“In the early hours of the parking lot outside the strip club, when the sky was the color of dust on a bureau, when he hadn’t been hungry at all but felt so trapped between the nothing he’d driven away from and the nothing before him that he’d eaten an entire cheesecake with his fingers, which was truly the best way to eat anything, and then washed it down with a four-ounce bottle of rum, not even enough to get one of Deb’s porcelain dolls tipsy. He’d gone to the strip club to distract himself. To hide from the bench. Eat only when you’re hungry, the diets all said. Okay. Okay, okay. Greg ate when he was hungry.“-Lindsay Hunter, Eat Only When You’re Hungry
Last night, as I shut the taxi door, I toddled toward the local mart to buy some ice cream. It was 11:00 p.m. on a school night. I recently sipped some beers and pounded veggies and pork belly with friends at an all-you-can-eat barbecue. I had no physical hunger to speak of.
And yet I proceeded to eat two ice cream sandwiches from Mom Mart. I should have gone home. Instead, I went to Emart 24 and 7 Eleven to sate my candy bar cravings.
The next morning, bloated and dehydrated, I stood baffled at how I could cram in 1200 useless and senseless calories on a semi-regular basis. I’m not hungry. It defies logic.
But what if I was hungry?
Greg, the barely-lovable protagonist quoted above, ate when he felt trapped, anxious, or in need of distraction. One could argue that he hungered after freedom, safety, and stimulation. He ate when he was hungry, just not biologically so.
I too consume unneeded calories by mistaking hunger for some other feeling.
These mini snack-binges often follow nights out late when I consume alcohol (even moderate amounts). They also precipitate on Sunday afternoons, before a busy work week kicks off. It’s worth exploring the source of such hunger so I can dodge the false cure of calories and cigs.
Maybe I hunger after peace-of-mind as anxiety of the coming week buzzes in my brain. Perhaps such anxiety stems from fears of next-morning fatigue. At least some fat and sugar can trick me into feeling good now. I’ll feel shitty the next day anyway, right?
Perhaps I hunger for forgiveness when I transgress against my desired diet and exercise lifestyle. I want to eat healthier so I can feel healthier. But I consume alcohol and tobacco far more than I should. The cognitive dissonance can be crushing. This could be the source of toxic diet mindsets like “I already blew my diet today, so I might as well go all out.”
Maybe I hunger for stability now as many of my friends prepare to depart Korea. Acute emotions seep in whenever I depart from a social gathering (no matter how enjoyable). Living as an expat challenges me in that regard. Friends always come and go. And I don’t have the will to maintain deep long-distance friendships.
I recall Eckart Tolle’s The Art of Presence. He mentions that pain and anxiety can drive us to always “take something in.” That pain produces a hole that limitless consumption can never fill. Whether it is food, alcohol, tobacco, work, sex, or other vices, we love to consume to drown out the anxieties swimming in our mind.
Food, tobacco, and alcohol serve as convenient yet ineffective substitutes for the emotional and spiritual hunger that plagues us. They are accessible in most parts of the world. Their accessibility grows every decade. They are simple to use. Just chew. Ignite and inhale. Swallow. And a mini dopamine spike numbs our anxieties. Incredible!
But these habits only damage our health and empower our fears, insecurities, and deficiencies. They impede the challenging but necessary work toward a sustainable and fulfilling emotional and spiritual life.
So when someone eats when they are not physically hungry, they may be trying to satisfy a different hunger – hunger for security, hunger for connection, hunger for peace-of-mind.
There are no easy remedies. Every solution requires us to face pain we would rather numb or difficulties we cannot explain away. I’ve struggled with my periodic binges for years now. I have all the information I need to stop. But roadblocks stop me in my tracks.
When I find myself consuming beyond my caloric means, I often ask myself, “Why are you doing this?” Unfortunately, I do not ask with kindness or curiosity, but rather from a place of accusation. I shame myself, which only strengthens my resolve to eat.
But the path home is not impossible. Like other behaviors, confronting our personal pain and anxiety is a habit that can strengthen over time. Fears can diminish as we turn a critical eye. We can find peace in the present moment. And we must continue to ask questions. We must not accept the status quo of our behavior.
The next time I find myself on a bakery binge, I ought to ask myself,
“What am I really hungry for?”
And accept the answer with an open mind.
Satisfaction goes to those who choose to honesty and surrender over numbness and resistance.
Stay curious. Stay courageous. Stay strong.