Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Nutrition Debate #277: What is hunger?

“I’m hungry…all the time,” the overweight and obese person frequently says when trying to lose weight on a restricted- calorie, low-fat (high-carb) diet. But is this really hunger? “Hunger,” Wikipedia says, “is a condition in which a person, for a sustained period, is unable to eat sufficient food to meet basic nutritional needs.” It precedes this definition with, “In politics, humanitarian aid and social science…” Wiki is talking, of course, about the condition preceding starvation, which is often a precursor of death. Fat people are not “starving.” They may be malnourished, but they are not actually starving.

So the “hunger” a fat person experiences is different from that which a starving person experiences. A person who, for a sustained period, is unable to eat sufficient (or any) food will, for a few days, experience stomach rumblings (“pangs”), but then those pangs will go away. As the body adjusts to a lack of ingested food, it transitions to another source of “food” for energy: body fat and muscle.  After the available fat and muscle have been consumed, the body enters into a period of “wasting” in which the organs begin to fail. But if you are overweight or obese, you want your body to consume body fat.

In that sense, fat people have a biological advantage. Their bodies can run for a long time on “stored energy,” providing that energy comes from stored body fat. But before they get to use it, they will feel “hungry” for a few days. Why? Because their gut hormones (ghrelin, et al.) are sending the brain a signal to seek food. It’s part of a normal fed/fasted cycle. The stomach is empty and the ingested ingredients have been almost completely absorbed from the small intestine into the blood stream for distribution. It’s time to seek more nourishment (and yet conserve stored energy).

The glucose component of these nutrients (the “sugar” that carbs break down into) requires insulin to transport it in the blood, and such elevated insulin levels tell the liver that stored fat is not needed (and in fact is blocked from breaking down by the elevated serum insulin). So, if you eat things that break down to glucose, your body will tell you it needs more glucose (carbs to break down) because your body fat is locked up. Ergo, YOU Will Feel Hungry (for more carbs).

On the other hand, if you cut back carbs, especially processed, highly refined carbs, and sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), the “sugar” in your blood will not be elevated and neither will your insulin. In that case, knowing that “sugar” (carbs → glucose) is unavailable, the liver will release your stored fat (“triglycerides”) to break down to smaller free fatty acid (FFA) molecules that pass into the bloodstream. Your energy will flow as well, if not better, than if you had eaten carbs. Whereas, if you are Insulin Resistant, as almost all fat people are, eating carbs will cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash, leaving you tired and hungry. But when burning body fat, you energy level will be high and your blood sugar low and flat.

When you are in this steady state of ketosis (fat-burning) – a condition your body, especially the brain, really likes – you can go for days, weeks and months with high energy levels and stable blood glucose all day long. When I strictly followed the Bernstein program (designed for diabetics) some years ago, I lost 100 pounds in 50 weeks. Before that, in the first 9 months on Atkins Induction, I lost 60 pounds. Altogether, over several years, I lost a total of 170 pounds, without hunger.

Of course, it was hard for me to give up so many of my favorite foods – foods that I had eaten for a lifetime. But it wasn’t because I needed to eat them to stave off hunger. I liked them. They were available and convenient. And they were often prepared, take-out, packaged, drive-up, processed and sweetened, and when I ate them, I was hungry all the time.

Once I figured out how to lose weight without hunger, and get control of my blood sugar and type 2 diabetes – and I learned that by eating a certain way all my health markers would dramatically improve – it was a “no-brainer.” All I had to do was develop new habits about what I could eat and what I should (try to) avoid. A good way to do that is to get into the habit of eating the same thing for breakfast almost every day. For me that’s eggs and bacon and coffee with a little H&H and stevia powder. For lunch (if I eat it), I usually eat a can of Brisling sardines packed in olive oil. And that’s all folks.

For dinner (we call it supper), we usually have a protein portion and a serving of vegetables either roasted in olive oil or tossed in butter. At the moment I’m on a fresh campaign to lose some of the pounds I have added back over the years (about 1/3 of the total lost). I’m doing that by reducing my eggs at breakfast from 3 to 2, eliminating lunch about half the time (I’m never hungry), no snacks before supper (radishes with salt and ghee) and never eating anything after supper.
I’ve been doing this for a week now. I’ve lost 6 pounds, and my fasting blood sugars are steady and under 100mg/dl again.


  1. I understand you have had great personal success with a low-carb diet. But not everyone does. Yet low-carbers in general have this annoying tendency to believe that they have found the answer to all forms of obesity. You wrote:

    "... if you are Insulin Resistant, as almost all fat people are ..."

    Well, that is just wrong. Look up the statistics. Different authors have different ways of defining insulin resistance, but in any case obesity is far from being wedded to insulin resistance (that is, there are plenty of slim people with insulin resistance and there are plenty of fat people without insulin resistance [for whom low-carb diets don't help, if you remember the AtoZ diet trial]).

    It's awesome (and about time) that people speak up about the absurdity of the eat-less-move-more advice. It fails. People get hungry. And sick. Etc. But then low-carbers ruin the discussion by assuming or pretending that they have the one solution that will work for everyone. They don't.

    I wish your "nutrtion debate" weren't so one-sided.

  2. The NutritionSebate wouldn't be so one-sided if more people like yo participated. Thanks for commenting. I would really like to respond further, but I am pecking away into a smart phone in a foreign country that has a limited ISP, so I am handicapped. Suffice it to say that the single most common characteristic of t2s (who by definition have IR),is obesity. Obviously, that is not to say that all obese are T2s or that it is requisite that they be.i
    Thanks again for commenting. I will be back in civilization in about a week and hope to hear from you again.