In 1965, a 27-year-old morbidly obese man weighing a terrifying 207kg walked into the royal infirmary in Dundee and told the doctors he was going to starve himself in a bid to lose weight. As you might imagine, the doctors advised against this rather extreme cause of action, but the man was not interested. Whatever they said, he told them, he was going to starve himself anyway, so they might as well monitor him as he went along. What followed was the longest documented therapeutic fast on record. After 1 year and 17 days without eating a thing, the man had lost 125kg.
The research paper, published some 8 years later showed no ill effects from the unthinkably long period without food. What’s more, he had maintained his weight when they followed up with him 5 years later. The research on Mr A.B, as he was known, was extremely detailed, except for in one area; it never mentions if he was hungry or not. After the conclusion, there is this:
“We wish to express our gratitude to Mr A. B. for his cheerful co-operation and steadfast application to the task of achieving a normal physique.”
Cheerful?!!! That doesn’t sound like a man who is starving to me, which actually makes sense; at 207kg he was hardly short of energy. However, even at the start of a diet when we have ample fat to lose, hunger is often to blame for us falling off the wagon. The difference between real and perceived hunger, however, is all in the mind.
Hunger is complicated, but if we break it down, we can see that we have two main ways of regulating what we eat
- How full we are. This is the body’s short-term system for making sure we eat the right amount. Eat enough and you’ll feel full, which should stop you from consuming too much, or drive you to eat more depending on how hungry you feel.
- How fat you are. This is your body’s long-term system for making sure you eat the right amount. A hormone called leptin sends a message to the brain, telling it roughly how much fat you’re carrying. Your brain hears this message and either says “yep, we’re fat enough, we don’t need to eat loads right now”, or “we’re too skinny, we better eat more”. The less fat you have, the bigger the signal to the brain, the higher the drive to eat.
At 207kg, I imagine Mr A.B’s leptin signal was through the roof. Even when not eating at all, his body knew he wasn’t in trouble. In a less extreme way, this is the situation we find ourselves in at the start of a diet. Losing weight can and should be easy at the beginning, but the first week is often the hardest.
If we only ate for hunger, losing weight would be easy. In reality, we eat because we’re sad, happy, or any other emotion you could think of. We eat because we want to. While the systems I described above should stop us from overdoing it, in reality, they can easily be overridden by habits, routines, or a plain old desire to eat whatever we want. This is why starting a diet can be so hard. Fortunately, there are two main techniques we can use to make us aware of the difference between real and perceived hunger.
1# Plan Ahead
The easiest method of becoming more aware of the difference between perceived and physical hunger is to plan ahead.
- Plan to eat only at meals. It’s super easy to randomly snack. By scheduling everything you eat in the first week of dieting, you’ll become way more aware of real hunger, or just a need to eat when bored.
- I’m not talking about prepping all your meals in advance or anything like that. This is just an awareness exercise.
- Don’t do your food shopping when you’re already hungry. Willpower is a major part of sticking to a diet. Food shopping at the end of the day while we’re tired and willpower is depleted is a great way to leave the supermarket with 2 pizzas and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s. Wanting to eat comfort food when you’re shattered is totally natural, but it’s not driven by hunger. Having food already in the cupboard avoids the problem.
2# Fast for 36 hours
Yep, you read that right. For those of you who are up for a challenge, this is the best way I know of recognising the difference between physical and psychological hunger.
- On the first day, eat your normal diet and go to bed at the normal time. Don’t try to compensate for the upcoming fast by throwing down more calories.
- The second day, eat nothing at all. Tea, diet soda, and water are all fine; but consume zero food. Go to bed as normal.
- The third day, have breakfast like you usually would.
When you do this, you should notice three main things.
- You didn’t die. In fact, if you kept busy, you might not notice you weren’t eating at all.
- Hunger passes. If you pay attention to feelings of hunger as they happen, you’ll notice that they pass after a while, even if you don’t eat.
- When you wake up in the morning on the third day, you won’t be more hungry than normal. You’re not starving, you’re fine.
Hunger is often psychological and unless you’ve lost a lot of weight, you’re probably not as famished as you think. Use these two tips to reconnect with physical hunger and lose weight easily in the first week of your diet.
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