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The Hunger Games
My epic battle against the demon
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I use the word epic advisedly: though unlikely to be immortalised in poetry, my perennial struggles to lose weight often feel like a personal quest, a battle against the odds, as I plot a treacherous course through storm-tossed waters, stopping my ears with wax against the siren song of delicious and filling food and against the little voice that reassures me that just this once I can overindulge without consequences, that just one more time I can delay the diet until tomorrow.
All my adult life, I’ve been searching for the key to defeating my nemesis—intense, physical, daily hunger; hunger that has only ever been truly sated on energy-rich diets that have inevitably sent my weight up into the overweight and then obese brackets. Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease run in my family—reason enough not to give up the struggle. But, in addition, I do not enjoy the way I look and feel when overweight. My body doesn’t form bodacious hourglass curves; my arse barely changes in size. I am no Kim Kardashian. I’m not all about the base. The weight settles, always, into a pot belly.
My research on this topic has been so exhaustive that I could probably rival most registered dieticians. I am a walking repository of information on calorie counts and macronutrient ratios. And I have tried regimens ranging from carnivore to macrobiotic: keto, intermittent fasting, veganism, Mediterranean, low-carb, low-fat, eat-stop-eat, volumetrics, Weight Watchers, meditation, hypnosis—you name it, together with every hack from psyllium husks to off-brand pharmaceuticals. They all worked in that I lost weight. But none of them kept Grendel at bay for long: the hunger monster stalked me through every diet. Even when I was a professional dance teacher and averaged 8 hours of exercise per day (both cardio and resistance), I struggled. Dancing itself banished the beast: immersed in that blissful flow state, I felt no hunger. But as soon as I stopped, he would return, baring his teeth more ferociously than ever.
I don’t have a diagnosed eating disorder, but some of the things I’ve done have not been healthy. I’ve watched hours of cheat day videos on YouTube, in a futile attempt to sate my hunger vicariously. When I was intermittent fasting, I would stay in bed later and later into the morning and then fritter away the rest of the time online until my first meal, just to distract myself from the hunger. Had I spent a fraction of the mental energy and focus I’ve used in thinking up strategies to outsmart the beast on writing, I’d have a dozen books to my name.
Habits, culture, mental health, economics and social and environmental factors all impact a person's chances of maintaining a healthy weight, of course. But one part of the equation is rarely discussed: some people simply experience more intense hunger than others. And I am not talking about cravings for specific foods, nor about overeating for solace, nostalgia or to soothe depression or anxiety: it’s not all about self-indulgence or gourmandise. I’m talking about that gnawing feeling inside, often accompanied in my case by mild queasiness and headache, as my body signals its need for nourishment. It’s not merely psychological: it’s physiological.
I don’t think we should actively celebrate fatness. I’m not an advocate of health at every size. For most of us, being slenderer would improve our well-being, our self-confidence and our health—and our romantic relationships. It’s true that weight is far from the only factor in attractiveness. Almost all the women in my maternal family are obese and almost all of them have good-looking, kind, intelligent boyfriends and husbands—as they richly deserve, as they are lovely people. But, on average, losing excess weight will make you more physically attractive, which will in turn increase your chances of finding love, retaining a romantic partner and maintaining an active sex life. And the societal prevalence of obesity places additional pressure on our already overstretched National Health Service. We should be clear and frank about that. Political correctness should not stand in the way of truth here.
But neither should we demonise individuals, since it seems obvious that people’s hunger levels differ markedly. I have thin friends who report that they forget to eat when they are busy and that they find it easy to skip meals. Some friends who’ve successfully lost weight have told me that, once on a diet, their hunger naturally downregulates and that the biggest challenges are the impact on their social lives and cravings for specific forbidden foods. (I can’t relate.)
Until we can inhabit other people’s minds, like Salinas in the Black Mirror episode “Black Museum,” or have developed a drug like Merge 9 that lets us share sensations (as described in Richard K. Morgan’s wonderful novel Altered Carbon), we cannot know what they are experiencing. I think it likely that many people who are within a healthy weight range are able to restrict their food intake because it is not as physically challenging for them to do so. There may also be psychological issues at stake: perhaps thinner people simply have different, non-food-related, self-soothing mechanisms. But I suspect that a big part of the difference may be that the fat person simply feels stronger hunger pangs. Perhaps this is because her body is putting too much food into storage and not leaving enough for immediate needs: depositing her entire calorie income into a high-interest adipose savings account, from which she cannot make withdrawals for daily expenditures without paying a steep penalty.
White-knuckling it through intense hunger takes a different kind of mental discipline from that required to exercise, eat more vegetables or give up smoking. Hunger is a primal instinct, crucial to our survival. In the ancestral past, ignoring hunger cues would have been exceptionally foolish. I therefore never judge people who give up on trying to lose weight. Perhaps they simply do not want to live with hunger and that is a personal judgement call. The hunger demon is an uncomfortable companion and will demand time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere.
Amid all the hectoring, bullying and condescending advice to simply eat less, I wish people would acknowledge this trade-off.
This is not a counsel of despair, but a question of name it to tame it. Acknowledging that some people find it physiologically harder than others to moderate food intake will help us be less judgemental of the fat and obese (we should not be cruel, whatever the reasons the person is carrying excess weight). And it may also help those of us who struggle with weight gain to be less judgemental of ourselves.
Many things come easily to me that others find hard. Overall, I have been blessed in life. But acknowledging that weight control will probably always be a bit harder for me than it is for some others has paradoxically helped me. I’m not waiting for some miracle to exorcise the demon. He’s a stubborn bastard, a vampire rising glassy eyed from his coffin time and again. I have never found the silver bullet that will dispatch him. Until medical science advances further, I’ll just have to learn to live with him. After all, though he is over-zealous in his mission, his main aim and purpose is to keep me alive.
Some of the thoughts here were prompted by conversations with and between Helen Pluckrose and Barry Deutsch, one of which has been published here.