Oh man, a sandwich piled high with turkey, avocado slices, and a couple tomatoes sounds so delicious right now. Yum… or how about a nice plate of chicken fettuccine alfredo and a side of steamed veggies? That sounds pretty good too. Often when we think of our favorite foods, our mouths water and we yearn for something to satisfy our taste buds – but is this hunger? Are you really hungry at that moment?
Before we can even begin to answer these questions, we need to ask much simpler ones:
- What is hunger?
- Why do we get hungry?
Hunger, as defined by our friends at Merriam Webster Dictionary, is a craving or urgent need for a specific nutrient, an uneasy sensation occasioned by the lack of food, or a weakened condition brought about by prolonged lack of food. That’s all fine and dandy, but what does it mean?
Hunger is the physical response to the need for food. Surprisingly, we don’t actually know the biological process that makes us feel hungry. The more widely held theories have to do with the contraction of the stomach and the levels of glucose or insulin in your blood.
The question can’t be answered fully, but basically your brain receives signals that flash up as “You’re hungry. Eat something.” This signal can come across pretty vague sometimes, but if you are deficient in a certain nutrient then your brain might tell you that you are craving something specific. This is why pregnant women often crave weird things like celery or strawberries – they need a specific nutrient for their growing child.
The complexity of the human body is astounding that way – your body subconsciously makes sure that you are always taken care of, even when you don’t realize it!Being hungry is more than just filling the need for nutrients. There are 3 generally accepted types of hunger: Physiological, Mouth, and Psychological.
Physiological hunger is the physical signs of hunger. This includes a growling stomach and/or headaches. We have these signals in order to prevent us from starving. These are the biological symptoms of hunger that might be considered “true hunger.”
Mouth hunger is the responses triggered by the memory, sight, or smell of food. At the beginning of this post, I described some dishes that sound pretty delicious. If your mouth started to water or you felt “hungry” then you were experiencing mouth hunger. This happens to us when we like or want food but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we need sustenance at that time.
Psychological hunger is triggered by emotions. This is where “emotional eating” happens. When we are anxious, stressed, angry, or sad, sometimes we want to get rid of the negative feelings by eating food. This isn’t true hunger either. It’s just a way to deal with the tide of emotions that threatens to overtake you. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can become a problem if your emotional eating becomes overeating.
Being hungry is so much more than just wanting food. It can be a physiological need, a memory of a pleasurable food experience, or a manifestation of emotions. It’s a complex mix of innate survival mechanisms and learned behavior based on previous experience. Next time you feel like grabbing a bite to eat, ask yourself: are you sure you’re hungry?