by Dr. E Douglas Kihn,
author of Chinese Medicine for the Modern World
There is no concept more confused and maligned in popular modern culture than the idea of physical hunger. And yet, understanding the role of hunger in the health of our patients is a critical skill for the superior physician.
Nutritional scientists, the media, trainers, diet book authors, and everyone else encourage the avoidance and even the prevention of hunger. One main reason is that the overuse of food generates huge sales for the food industry, the diet industry, and the medical industry. Imagine the tremendous profits lost worldwide if hundreds of millions of people stopped overeating and became lean, clean, and hungry. The global economy would likely crash and burn.
A second reason for the maligning of hunger is that, unlike alcohol and drugs, food and enlarged fat cells help to sedate the mind while allowing people to continue working and spending money. Imagine how upset and rebellious people might become if they weren’t numbed out daily with this most lauded of sedatives. The process of eating calms the shen by pushing rising yang/heat back down. Additionally, enlarged fat cells secrete extra amounts of estrogen, a powerful yin/sedative that works 24/7.
A third reason is that there are no machines or blood tests that can measure feelings like hunger and thirst. And so hunger and thirst become a non-concepts for conventional doctors and scientists.
Three Questions to Determine the Existence of Hunger
While certain medical conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and multiple food allergies/intolerances are obvious indications for us of a damp spleen and zero hunger, it’s still valuable for a patient to discover this for him/herself, since this will finally lead to the logical conclusion that there is no such thing as “healthy food” for him/her. Generally, care must be exercised when determining whether someone really feels hunger. Ask your patients these three questions in the following order to determine whether or not hunger exists.
1. Do you get hungry? If the answer is “yes” or “always,” do not assume that the patient feels hunger. In fact, “always” usually means “never.” A nervous stomach, a burning stomach, nausea, or pain will often masquerade as hunger as well. Continue with the next question.
2. Where do you feel this sensation? If the answer is “in the upper abdomen” or “the stomach area,” proceed with the final question. But any other answer indicates the absence of actual hunger.
3. What does your hunger feel like? If the answer is an empty or hollow feeling, we can feel reasonably confident that this person feels hunger. If the answer is anything else, the person probably does not feel hunger. Growling in the abdomen is not hunger. In fact, it might just be the intestines processing food/chyme. Burning, tightness, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, or any other physical symptoms that would interfere with the successful foraging and hunting for food are best treated with physical medicine, not food.
The Optimal Lean Zone
The intensity of the hunger feeling is a measurement of how close a person is to their Optimal Lean Zone. The OLZ is that range of body fat percentages which will afford an animal or human optimal summertime performance. Every human and animal body requires a certain percentage of stored body fat/yinin order to be healthy and to survive in the wilderness.
Over the years, professional bodybuilders and other athletes have determined that the OLZ for men ranges approximately from 3-5% and for women 7-15%. As a body moves away from the OLZ in either direction, hunger and everything else related to the power of spleen qi/digestion begin to diminish. This is why obese people and starving people alike have little or no hunger. Neither obesity nor starvation can handle a large meal without unpleasant consequences such as food stagnation or stomach fire.
Connecting your patients with their hunger or non-hunger will boost their self-trust and consequently their own healing powers.
For further reading, go to my Jan. '23 article in Acupunture Today: