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There are many feelings that seem like hunger but aren’t, which Ayurveda calls ‘false hunger.’ The hunger for comfort and satisfaction, for instance, feels like hunger for food, but it is in reality an emotional hunger.

They also distort your food cravings, triggering you to eat foods other than those that are healthiest for you. False hunger thus perverts the ultimate purpose of hunger itself: to refuel your body so you have the energy and nourishment you need for life. Instead, false hunger destroys your energy and vitality.

Recognizing false hunger is the best way to restore your natural appetite and food cravings. Through awareness and attention, you will gradually learn to recognize instantly when your hunger is true or not. This skill is essential to prevent overeating and poor food choices. Perhaps the greatest goal of Ayurveda is the perfection of hunger itself. As a connoisseur develops their palate, through attention your hunger itself will be developed and perfected. As you acquire this skill of recognition, false hunger will diminish in frequency and power, and your will to eat will be naturally ordered towards healthier, life-giving fare.

A potent false hunger is the desire for a full belly. Most likely, you discovered the significance of a full belly as a baby. You discovered that a full belly led to feelings of satisfaction. You enjoyed the energy and fuel that the food gave you. A full belly meant not having to worry about primal needs for a while. It meant safety and comfort. Over the years, a full belly may have become the knee-jerk solution to many discomforts. Anytime you were feeling empty or lacking, you could fill the emptiness with food. Through this process, feelings of dissatisfaction put on a mask of hunger.

For ancestral humans, the strategy of filling your belly whenever you were tired or depressed was a good one. Scarcity was the norm. There were no ice cream cones in the forest, nor any of the convenient fast food joints that we have nowadays. Fatigue and depression were signs of poverty and exhaustion, signs you needed to eat. Eating when tired and depressed may have been a good strategy, hard-coded in your DNA. In light of modern convenience and the abundance of food available in grocery stores, the scales have flipped. Now calories are cheap. These days fatigue is not a sign of exhaustion or poverty. Instead of food scarcity, fatigue more often comes from overworking, overstimulation, stress and from overeating itself. A candy bar might raise your blood sugar levels for a few minutes so that you feel energized. But as your blood sugar levels crash, you soon feel tired and depressed again. Rich, carbohydrate heavy meals cause your blood to thicken, which becomes hard to circulate. Such food brings more fatigue, sluggishness, and depression. Today, if you follow your ancestral impulses to eat when you are tired, you will feed your illness. Unless you are underweight, food will not be an authentic answer to depression or sadness. You can’t rewrite your DNA, but you can take the time to notice whether you are really hungry and in need of more food energy, or whether you need, for example, the energy that comes from exercising regularly, or resting after a long day’s work.

Emotional disturbances, boredom, sadness, and depression can feel like hunger because they also arise out of desire for comfort. The satisfaction you feel after eating offers temporary respite from your emotions. Pain can also masquerade as hunger. You may have abdominal discomfort, irritation, or inflammation but your brain thinks you’re just hungry. Stomach pain feels remarkably similar to a hunger pang, in terms of discomfort.

Sometimes the false hunger is due to “taboo temptation.” This is especially true for people fasting from wheat, sugar, or other foods. After several days of abstinence you may be preoccupied by your struggle to resist your cravings, and paradoxically, preoccupied with the forbidden food. If you are fasting from wheat, you may be nearly mesmerized by the sight of a cookie. Taboo temptation can masquerade as powerful hunger, and is one of the main reasons we suggest you avoid crash diets. The temptation to eat forbidden foods is especially difficult to resist in the long term, no matter how sincere your intentions. Inevitably, you will give into temptation occasionally and create a cycle of feast and famine that is difficult to break. This can lead you to waffle between abstinence and binging, which ultimately causes you to gain more weight in the end. That’s why crash diets and quick weight loss schemes ultimately fail. Instead of struggling for abstinence, simply paying closer attention to impulses of hunger and discerning their source, true or false, will lead you to a healthier relationship with food. In the game of weight loss, the tortoise always beats the hare.

Many people think hypoglycemia is a sign of true hunger. Hypoglycemia is when your blood sugar levels drop to a point where your body feels alarmed. Although you feel ravenous when hypoglycemic, hypoglycemia is not true hunger either. More often, hypoglycemia is a result of other imbalances such as frequent snacking or indulging in refined sugar. If you eat regular meals with minimal snacking and whole foods with minimal sugar, your blood sugar levels will remain stable unless it has been at least 6 hours since your last morsel.

A headache is not a sign of true hunger either. People get a headache when they are hungry because lower blood sugar levels force your body to metabolizes stored fats, releasing toxins stored in fat tissue. These toxins cause the headache, not the hunger itself.

Ayurveda says to never eat unless you’re truly hungry. What does true hunger feel like? Satisfying hunger is not the same as the “comfortable, sedated, full belly” that you may have grown to know and love. True hunger feels more like a craving for restoration, strength and vitality. If you are truly hungry, food will not sedate you; it will energize you. True hunger, in theory, should arise only when there are inadequate resources to nourish your cells. The biology of hunger should conform to this rule but often doesn’t.

True hunger feels like clarity and spaciousness in your mind. The mind wakes up when you are truly hungry and you feel motivated. If your mind feels cloudy and sluggish, you probably aren’t hungry. Hunger is, by its very nature, motivating.

Hunger activates Vata dosha (the body type of movement). It gets you up off the couch. Studies show that hunger increases movement in many animals, including humans. Hunger gets you moving. It breaks through obstacles such as sluggishness like no other remedy can. Every time you are hungry, you have to make a choice: should I eat?

What are some of the ways your body tells you it is hungry? How does your body feel when you are hungry? Take a moment to start your exploration of hunger by going through each of these questions, one by one, once a day for a month:

  • How do I know I’m hungry?
  • What is the feeling of wanting food?
  • What does hunger feel like in my gut, heart, and head?
  • What does hunger feel like on my tongue?
  • What does hunger feel like in my skin, muscles, and deep down in my bones?
  • How else is my body telling me it’s hungry?
  • Where is the urge to eat coming from?
  • Is there a pain somewhere?
  • Are there emotions behind my hunger?
  • What are some other things I am feeling besides hunger?

As you delve into these questions, you might start to notice patterns. Patterns that will help u understand Hunger better.

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