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Hunger Games

With apologies to Suzanne Collins: This has nothing to do with that.

Hungry Robins

It recently occurred to me that I am drowning in food.

I have often remarked that during the Katrina crisis and the flooding of New Orleans, despite being displaced, I never missed a night’s sleep, and I never missed a meal.

What’s even more remarkable is that I don’t think I’ve missed a meal in many a year, and I could hardly remember what true hunger felt like. Until now.

Because of my metabolism and narrow frame, I’ve never been labeled obese. People still sometimes call me “Slim.” Nevertheless my doctor usually advises me to lose a few pounds. He’s a stickler.

Once upon a time, I was alarmingly skinny. I ate like a teenage boy well into my twenties, yet remained almost skeletal. I gained twenty pounds after getting married in 1993, and another twenty pounds or so upon moving to New Orleans in 1999. I got fatter, but it wasn’t all fat. Several rounds of strength training regimens added some muscle mass as well. But I was still eating like a teenage boy. Meanwhile my metabolism was catching up — a little.

Eating voluminous amounts of food became part of my identity. I would always go back for seconds or thirds. I was a human garbage disposal. Once upon a time I needed the fuel. Now it’s just habitual gluttony. If the average American eats like I do, no wonder we have an obesity epidemic.

But about a month ago something changed. As part of my seasonal purification rituals, I thought about fasting. Hmm, fasting, what a concept. That would involve being hungry.

And that’s when I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I was truly hungry.

I was never taught to fast. Fasting was not a part of the religious or secular culture in which I was raised. One might even say that I was taught never to fast, not explicitly but implicitly. The very notion seems to run counter to our national psyche. As Americans, we like to believe we live in a land of plenty. We like to celebrate abundance.

I went looking for information on the subject of fasting. Here a few resources I uncovered:

  • This month’s Harper’s features a relevant essay that looks interesting. You have to be a subscriber to read it, and sadly my subscription has lapsed. But the Tulane library has it and I hope to bike over there and read it soon. A friend who’s read it tells me that, “Apparently Mark Twain would always cure himself of cold and flu by fasting until it went away.” Intriguing.
  • The International Natural Hygiene Society is ostensibly grounded in science. Then again it may be pseudoscience; I haven’t done the research. They’ve got an article on “What to expect on your first fast.” I’m skeptical of orthopathy by reflex, but this seems like pretty solid advice, at least at first glance.
  • Associated: Fasting for Renewal of Life by Herbert M. Shelton who seems to be an authority on the subject. Shelton was a key proponent of the Natural Hygiene movement. The book is several decades old, which makes me wonder if the science is current.
  • A more recent volume is Fasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor’s Program for Conquering Disease (1998) by Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
  • And there is a functioning Yahoo Group on the topic of Water Fasting.

I’m not sure I’m ready for a fast quite yet, because I’m exploring a radical new concept, namely eating less on a daily basis. This means experiencing a radical new sensation, namely hunger.

At a rough guess I figure I’ve knocked out about 10-20% of my daily calorie intake by the following simple measures:

  1. I’m not drinking alcohol.
  2. I used to eat a snack every evening before bed, essentially a fourth meal. Usually this was a small meal, a bowl of cereal perhaps. But it often was more substantial, especially if I’d a few drinks earlier in the evening.
  3. I’m not having second helpings at dinner, and I’m trying to keep what portions I do have at dinner modest.

In fact I’m aiming to follow the advice of fellow Hoosier Adelle Davis, to “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”

But most of all, I’m learning not to mind being a little hungry, or even pretty darn hungry, from time to time. It’s not a bad feeling. It reminds me that I’m alive. Mindfulness meditation has taught me the value of simply observing such sensation, and realizing I have a choice to respond to them or not. And if the craving for food gets me too cranky, a glass of water or a cup of tea often helps.

What’s especially interesting to me is how quickly my standards have changed. After just one month, I’ve already noted that if I eat a large meal like I used to enjoy, I now feel bloated and overfull. In fact, even my standard lunch (carrot, sandwich, apple, water) is starting to seem like a lot. I no longer crave a cookie or something extra afterward.

Even more wonderful, I’ve noted that healthier food, like fresh fruits and vegetables, are more appealing when I’m really hungry. Ironically, something about overeating seems to make fatty and salty foods more attractive, to me anyhow; I don’t know how other people experience this.

Despite what I wrote above, these changes are not truly radical. They are incremental. But I think that’s for the best.

We may even save on our grocery bill.

