop me, I have a disease, I’m the real victim here).
Though I often choose to observe this type of hunger, it is very similar to the premeal hunger. If one chooses to ignore it, one might wonder after 10 minutes if one was really hungry to begin with. However, rituals and habits are important and the activity in question might even seem incomplete without a crucial part of it. Think movie theatre without your movie snack of choice. I often don’t even feel like eating but I do so out of pure habit. It is sort of automatic.
(Interesting tidbit about movie snacks: the phenomenon is as old as drama itself. Probably. In a very rarely cited [never seen anybody citing it because it is an unimportant side note to a tangent] passage of Ethica Nicomachea, Aristotle writes that people eat more sweets when the actors are bad. I.e. already in ancient Greece people were eating snacks at the theatre.)
H-Score: The power of rituals is strong but can be ignored from the hunger perspective. The ritual as a whole might be less satisfying though, which makes this a surprisingly severe type of hunger: 4/10.
6. The Low Blood Sugar Hunger
After insulin has done its business and one’s blood sugar has dropped, a very specific set of symptoms starts to set in. A lot of people, and the people close to them, are acutely aware of this type of hunger. Some seem to exhibit more sever symptoms which might be caused by larger fluctuations in blood sugar levels or by some other stuff that has to do with impulse regulation and executive function.
Since our bodies mostly use glucose for energy related stuff as our main fuel, this is the first and probably the most common type of hunger that is directly energy level (i.e. calorie) related. When one’s blood glucose dips, one gets cranky. And tired. And snappy. And light-headed. And cranky. Not all of us but some. Interestingly, one can be quite “full” from food and still experience a sugar crash after consuming a large amount of simple carbohydrates.
It seems that this type of hunger is not often recognised as hunger, per se. Most people that I know to suffer from this type of hunger tend to recognise their condition by other symptoms than hunger. Then they might have a snack and turn into a nicer person again by the miraculous consumption of food. It’s weird stuff.
H-Score: Though low blood sugar has all to do with energy, it doesn’t seem to prompt the intake of food the same way. The symptoms might be bad but from the point of view of the hunger itself, the (non medical emergency) low blood sugar hunger usually isn’t that severe of a condition: 4/10.
7. The Hyperpalatability Hunger
Fun to say and fun to experience. If you’re not too sensitive to eating a bit too much. A hyperpalatable food is a type of food that makes us want more and more of it. Different people enjoy different foods to varying degrees. Most people have some particular delicacies that they can eat until they are so stuffed that they physically can’t eat any more. Unless you bring forth their second favourite of a different taste.
Hyperpalatable foods are awesome and many foods are designed to induce that reaction. Such foods make us ignore satiety cues and stuff more food down because of the pleasure it brings. After eating ridiculous amounts of the food, we are usually left with a feeling of being far too full to even move.
The hyperpalatability hunger starts with having one potato chip (or crisp). After which you must have another one. And you know the rest. As far as I know, these types of foods trigger certain endorphine reactions that make us want a second hit. Some nutrition folk believe that the engineering of hyperpalatable foods is one of the main reasons people have grown to be fatter. The normal satiety control simply doesn’t work and we need to consciously stop eating or we eat much too much.
Hyperpalatability can cause neural reactions so strong that they are comparable to heavy duty “drugs”. Or so some claim based on rodent studies. Think about that.
The most interesting part of hyperpalatable foods is not their palatability. At least for me, the weirdest and the most disturbing aspect is eating a lot of something that I don’t even find that tasty, i.e. palatable. Imagine that. Mindlessly munching on something that isn’t even that good. I’d suspect that such treats still give me some of that endorphine rush and hence I find myself reaching for more.
Since the hyperpalatability hunger requires conscious effort to control, it requires willpower to resist it. A friend of mine, who happens to be one of the top guys what comes to research regarding willpower, puts it: the best way to use your willpower is not having to use it. Avoiding hyperpalatability hunger is as easy as avoiding having that first bite or making the purchase. After that it becomes more difficult. In fact, I dare you to take your favourite snack on the couch or in bed and go watch a movie. Have just three bites of it with a little pause in between and then keep the food there in front of you but don’t eat it. Sounds like torture? Maybe not, but I suspect it to be quite difficult for most. Which is also why I think it’s weird that parents allow their kids to have just enough candy to keep them wanting for more. Those devilishly clever bastards. Incidentally, kids who develop effective ways to battle such cravings are more likely to do well in life than if we looked at the kids by their IQ. Howabouthat!
It should be noted that when offered a large assortment of foods, they tend to cause the same overeating effect. We become sated to one type of food but can still have amples of another sort. With hyperpalatable foods you can leverage this effect to the max by stacking them for added pleasure, as a lot of people do. First start off with something warm, greasy and meaty, then pair that with salty simple starches and finish off with something cold and sweet. That’s a slice of heaven for you. And also almost all of fast food.
H-Score: The hyperpalatability hunger is not driven by punishment but by reward. Once we grow accustomed to such treats we crave for more, both in the larger and smaller scale of things. Once you start, it’s difficult to stop: 5/10.
