Monday, January 9, 2012

Forging a New Relationship with Hunger

I live in a different body now than the one I lived in when I was twenty and could eat ice cream every night. My body isn’t the same now as it was when I was thirty and could drop a few pounds by going for a run and skipping a meal. In fact, it’s even much different from the body I had at forty, as my legs just don’t recover as quickly from a long run as they used to.  As I keep getting older, my relationship with food and my practice of eating has to get older too. And that has meant forging a new relationship with hunger.

The key for me came when I discovered that hunger is just a sensation—nothing more. It needn’t be a tyrant. It’s like lust or anger. Just because I feel lust doesn’t mean I need to act on it. Just because I’m angry doesn’t mean I need to raise my voice or clench my fists. And just because I’m hungry doesn’t mean I need to eat.

There is a subtle and dangerous spiritual mechanism that arises when we always obey our hunger. It becomes a veritable steering wheel in Satan’s hand. He can turn us in any direction he wants, and we become accustomed to letting this one sensation rule us. It affects what we eat, when we eat, and how we eat. It may take precedence over other things in our lives.

You see, if I’ve been irresponsible in my eating habits, I’m going to feel hungry even when my body doesn’t really need food. It’s just “used” to food, or a certain amount of food, and will let me know if something is different. That means if I’m going to lose weight, or even maintain weight, I need to “reset” my body’s signals from time to time. And that means wrestling with hunger.

I was once (and still often am) a slave to my hunger. I obeyed it every time, because I didn’t want to feel hunger. Sometimes I even anticipated it. I ate a lot in advance, because I knew I “might” become hungry if I didn’t. This fear caused tension, anxiety, impatience (if someone threatened my schedule in such a way that I might not have time to eat), and the death of peace, all because I might become hungry.

I had to learn that hunger has a place in helping me understand my body, but I must not allow it to become an unbridled tyrant. It needs to be listened to but not always obeyed. I can use reason to determine if I really need food or if I need to recalibrate my body for its new relationship with food. Hunger is a sensation, nothing more. It should never become my Lord and Master.

It comes down to this: Food is fuel. It is not Prozac on a plate or Valium in a venti Starbucks cup. Nor is it where we should turn when assaulted by stress, loneliness, anxiety, boredom, or uncertainty. It’s important to know the difference between physical hunger, emotional hunger, intimacy hunger, relational hunger, and any other kind of hunger. Many, many calories are consumed in response to needs and appetites that have little or nothing to do with physical hunger but rather are consumed in response to appetites that these calories will never touch.

I aspire to live at a place where being fit matters more to me than not being hungry. When I allow myself to become hungry, over time (definitely not immediately), I usually find that I actually become hungry less often, and in a different way. I no longer feel like its captive.

So now, I try to view hunger pangs in this light—as simply a sensation that takes me where I want to go (better health). These pangs are like riding a bike up a hill—unpleasant, but playing a positive role in my life. I have to walk through hunger pangs on occasion to get to where I want to go.

This has led to a new realm of spiritual freedom. I don’t fear affluent hunger; it might not be pleasant, but it’s something I can live with, and occasionally need to live with, for spiritual reasons as much as physical.

If you're interested in reading more about this, I invite you to check out my book Every Body Matters.