The Magic of Hunger

“Hunger” often has a negative connotation. Here's why it shouldn't

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"Hunger" has a very negative connotation in our society. Our immediate reaction to the word is that it's a bad thing, something to be eradicated and fixed. Of course, when we're using the word "hunger" to describe the issue of food insecurity, we are indeed describing a problem. However, when there's plenty of food available to eat, hunger is actually a lovely part of the overall eating experience. To put it simply, food tastes better when you're hungry.

Melinda Johnson
Melinda Johnson
Unfortunately, hunger is the Rodney Dangerfield of feelings—it "gets no respect." Some of us munch all day, never feeling too full but never actually giving our body time to become hungry. Others will try to ignore hunger in an effort to lose weight, skipping meals until they become ravenous and inhale that fast-food combo on the drive home. At times, people can even develop a fear of hunger, either through food deprivation caused by lack of access, or by self-inflicted starvation in the form of a fad diet. So, they try to avoid feeling hungry by grazing all day. Some of us have also learned to mistakenly describe other emotions (such as feeling lonely or bored) as feeling hungry, and eating in response.

[See Hungry Vs. Healthy: The School Lunch Controversy.]

Becoming reacquainted with the proper place of hunger in our day can be helpful in so many ways. The French instinctively do this in their pattern of eating: Snacking in between meals is rare, because arriving at the table with a nice appetite is an essential ingredient to good food. Consider these three reasons to "embrace hunger" in our daily lives:

Eating in the absence of hunger means you are likely overeating. Some weight loss counselors have great success using a tool called the Hunger Scale, to help people re-connect with eating in response to their body's hunger and fullness cues. The concept is quite simple: When you use the Hunger Scale, you don't eat until you notice that you are pleasantly hungry (not starving), and you stop eating when you are pleasantly full (not stuffed). Penny Wilson, a registered dietitian who uses the Hunger Scale when working with athletes in Houston, she sees it as a tool for "honoring our body's need for food and energy without giving it excess to deal with." She notes that this practice of reconnecting with hunger cues can often result in weight loss, because it helps people cut out those times when they're overeating.

[See Does Exercise Distort Your Perception of Hunger?]

Allowing kids to get hungry helps cut down on picky eating. Part of the responsibility of feeding children has to do with allowing enough time, in between eating occasions, to allow a child to get hungry. Indeed, allowing a child to get hungry is a gift—it makes food taste better, and it helps him become more willing to try new foods. It's very easy to be picky when you aren't hungry. If your dinner table is a battle zone, see if you can cut down on eating and drinks between meals (besides water), to allow your child to build up a nice, healthy appetite before sitting down at the table.

[See Hungry or Just Bored?]

Hunger allows you to enjoy your food. Think of the last time you heard a great speech. You'll notice that the power came not only from the words, but the pacing. Great speeches contain critical pauses—and without them, the speech would lose its luster. The same is true with food. Good food requires hunger (created during those pauses between meals) to become great food.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.