We Are Not “Starving”

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My wife has become healthier and a lot leaner than ever. She looks absolutely gorgeous. She accomplished her weight loss by simply eating mostly whole, real food and by eating fewer times through the day. She uses intermittent fasting. 

But for intermittent fasting to be successful, old thinking habits must be dropped. She’s still working on this.

I had a meeting that ran late, so dinner was delayed. After the meeting I called her to let her know I was on my way and she replied with a light-hearted comment: 

“Great, I’m starving!”

When I got home she was actually fine and said that her hunger went away after a few minutes. And that was that. We cooked dinner together, enjoying a glass of wine and a conversation.

But her reply got me thinking. She used the word starvation to describe something that’s biologically superficial like hunger. And since it is understood among psychologists that words and thoughts can dictate behavior, something as innocuous as a word — starving, or famished — may end up controlling how we act, or in this case, how we eat.

In the past, my wife would’ve grabbed “a quick snack” while waiting for me to get home, and then she would have eaten again, a full-on dinner. This would have netted her additional calories she didn’t need.

This experience reminded my wife that hunger is often temporary and that starvation is actually a physical response to being unfed for not just several hours but for several weeks.

Starvation, therefore, is a true biological emergency. The word should not be thrown around to describe something so trivial as a fleeting sensation no different from a passing memory. 

In today’s Western world, hunger is never an emergency. We can wait to eat.

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18 Responses to We Are Not “Starving”

  1. Mike says:

    Relax… Words are just that. Actions are what matters. Good job for your wife to take proper action and not give in to old habits, such as using certain words out of context.

    • Johnny says:

      Hi Mike,

      I tend to agree that action is the celebrated endpoint. But words can reflect or influence the mentality and belief that dictate final behavior. Behavioral psychology has observed this repetitively in people who say things like “I can’t,” “I’m a failure,” “I’m no good,” or even “I’m damn good.”

      Best,
      Johnny

    • Stephen says:

      Words are actually very powerful. They can move entire nations to goodness, as spoken by Ghandi, or to evil, as spoken by Hitler.

      Great post, Johnny. I agree that words have a strong link to belief, and vice versa.

      As always, I look forward to your next post.

  2. Dawn at Dawn says:

    Totally agree. I’ve managed to convince myself of so many things with mere words, which has a strong bearing on the final decisions I make. In fact, words and their usage are the foundation of effective and sometimes brainwashing marketing.

    I love that your blog is simple yet insightful.

    • Louis says:

      Agreed. On a side note, sports psychologists not only use positive words but also imagery to help athletes perform better, and these two methods have been proven successful for athletes.

  3. ToddBS says:

    I struggled with this last week myself. I’ve read a fair amount about IF lately so I figured I’d give it a go.

    Monday I had a small salad at lunch – my body was not yet used to going without and I was started to get shaky. After eating around 5 pm Monday, I went all the way until 6pm Tuesday without any calories (well, I did have a grande Americano – we share that weakness – around 6am Tuesday). I was drinking a fair amount of water and never really got hungry… until about 5pm. I was so ravenous on my drive home from work I lost control and stopped at Burger King. Ugh.

    After that I decided I’d do a small morning meal and a small evening meal, and the rest of my week went much better. I may save IF for occasional use and just do 2 smaller meals a day as my standard.

    • Johnny says:

      Todd, I imagine that even though you stopped at BK, you still took less calories than had you ate breakfast, lunch, and the snacks in between.

      IF is not for everyone, but anyone can adapt to IF.

      Best,
      Johnny

      • ToddBS says:

        Yes, I imagine I did still take in fewer calories, which I guess is the primary intent.

        I normally (in the past) have not had a problem going long periods without eating. I think a large part of why it is difficult for me now is that I’m a desk jockey these days. And I find my job quite boring. So, basically, I’m sitting there all day not necessary thinking about eating, but about not eating. If that makes any sense.

        I’m not giving up on IF yet though. I think there are a number of benefits I can gain from it still.

  4. Jonard says:

    I agree to this…I think our concept of “hunger” nowadays , is more psychological than physiological…when I first started Intermittent Fasting…during breaking the fast, I feel like it’s hard to stop/control eating. I think because deep in my subconscious mind..I believe that I’m hungry because I fasted and I need to eat more….so what I did is I usually break the fast with 2-3 boiled eggs (plain, no salt or dressings), then drink water or tea then wait for 30 minutes….to my surprise the feeling of “I want some more” is gone…this makes my IF very effective recently…I love the effect of IF to my overall Health (bleeding gums and gout were gone and of course I became lean).

    • Johnny says:

      When I first started intermittent fasting, I also experienced overcompensation of eating when breaking a fast. I believe we pick up this behavior through our own observation of the exaggerated comments and actions within our cultural context (“I’m starving,” “I can eat a horse”).

