A few weeks ago a girlfriend of mine went to see her GP because she had gained a crazy six kilograms in a few short months and she thought something must surely be wrong with her. Happily, after a series of tests her health was given the all clear; less happy was the verdict: it was the chips and pepperdew dip wot done it. Like a lot of us, she’d simply been eating too much. For someone who’s enjoyed a lifelong love affair with food, these words aren’t fun to hear – after all, life without wonderful food would be an intolerable business. But we eat too much wonderful food and we get fat and that’s not fun, either.
What her GP pointed out is that every four hours or so our bodies send a message to our brains that we are low on energy and need to refuel. And, as evolutionary beings, we don’t like the feeling of hunger so we go looking for a toasted cheese sandwich post haste. Except, for most people who lead relatively sedentary lives, this signal is a bit of a porky. Yes, your tummy might be empty, but unless you recently ran the Comrades, you actually have loads of glucose stored in your liver and fat cells, and circulating in your bloodstream. In fact, if someone locked you up with no food (unless you had an illness like diabetes) you could survive on water for quite a long time.
As Mr GP insists, while hunger doesn’t feel pleasant and eating a toasted sarmie does, there is no physiological reason why we need to respond to that signal right away. So, when we feel a bit hungry, we should try having an apple and a glass of water, and then wait a bit, and those pangs will more than likely go away or, at least, diminish. This is not to say we should stop eating or replace all meals with apples and water, but rather be mindful of the fact that the sensation of hunger is not always an accurate indication that our bodies require food. You know how when you have a huge dinner you wake up starving? Case in point. Your brain is a big, fat liar, but your skinny jeans know the truth.
So, as someone with the appetite of a hard labourer who has been known to out-eat large men even though I do nothing more strenuous than carry my iPad from room to room, I decided to try not to respond to the hunger signal instantly. And I cultivated this inner dialogue that went something like this: (stomach rumbles) ‘oh, really? You’re peckish? So, the two million calories in last night’s Bloody Marvellous Mushroom Risotto weren’t quite enough to fuel all this hard typing you’re doing this morning? Well, tough titties for you, greedy guts! You can have one cherry tomato, exactly. So, put that in your fat little pipe and smoke it!’
And, to my astonishment, I didn’t faint or expire during the course of the morning. When my tummy did the rumble lie, I gave it a cup of green tea. It wasn’t happy, but really, what was it going to do about it? For lunch I had salad with avo and seeds, and for supper, I reduced my normal portion by a third. It’s a challenge, not shoving stuff in your mouth the second you feel snacky. Or bored, or meh. But I got kind of used to it – the sensation of being slightly hungry and not doing anything about it.
And I actually felt pretty light and energized. Because we do weigh our bodies down and tax them with the sheer volume of food we put away every day. Google how to live longer, and a lot of studies will tell you simply to eat less. There’s a marked correlation between frugal eating and longevity. The process of consistently digesting rich, protein-heavy food takes its toll on the human body, and eating, for us, is at least as much about recreation as it is about nourishment. Doing away with all lovely food and always eating leaves would make (my) life not worth living, but there is an argument for not turning every meal into a feast. Choose your feasting times, eat like a crazed Roman, but the rest of the time (more or less) it just makes sense that we’d all be better off with small portions of simple, easily digestible food.
So, after five days of eating air with a side of nothing we went out for a fancy dinner (hooray! A feast, at last!). Normally I would easily put away three courses, but after my starter thimble of cauliflower soup I was so full I had to take my entire main course home. And while it’s boring as hell being one of ‘those’ girls and my husband’s eyes were rolling to the ceiling, at the same time it did tell me that I’ve been eating hopelessly too much forever, and that it’s not by some tragic fluke that my muffin tops spilleth over. Whether I’ll be able to change a lifetime’s bad habits is another question, of course. Once the novelty of being hungry and smug wears off, there’s a good chance I’ll be right back on the mayo samoosas*. But I’m going to try to try. Really.
*(I discovered a sad thing when I was fifteen and my boyfriend’s mom used to buy a box of frozen samoosas which we would proceed to deep fry and devour: a hot samoosa goes very, very nicely with Helman’s mayo. As if the fat content of the thing is not enough. Don’t try this at home, you’ll never eat them any other way.)