Sound familiar? Don’t worry. You are not alone! We have all fallen into this trap before, and the blame cannot be solely attributed to lack of will power. To understand why this hunger cycle occurs and how it is physiologically possible, we must understand how we evolved as a species.
Back in the day, when humans were roaming the Earth as hunter-gatherers, we were exposed to cycles of feast and famine. Over time, genes evolved to regulate and optimize the intake and utilization of energy stores so we could cope with times of food scarcity.
Fast forward to the present day.
“Convincing evidence shows that this ancient genome has remained essentially unchanged over the past 10,000 years and certainly not changed in the past 40-100 years.[i]”
So what does that mean? And how does it relate to appetite?
When we taste something that is fatty or sweet, our brains tell us, “Yes! This is good! Keep eating it!” Why? Because evolutionarily speaking, calorie sources mean SURVIVAL, and fats and sugars are the two most calorie dense substances we can consume. We receive positive feedback from eating foods high in calories because historically our body could store the energy of these food sources to be used during times of food scarcity.
The diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors consisted mainly of plants they grew or wild-crafted and animals they hunted. This diet was very high in nutrition but overall low in calories. They did not have access to the highly refined, processed foods that are ubiquitous in today’s society.
Most Americans (and much of the world) eat a diet that includes a large amount of processed and refined foods, lots of sugar, and high quantities of unhealthy oils and fats. This diet is very high in calories but is considerably poor in nutrients. As mentioned above, our genetics haven’t changed much in 10,000 years. These high-calorie foods are still desired for their energy potential, and the body screams “YES! Eat more while it’s available! Store up!” These days, most people have access to an endless supply of calories, but a true scarcity of food is not a reality for most North Americans…. We feast, but the famine never comes.
So if I’m eating a diet high in calories, why am I STILL hungry?
Remember, most people are eating a diet high in calories with low nutritional content. Our cells rely on a variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to stay healthy and do their jobs. We get these nutrients primarily from our diet, but when we eat foods that have poor nutritional content, our cells don’t get the nutrients they need. We are, essentially, starving on a nutritional basis, so our bodies will STAY HUNGRY in order to get the nutrients we need by signaling us to eat more.
High Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods
“Sugar” doesn’t just refer to those sweet, white (or brown) granules. To the body, carbohydrates are synonymous with sugar. This means that cereal, bread, pasta, crackers, and even corn products and potatoes are, for all intents and purposes, sugar sources. These foods trick the body into thinking it’s getting nutrients, but they don’t adequately contribute to nourishing our cells.
Not all fats are created equal. Trans fats do NOT occur naturally. These fats are found in stick margarine, some tub margarines, vegetable shortening (like Crisco), fried foods (doughnuts, French fries, and other deep fried fast food items), and commercially prepared foods containing “partially hydrogenated oils” (crackers, cookies, cakes, pastries, microwave popcorn and other snack foods). While these unnaturally occurring fats are high in calories, they do NOT provide any nutrients to your body (and actually contribute to several disease processes). Your body will even utilize existing nutrients faster in an attempt to “neutralize” these toxic, reactive fats.
When our diets lack adequate fresh vegetables and fruit and consist primarily of sugar, processed foods and refined (trans) fats, our cells do not receive the nourishment they require. The body begins to starve at a cellular level. This cellular starvation causes the brain to signal hunger, so we keep eating. But if we continue to eat the same refined, processed, high-sugar, high-fat foods, we NEVER get the nutrients we need. Instead, we store these calories as body fat for “later use”. Our feast/famine genetics have not changed; however, our diet has. Our genetic programming is not compatible with a processed food diet. It causes us to continue to store calories and accumulate body fat, which over time leads to a host of chronic health problems.
So does that mean I can NEVER enjoy carbs, sugar, or processed foods?
Absolutely not! While it is in your best health interest to avoid these types of foods, everything must be done in moderation. Your particular dietary needs will depend on your health condition*, but generally speaking, following the “80% rule” is a good place to start. This “rule” contends that if you make healthy choices 80% of the time, the effects of most unhealthy habits will be minimal. For example, if you eat plenty of vegetables and fruits 80% of the week, you can enjoy your favorite candy bar, pasta dish or cookies on Saturday night. You don’t have to deprive yourself of things you enjoy to be healthy, but you DO need to feed your body healthy foods most of the time in order to be healthy.
If there are foods that you know your body doesn’t like (gluten or dairy, for example), then it is best to avoid these foods. If your body gives you signals, either immediately or a few days after consumption, that a particular food or ingredient does not sit well with you, listen to your body. Every body is different, so what one individual can eat and tolerate may differ drastically from someone else. By honoring your body’s particular needs, you will reach higher levels of health and vitality.
Lastly, it’s important to focus on what you CAN eat, rather than what you “CAN’T” eat. Focus on adding healthy foods to your diet. You will feel better and have more energy, motivating you to continue making healthy choices. Eventually, you’ll be eating so many healthy foods, and feeling great because of it, that you won’t have room for “bad” foods in your life--you will eventually crowd them out. Focusing on what you can’t have will only intensify your cravings and set you up for failure.
Stay tuned for Hunger Games Part 2: Processed Foods--Trick or Treat?
*Please speak to your healthcare provider before making significant dietary changes. If you don’t have a provider, feel free to book an initial appointment or free 15 minute consult with one of the licensed doctors at Revive.
[i] Chakravarthy MV, Booth FW. Eating, exercise, and "thrifty" genotypes: connecting the dots toward an evolutionary understanding of modern chronic diseases. J Appl Physiol. 2004 Jan;96(1):3-10.