What do we have against hunger?
I'm not talking about problem hunger, of going hungry because you cannot afford to buy food. This is a tragedy, of course, and a topic that must continue to be addressed, just not today in this column.
The hunger that has my attention now is natural daily hunger, the signal that tells us it is about time to eat. We're always messing with it, either responding to it instantly, the moment we hear its first subtle call — Americans are, compared to the rest of the world, a nation of snackers — or looking for ways to turn it down or off without actually eating.
There are diets and products that promise we'll never feel hungry again. There is also no end to advice that tells us how to quell our hunger more quickly so that we will not overeat. Take smaller portions, we're told, as if there were no such thing as second helpings. Put the fork down between bites, chew longer, take two-minute breaks during a meal, don't gobble, always eat breakfast.
It all seems so artificial, ways to trick oneself. And two omissions always astonish me.
First, hunger is almost exclusively portrayed as a negative thing, even though hunger sharpens and focuses our senses. An old friend liked to say that whenever she wanted to lose weight, she simply got into being hungry and enjoyed hunger's unique qualities.
Hunger heightens our appreciation of what we eat and hunger for other things — for knowledge, for artistic expression, for love — leads to deep satisfaction. When we're hungry, we have an edge, like a sharpened blade. It's not a bad feeling at all, especially when we learn to harness it effectively. Personally, I love being hungry.
The other omission that I find so surprising is that so-called diet experts never point out the most obvious way to eat more slowly: Eat with others. This is how our species evolved. We huddled for warmth and safety, we shared a carcass or food from a common pot over a common fire. We talked to each other, which is as natural a way to eat more slowly as I can imagine.
It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to fully interpret the signals of satiation it is sent from the stomach. If you're alone with, say, a pizza, it is not all that difficult to eat the entire pie before the brain says, "Wait! I'm stuffed!" Then we get that awful too-full feeling, wonder how we ate so much and then forget, only to do it again with our next solo meal.
When we're around a table with family and friends, we laugh, we think, we argue and we talk, with bites and nibbles interspersed here and there. Suddenly, 20 or 30 minutes have passed, we feel pleasantly full and, if we're lucky, we continue to chat. In such environments, portions tend to take care of themselves.
Of course, even if we shared every meal every day with a group of happy companions, there would still be overeaters and still be obesity. But I don't believe it would be problematic to the degree that it is today. We're all so busy, or think we are. We eat in the car or walking down the street, families sit down to a meal together with much less frequency than a generation ago, parents encourage kids to hurry up because there's an appointment to keep and, besides, isn't it time for a favorite TV show?