What It's Like to be Hungry
Humans are such mammals, with our voracious internal furnaces. We’re so tropical, moving around even when there’s ten feet of snow. We don’t gorge weekly like a wolf or browse constantly like a deer, but prefer breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Given our animal needs and desires, there are many different ways to be hungry. I bet like me you’ve gone shopping on an empty stomach. It’s rough, especially on the budget. Maybe you’ve struggled with dieting that made you feel hungry, or battled an eating disorder, in which case you’re definitely not alone. I’ve accidentally entered that state where I’m continually unsatisfied, because I’m getting lots of calories but too few nutrients. These are not uncommon experiences, even in the land of plenty. Especially that last one.
And then there was the time I got really, truly hungry.
I had a unique childhood in Alaska. We camped, fished and hiked, and always had plenty to eat. Mom is a great cook. I had food allergies as a child, and she fed me well until I grew out of them, as lots of kids do. No mean feat before the invention of gluten-free everything!
Then I got sick.
I don’t love to talk about this. It’s so much easier to discuss goats or gardening. Food is a touchy subject, and people can feel judged if my challenges happen to be different from theirs. They give me shit to cover their embarrassment or frustration. Ha, ha.
But with the economic fallout from the pandemic millions of people are already going hungry, over and above the millions who always do. This is a resilience issue for all of us. Hungry societies are unstable ones. One in eight adults in the US are experiencing food insecurity now, and food banks are struggling to meet the need. It’s amazing how fast a problem like that can worsen, and then people will be in real trouble. I don’t mean feeling hangry or even undernourished. I mean rapidly eating their own muscles.
The heart is a muscle.
Before I got hungry, I already had several wrong diagnoses. I was privileged to have good insurance and excellent family support. Doctor number eight or nine insisted my skeletal pain was food intolerance. It almost made sense given my childhood allergies, which really were resolved by not eating eggs and wheat for a while.
I’ll spare you the description of the woo-woo methods that doctor used to decide which foods were “safe.” It would embarrass me to admit I entertained such nonsense, and embarrass you to read it. But I could not walk up the stairs or take out the trash, and I lived between a pain level of 5 and 9 (I consider unmedicated childbirth about an 8, which means that pain-wise I had a baby three or four times a week). At 19 years old I was losing the ability to get my own shirt over my head. I’d have tried anything. Desperate people are always vulnerable to medical quackery.
The prescribed diet cut out gluten, eggs, dairy, soy, beef, pork, nuts. I ate 1,800-2,000 calories of veggies, poultry, fruit, rice and olive oil. It sounds like a very healthy diet, and for a lot of people, it would be. But we are not all the same. I lost weight.
Thanks to the American Gut Project I now know I carry Christensenella, a microbe associated with low BMI. Maybe I also have an undiagnosed absorption issue. This may sound like a great thing to anybody struggling with overweight, and I very much acknowledge that those struggles are real and they are extremely painful. But when many foods are off the table, suddenly my “luck” is a huge liability. I started to feel really, really hungry. I ate and ate all the “allowed” foods. My BMI rapidly slid from 18.5 to 14.5.
I was freezing no matter how many sweaters I put on, no matter how high I cranked the thermostat. I was bone-tired no matter how many hours I slept. My hair fell out, my skin got dry, my hormones shut down. It was hard to remember things or concentrate. My grades didn't drop, but the effort required to achieve them doubled.
I was used to planning carefully, strategizing about what I might be able to do today or next week, and what I would have to cancel. Now the future receded. It just did not seem very important. I wasn’t clinically depressed, but I was sad and angry and frustrated, as anyone would be in that situation. I cared immensely, or I could not have continued to haul my butt to class. But my ability to think ahead was damaged.
Weirdly, I didn’t feel hungry after I hit a BMI of about 16. At that weight the blind and intelligent body, evolved for hunting and gathering, understandably concludes that seek mode has failed. It swaps over to conserve mode. Be still. Hibernate. Wait.
How could a person stick with that, even as it obviously harmed them? I wanted the cheese, but treatments can’t work unless you try them. That piece of cheese, or a chance at freedom from continuous physical torture, ending life one task, one activity at a time? Think about it. You wouldn’t choose the cheese.
The diet did no good, only damage. My pain problems got much worse, and I got new symptoms that led to a correct diagnosis: CRPS. A neurological/circulatory problem. As far as anyone can tell, completely unrelated to food. To get healthy, I had to start an intense physical therapy program. From a BMI of 14.5.
Armed with a correct diagnosis I ate the cheese immediately, all the cheese and all the other things. I started to feel a little better, less cold and tired, but it took a long time to come back. My mom fed me and fed me and saved my life. It was a year of 3,000 calories and serious PT to get back about 85% of my physical function, where I remain today, with ups and downs. It was hard. I’m only profoundly lucky I had the money, information and family support to do it. Do I actually have the allergies I was "diagnosed" with? Maybe. All I know for sure after that scary experiment is that I'm far, far healthier eating everything than not.
Today, we grow a garden and raise goats and chickens. We’re learning to reduce the cost of our food, along with its impact on the planet (more about that here and here). Our diet isn’t perfect, of course; we’re mammals, not robots. Our local soils are really low in selenium, so we take a supplement for now. My husband is currently tweaking his habits to better support his long-term health. The kids get their candy. I love potato chips.
But even though times are good for me, I can’t ever forget what food means. It means being warm rather than cold. It means having energy rather than crushing exhaustion. It means being able to imagine and plan for the future, or having no future.
It happens so fast. Given truly inadequate calories, a body just melts away. People all over the world, right now. Your neighbors and their kids, right now. We have to work together to make sure we continue to grow enough healthy food, and get it to everyone in the face of weather and income and supply chain disruptions.
So please, if you can find a spare window sill or square of dirt, grow a garden. Put a little food by, if you have a dollar that hasn’t been spoken for. I don’t mean hoarding, but the opposite: buy something extra when the shelves are full, so you can leave what’s available for your neighbors when they go empty. Give to the food banks that are keeping people from starving right now, and support local growers. Think of it as anti-hoarding.
And if you’re in a bad situation, take whatever help you can get. I don’t want you to be hungry.