Photo credit: Cropped from original, Four Baby Robins by Ruth Everson.

Published inBodyFood & Drinx


  1. Regarding this:

    A friend who’s read it tells me that, “Apparently Mark Twain would always cure himself of cold and flu by fasting until it went away.”

    I would just be wary of conflating correlation and causation. A cold or a flu will go away anyway, if you fast, or eat only walnuts, or wear only red, or only speak in Latin, etc.

  2. The nuns you know through work with could probably give you some insight at least into the catholic fasting practices. I’ve overheard my grandma talking about it but it that was long enough ago that I can recall nothing.

    With regards to actually being hungry…. about ten years ago I was for about a year broke enough that I should have applied for food stamps, and hungry is different when the thought process is “Hmm. I should not eat any more so that I have food left tomorrow to get me through work.” I lost about 25 pounds of Winter college weight that year. It changed my habits enough that I never gained it back.

  3. Brooks Brooks

    Was it Ben Franklin who said: “Hunger is the best pickle”? Something like that.

    When tea seems too wimpy, miso is a satisfying alternative. I keep a tub of dark red organic miso paste in the refrig (Whole Foods probably has it). Plop a heaping teaspoonful into a mug and add hot water while stirring. I like to jazz it up with a clove of crushed garlic, a squirt of sriracha, and a few drops of toasted sesame oil.

    Adele Davis was my intro to “health food” back in the ’70s. Didn’t know she was a Hoosier!

    Slightly off-topic, I’ve noticed that my immune system takes a hit after OD’ing on food and drink (around the holidays, say, or after visiting family in N.O.). I usually pay for overindulgence with a cold, as if the body were too clogged to houseclean efficiently. (Proponents of fasting probably have theories about that.)

  4. Candice: You’re absolutely right about how hunger feels different when you’re too damn poor to afford food. I’ve been there a couple times, long ago, but I can’t even begin to imagine an entire life dominated by hunger. Yet that’s where many people live. When you look at the whole world and all of human history you suspect that’s where most of humanity has lived. I almost got into this in the post but it was too long already. And you’re right: I suspect the sisters know a thing or two about fasting.

    Book: Your comment has made my proverbial day. That’s all a writer can really hope for.

    Brooks: You’re back! I was worried about you. I love miso too. I need to try that paste stuff again some time. I’ve got some in the fridge but I think it’s been there for, um, three years?

  5. Brooks Brooks

    Nothing to worry about, B. Have been here all along, hovering genially in the background. But thanks for worrying!

    You might want to pick up a new tub of miso. Like yogurt, fresh miso is made with a beneficial live culture, and after three years it’s a safe bet your culture done died. (Boiling kills the culture too, so add miso paste to hot water just before serving.)

    Are you saving money by baking your own bread? I baked my own bread for years, then got lazy and let it slide. Then I got poor! If I thought it would save me a few bucks, I’d start baking again.

  6. I haven’t really analyzed the costs, but the ingredients for basic bread are flour, water, salt and a leavening agent. If you use natural leavening (sourdough) maintained via a frugal method (as my bread mentor taught me) there’s not much cost for that. Water and salt are a nominal expense. Really it just comes down to the flour. Buy that in bulk and I bet you could save some. But, it depends. Bread isn’t super expensive to begin with, usually. And how much bread do you eat? Still it’s a cheap hobby.

  7. Brooks Brooks

    Bread isn’t super expensive to begin with, usually. And how much bread do you eat?

    – – – – – – – – – –

    Four slices a day. And you’re probably right……even using organic ingredients, a home-baked loaf couldn’t cost more than the $3.80 I pay for “boughten” loaves.

    Would shop bulk if I had a bigger refrigerator, but mine is a lilliputian 1970s apartment refrig, with barely enough room for groceries, let alone sacks of flour. (I don’t like storing whole grains at room temperature in the summertime.)

    Thanks for the pep talk.

  8. Josh Josh

    B, as always thanks for shraring. Your posts always manage to relate to my own life more than you could know. Somehow that seems to make it ok that I can’t actually write anything of my own.

    Stay hungry,

  9. Garvey Garvey

    Homemade bread is probably about sixty cents per loaf, give or take.

    Btw, your library at work doesn’t have EBSCOhost or whatever it’s called–the electronic resource for magazine and journal articles? Shocking. Nothing wrong with pedaling over to the ol’ Howard Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane, but you could get the article via interlibrary loan, too. (Just throwing down some library geek knowledge here…)

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