A lesson on learning to tolerate hunger

Many years ago, a popular student, who ran cross-country for the university where I worked, graduated. When I next saw her, five years later, she had added so much weight I hardly recognised her. I found out that she had started work, stopped running, increased fast-food consumption, and married.

Now I live in Australia, where two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. More of us will join the heavyset crowd, as the average adult gains about 1/4 kg per year.

Losing weight is hard. Every year, many individuals try to lose weight and fail. Some do lose weight, only to gain it back later.

I have an idea for one way to make weight loss easier: Develop hunger tolerance. The goal of developing hunger tolerance is to break the connection between hunger and the thought that "I must eat”.

For individuals trying to lose weight, it is often best not to act immediately on hunger. Similarly, it is often best for individuals trying to increase physical fitness not to act immediately on feelings of fatigue.

You can imagine how the ability to tolerate hunger in the short run can help a person lose weight. I tested several methods on myself recently while I was on a cruise of the South Pacific. When visiting islands, I went eight or nine hours during the day without consuming any calories.

I found that any activity or event that captured my attention masked the hunger signal. It also helped to be mindful of my hunger. At times I focused on the hunger. That experience helped me perceive hunger as merely a signal from my digestive system.

Finally, I used a number of coping thoughts, including these: Hunger means my body is burning stored fat, this is an interesting challenge, I have self-control - I can be stoic, tolerating hunger for short periods will help my health, I will eat again soon. Tolerating hunger is easier if no delicious foods are visible.

For weight loss, it is important that a person not eat excessively before or after the hunger time. I had no problem with that risk, and individuals who fast for an entire day also seem to avoid it.

Just as it is possible to ignore fatigue for too long and to suffer health harm as a result, one can fail to act on hunger for too long. Individuals with anorexia make that mistake. My idea involves tolerating hunger for short periods, such as between meals and before bedtime. I managed to do that; others can too.