      In the end, I believe that this overcompensation of eating after a short fast is mostly psychological.

      • Kevin says:

        Yep … once you get in tune with that signal that tells your body that you’re satisfied while eating… the ravenous “I could eat a horse” thoughts go away.

        The only way I’ve ever been able to finally “hear” that signal is from consistently eating only whole foods with IF. It surprises me every time still … haha.

  5. Jordan says:

    It’s a peculiar issue. An IF is really just skipping two meals (and any snacks that you would normally eat in between.) It doesn’t seem so dramatic when you look at it that way. And yet I’ve read a lot of comments on various blogs where people will use terms like “ravenous,” “famished,” “starving,” and it completely baffles me. I don’t mean that as a criticism, it’s just fascinating to me because I have absolutely no idea what that feels like! lol. I’ve IF’d quite a few times over the last couple of years and I’ve never felt anything even remotely like that. All I’ve experienced are mild sensations like growling and grumbling in the stomach. I dunno, it’s just interesting.

  6. Josh says:

    Good post, but you are SO in the doghouse, man. Haha.

  7. Doug says:

    Most people can’t even tell the difference between appetite and hunger….never mind starvation

  8. Natasha says:

    Johnny, I’m curious– have you read anything about women responding differently than men to extended periods of IF? I came across something (on leangains, I think) that specifically mentioned shortening the length of the fast for women (from 16 to 14 hours). The study seemed a bit nebulous, but it’s interesting that the hunger may have affected your wife more intensely. That could have just been adaptation, though…
    What are your thoughts?

    • Johnny says:

      Hi Natasha,

      I think women in general respond to fasting a little bit differently. I’m not sure if it’s physical or psychological, as I haven’t seen studies differentiating the two, nor do I remember seeing studies comparing fasting in women and fasting in men.

      In my opinion, based on talking with those who fast regularly (my wife included), women seem to have a stronger relationship with food. As such, women tend to think about food more eminently than men do. The cause? I don’t know. But after a period using intermittent fasting, my wife’s focus on food has diminished significantly. She hardly thinks about food and has no trouble waiting for, say, dinner, when she sits down to enjoy the meal.

      I suppose you could say that women in general may require a slightly longer period of adjustment and adaptation. Some women (and men) may never adapt to IF. Reason? I don’t know… could be physical, could be psychological. Or both.

      Most women I work with actually adjust to IF with time, some later than others. Those few who found IF unpleasant typically stop using it before the period of adjustment experienced by women who found IF practical.

      Natasha, are you IF’ing? If so, what is your experience?

      Best,
      Johnny

      • Natasha says:

        Johnny,

        Thanks so much for your thorough reply.

        I’ve been experimenting with IF’ing, but, beginning around the same time, I’ve also been trying to eat ‘primal’–pretty low carb, primarily from vegetables. I feel that when I’m getting enough quality protein and fat, I experience very little physical hunger when I fast. This may be because I’m switching over more decisively to fat burning, for which I have a steady supply of fuel. (One theory I have about the different experience women have with IF has to do with their tendency to not eat enough fat and protein, largely because of what the diet industry shoves down their throats.)

        I’ve pretty much stopped eating breakfast at all at this point–I never had an appetite for it, but until very recently, I used to force myself to eat it anyway. Some IFs, I wait to eat a late lunch (like 3pm), or I skip it altogether. Again, if I’ve been getting my nutrients, no problem. Slight hunger comes and goes throughout the day. Some mental fogginess and slight crankiness, but not unbearable.

        I guess what challenges me is more psychological–I worry that I’m not getting enough calories or enough vitamins or stoking my metabolism. But I have plenty of fat on my body to burn for energy. I’m eating plenty of veggies. And the metabolism thing is just conventional wisdom I haven’t yet managed to dislodge from my brain; I’m muscular and I do exercise, not to mention that IF does not slow metabolism.

        Also psychologically, the twisted thing is that I start to enjoy the hunger and the waiting. I get on some superiority trip or something….or fixate too much on losing weight. I push to fast longer even if I am experiencing hunger more insistently. This is a huge contrast to a previous, much more obsessive, emotionally-fraught relationship with food. I still have challenges with bingeing, and eating foods I am sensitive to, like gluten and dairy. I’m having trouble sticking with the primal thing because I love fruit too much, and sticking with only berries is not sustainable for me, even just while losing weight. And the social eating is hard.

        So, I’m striving more for balance at the moment. I believe IF may have a role in that for me, along with mindfulness.

        I think IF can be very freeing for some people with unhealthy relationships to food. I just deeply hope that women can be some of those people.

        Sorry for the long reply. I guess I had a lot to say.

        Natasha

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