8. The I-Used-To-Be-Fat Hunger
If you look at the former contestants of The Biggest Loser, you’ll find that almost all of them gain their weight back. Some end up even fatter and some manage to keep some of it off. Almost everyone of the contestants gains a personload of weight once they are left to their own. Most gain weight even when they have help. Apparently, it’s not because they’re fat and stupid and can’t control what they eat, it’s probably because of certain metabolic changes keep their bodies constantly hungry and trying to regain that lost weight. It’s a sad phenomenon really.
The few people who have managed to keep the weight off, are anal about their food intake and exercise routine. Or that’s what I’ve understood. Measuring everything and such. Always vigilant and always stopping short of how much your body tells you to eat. That is seriously creepy and sad.
The former obese hunger is probably caused by disturbances in secretion of leptin. Adipose tissue (i.e. fat cells) release leptin and the more fat cells you have, the more leptin you should have. As far as I’ve understood. Of course it’s probably very complex and stuff. Basically, people seem to be under the assumption that leptin is the long term control for the amount of fat tissue that people have. The way I read the data, is that the people who lost the massive amount of weight, were left with a constant hunger to eat a bit too much.
That is a terrifying idea. But then again I find the idea of having to think about or plan food related things very disturbing. I want to eat what I want and when I want and as much as I want to eat it. And stay healthy. Physically attractive would also be a big plus. I find anything less to be orthorexic.
I don’t have any personal experience of this type of hunger but it should be noted that even with smaller amounts of weight loss, the same effect seems to take place. The skinny you will be hungrier than the fatty you (if you were fat to begin with). Or so I’ve been told.
H-Score: The former obese hunger is best described as always having to have too little (or get fat again). The most problematic aspect of this type of hunger is its permanent nature. The tortoise wins the race: 10/10.
9. The Crazy Cravings Hunger
I’ve been led to understand that pregnant people might suffer from strange “food” cravings. And I say “food” because they might have targets that aren’t exactly food in a stricter sense of the word. However, other people with severe deficiencies can get weird cravings too of a similar nature. I am not entirely sure how the mechanism works but I suspect that one’s body signals a deficiency of a nutrient by inducing the related hunger. I’m not sure anybody really knows much about this.
I think my mother wanted to eat the plastering off of the walls. She wanted some calcium, I’d presume. When I was iron deficient, I wanted to have the taste of iron in my mouth. So the idea of licking anything that has a “metallic” (or an “ironic”) taste seemed like a good idea. I resisted the temptation but power cords looked mighty nice to chew on (yes, I know they’re mostly copper).
Not all Crazy Cravings are that crazy. Sometimes we might have sensible cravings of foods that are normally not that appealing to us. I still call those crazy cravings. I find the most disturbing part of the crazy cravings to be the fixation. Often the fixation becomes a loop that sustains itself. For instance with the power cords: you get the sensation and make a note of it. Later you see some power cords and it brings you back to that super weird craving and reminds you of it. You might laugh at it but it’s already in your head. The same thing repeats any time you see a power cord and soon enough the sight of power cords equals imagining what it is like to chew on them. The same goes for other less weird cravings.
H-Score: If one is in good mental health, then battling strange cravings should be relatively easy: 2/10.
10. The Malnourished Hunger
This is the gold standard of hunger to which all other types of hungers bow down to. The thing is that people with lots of adipose tissue can survive redonckulous amounts of time without food (i.e. calories, nutritional deficiencies will set in but if those are control for only body fat will take us a long way). Fat can sustain people for a very long time. Sure we still need water but we can go without eating for a long while.
By malnourished hunger, I mean the state when all the glycogen (a type of carbohydrate) from one’s liver and skeletal muscle has been used up and the state is sustained for a longer time period. People who do ketogenic diets or those who are trying to lose weight are in such a state to some degree. Normally when one stops eating for a while, the glycogen stores are mostly enough to keep things running. With rigorous exercise or calorie restriction the tanks empty (and one loses a lot of water weight with the glycogen). Once the glycogen is gone, the real deal starts, I’ve noticed.
On a ketogenic diet people still eat a lot of food which helps with many types of hungers. Those who fast completely find that the hunger is usually gone after a while but comes back in surges every now and then. The food that I eat here is very heavy on the carbs. However, I’ve been glycogen depleted on more than one occasion here. Sometimes for long stretches of time. Sure I eat the food but it’s not enough to replenish thousands of calories so I might stay energy depleted for a good amount of time.
What I’ve noticed in this depleted state is an obsession with food. Especially since I am already “not fat” and lost some weight, I’ve found that if I sustain the depleted state, my mind circles a lot around food related topics. It’s the kind of state where I’m looking at the trash can and wondering if that rotten apple has still some bits that are edible. I find that my eyes are scanning the environment for food. As does my mind. I suddenly remember that there are some old hapankorput in one of the drawers. Distractions would help but there are very few of those here. Especially now that the internet hasn’t been working for days at a time (a first world problem, but still bloody irritating since there isn’t much to do here, literally).
When continued for even longer, I’ve noticed that I become sluggish and lack energy. I even seem to sleep more. Something which becomes evident after I get a huge dose of calories in me. I don’t mean an immediate rush but the feeling I have the day after. It feels like I’d suddenly have an endless amount of energy. It’s awesome. But obsession and strange impulses during the malnourishment… intense stuff.