by Dr. E Douglas Kihn,
author of Chinese Medicine for the Modern World
The hunger feeling/pang is digestive qi (energy) that has left the muscles and brain to concentrate in the middle abdomen, getting ready to process food. In the absence of food, hunger is that feeling of emptiness in the stomach area that motivates animals and humans to venture into the wilderness and work for food so that starvation may be avoided. Hunger is the only reason animals and people bother to leave the comfort of their nests and homes to go to work. The hunger feeling only occurs in animals and humans who are healthy enough and lean enough, i.e. low on reserve calories, to perform hard physical and mental labor. Hunger does not manifest in animals and humans who are significantly overfed or who are incapacitated by injury or illness.
Once the body is in motion, the qi disperses from the center out to the muscles and brain in order to perform labor. The nagging ceases for a time, until food is secured and it’s time to eat.
In pre-industrial cultures and in all times past, such as in traditional China, the concepts of “appetite” and “hunger” were considered one in the same. This is no longer the case in our modern world. “Appetite” is the mental desire for food. Anyone can have an appetite. “Hunger” is the empty feeling in the abdomen and is reserved for the lean and fit. Moderns typically assign the word “hunger” to a multiplicity of emotions, symptoms, and intellectual justifications. Hunger is routinely confused in the mass media with the serious conditions of starvation and malnutrition. But the fact is that no one ever died or got sick from hunger or any other feelings, since feelings are nothing else but information.
Nutritional scientists, the media, trainers, and everyone else encourage the avoidance and even the prevention of hunger. One reason is because the overuse of food generates huge profits for food corporations, the diet industry, and the medical industry. Imagine the tremendous profits lost worldwide if hundreds of millions of people stopped overeating and became lean and hungry. The economy would likely crash and burn. An indirect reason is that, unlike alcohol and drugs, food and fat help to sedate the shen 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 excessive yin. The process of eating calms the shen by pushing rising heat back down. Additionally, enlarged fat cells secrete extra amounts of estrogen, a powerful sedative that works 24/7.
Three Questions to Determine Hunger
Because people are so uniformly confused on the difference between hunger and appetite, and because no one else can feel what anyone else is feeling and there are no machines or blood tests that can as yet measure feelings, great care must be taken when determining whether someone really feels hunger.
Ask yourself or your clients these three questions in the following order to determine whether or not the hunger feeling exists.
1. Do you get hungry? If the answer is “yes” or “always,” do not assume that you feel 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 feeling,” or “a hollow feeling,” or something like that, we can be eighty to ninety percent sure that one 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. Burning, tightness, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, or any other physical symptoms are best treated with physical medicine, not food, as they would interfere with and even prevent the successful foraging and hunting for food.
The Optimal Lean Zone
The intensity of the hunger feeling is a measurement—a barometer—of how close a person is to their Optimal Lean Zone, i.e. of how dry and strong their spleen is.
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/yin in order to be healthy and to survive in the wilderness. Carrying more fat/yin than is absolutely necessary would prevent a cheetah from catching a gazelle or escaping a predator for example, while retaining insufficient body fat would cause that animal to become cold and weak. Eventually it would starve, a morbid state in which the body cannibalizes its own muscle and bone for the emergency needs of the internal organs.
Over the years, professional bodybuilders and other athletes have determined that the OLZ for men ranges approximately from 5% to 8% and for women from 10% to 15%, depending on the individual. While in this zone, the digestion is strongest and generally capable of digesting everything that is humanly digestible. The muscles are the most powerful, reflexes are quickest, energy is highest, the five senses most perceptive, the thinking is most clear, the emotions most vivid, libido strongest, motivation most robust, the bowels and blood vessels are the cleanest, unwanted growths have been metabolized, and physical hunger the most apparent. Very lean animals like cheetahs who function daily in their OLZ are only days away from starvation, and consequently must stay in tip-top shape year-round to survive.
We are not cheetahs. We don’t have to live in the OLZ to be healthy. We just have to be a little bit above.
Excess body fat is one of five known causes of accelerated cellular aging, the other four being chronic anxiety, lack of daily exercise, starvation, and cigarette smoking. Accelerated aging is determined scientifically by the shortening of the chromosomal telomeres inside each nucleus of each body cell.
When we examine human centenarians, we find that they are all lean and calm. For optimal health and longevity and the preservation of jing, the two factors of lean and calm must accompany one another.
As a body moves away from the OLZ, hunger and everything else related to the power of digestion begin to diminish. This is why obese people and starving people alike—yin excess and yin deficiency respectively—have little or no hunger, and why a standard meal-sized portion of food given to an obese or starving person will always cause trouble. A weakened digestion that is either overfed or underfed depresses the spleen/stomach. It simply cannot handle much quantity or variety of food without unpleasant consequences such as food stagnation or stomach fire.
There is a great fear in our modern world that fasting or not eating a prescribed number of meals will cause sickness and starvation. The concepts of hunger and starvation are often mistakenly associated. However it should be noted that nowhere in affluent cultures do we see indications of epidemics of malnutrition diseases such as scurvy, beriberi, pellagra, kwashiorkor, or night blindness. Nor do vitamin and mineral deficiencies show up significantly in blood tests, in spite of the hoopla about how nutritionally deficient is the food supply.
Making friends with the hunger feeling and welcoming it into your daily life will connect you with all of your feelings and thereby nurture self-trust and self-esteem. Wellness coaching will guide you to lean, calm, strong, and hungry.