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Why are we so hungry?


If you’ve just had breakfast and you’re already planning lunch, you’re not alone. Stylist investigates why our appetite for our next meal has never been fiercer.

What’s for lunch? I’m staaaarving.” Despite a fairly hefty breakfast, an 11am latte and a heavily looming deadline, the most popular topic of conversation in the Stylist office is rarely our celebrity cover star or the latest from the Leveson inquiry – it’s where our next meal is coming from. From the instant those first hunger pangs hit, that subtle gnaw in the pit of the stomach makes concentrating on anything other than the merits of Leon’s superfood salad versus Pret’s latest wrap just that bit too taxing. And we’d wager that it’s much the same in your office.

That’s the thing about hunger – much like dealing with the British weather and how much sleep you managed last night – it’s one of the few things we all have in common. It’s no wonder our appetite has such a fierce power to bond us. Consequently, research shows we now spend one hour and 42 minutes hours a day discussing what we’re going to eat. It’s the common denominator which drives our decisions, our moods and even our fantasies (just ask Stylist’s resident foodie Amy Grier, who dreams about Spuntino’s truffled egg toast). But is our appetite for our next meal just that little bit more excessive than ever before? Have we really always been this hungry?

Of course, we are not actually ‘starving’ when 6pm hits and we spend our commute debating whether we should put fish pie or sweet potato bake on our Thursday night menu. Starving is defined as a severe deficiency in calories, nutrients and vitamins and most of us, thankfully, will never experience it. But hunger – the physiological need to eat food – is there to remind us that our body needs food in order to complete nearly every bodily task, from making hormones to building bones and regulating your heartbeat. And it’s a feeling we know all too well.

In simple terms, hunger is driven by two hormones that brake and accelerate our appetite. Produced in the stomach, ghrelin (the hunger hormone) is what responds to the smell of a bacon butty, giving you the empty feeling that makes you want to eat. When a triple whammy of ghrelin hits the hindbrain (the unconscious bit), the hypothalamus (which governs metabolism) and the midbrain (where pleasure is processed), we are practically powerless to the siren call of a sandwich. So hypnotic is this hormone that when you eat your favourite foods (taste preferences are coded in our DNA, so if your mum had an addiction to steak sandwiches, chances are you will too), ghrelin levels spike, overriding the body’s signal that it’s consumed enough and you end up with that uncomfortably ‘full’ feeling. In fact, research has shown that ghrelin can increase our willingness to pay for food, too.

If your mouth waters in anticipation of something delicious, it’s not because your body needs more calories

On the other hand, leptin (only discovered in 1994), is an appetite suppressing hormone which regulates our food intake and energy expenditure. If we didn’t have it, we would rampage around Waitrose, devouring Green & Black’s straight off the shelves.

A healthily functioning appetite depends on these two hormones balancing each other, but there are various other factors which have an influence on how hungry you’re feeling, too. If you are ill or jetlagged, certain protein molecules interfere with this process, and you should find it much easier to say no to a second helping of goat’s cheese lasagne. If you are at the most fertile point of your menstrual cycle, you’ll also feel full sooner, which scientists think this is an evolutionary trait – your body doesn’t want you distracted by foraging when you ought to be focused on getting pregnant.

Weather can also affect our appetite. We want to consume more calories when it’s cold, while sweet foods taste sweeter, spicy foods spicier and coffee more bitter in warmer weather.

But many of the responses we have to food are conditioned, rather than biological. If your mouth waters in anticipation of something delicious, it’s not because your body needs more calories. What we feel like eating comes down to culturally determined taboos and fetishes – coffee to feel grown-up, dairy to feel comforted, sugar for a brain addicted to the dopamine hit. Even the illusion of hunger or satiety can be psychosomatic. If you eat something you’ve enjoyed before, or if you are fooled into thinking your portion size was bigger than it was, it’s still likely to stave off hunger for longer.

If you’ve ever felt too hungry to cope with a supermarket, or charged round a convenience store only to leave empty-handed, this actually has a physiological basis. As hunger deepens, people become extremely irritable, aggressive and impulsive, and this can crystallize into a potentially dangerous stubbornness.

The Buffet Effect

But are we really feeling hungrier now than we used to? Yes and no. The average person in a developed country now has 500 more calories (2,750) available to them per day than they did 40 years ago – comfortably over women’s recommended daily intake of 2,000 – but because Britons live in better insulated homes, and do less exercise, we actually consume fewer calories than we used to. Despite this, we’re 22lbs heavier than we were in the mid Seventies. Regardless, there’s no denying that we’re more fixated on food and our appetite than we used to be.

Food has permeated our entire culture. Terrestrial TV dedicates 16 hours a week to cookery shows. There are two channels devoting their entire output to the larder and The Great British Bake Off averaged 4.56 million viewers a week last year. It’s not just TV – our bookshelves groan under the weight of our cravings. The fastest and bestselling non-fiction book in UK history is Jamie Oliver’s 30-Minute Meals. The Bookseller estimates that the food and drink category is worth a staggering £90.8 million, up from £55.5m in 2001 – and we’re not necessarily even cooking from them, leading The New York Times food writer and author Molly O’Neill to dub them ‘food porn’.

And it’s not simply the amount that food factors in our lives, it’s also its immediacy. We don’t have to wait for fruit and vegetables to come into season anymore, we can get anything, from anywhere in the world. Call it the buffet effect – if you have more food to choose from, you eat more (women are especially susceptible to this).

Food has permeated our entire culture. Terrestrial TV dedicates 16 hours a week to cookery shows

The complexity of our appetites is something our grandparents would marvel at. Rewind back to their meal times, and you would have seen the matriarch slaving over a stove for a family that always ate the same thing, together. Fresh meat, cheese, sugar, butter, jam, tea and chocolate were rationed between 1940 and 1954, meaning food was universally valued and savoured. Following the war, people maintained this thrifty and thankful mentality – waste was unheard of. Fast-forward 60 years and how often do you bin unwanted items from an Ocado order that you haven’t got round to cooking? You’re not alone – collectively, we throw away a quarter of our food.

Until the early Eighties, most families stuck to a rigid weekly food pattern – Sunday roast, weeknight shepherd’s pie and stew made with leftovers and fish on a Friday. That repetition regulated hunger: “Our food environment has changed dramatically,” says Dr Alex Johnstone, researcher at the University of Aberdeen. “Data shows that the greater variety of food you have, the more likely you are to eat more.”

Evolution Theory

The speed with which we can now have dinner also has a lot to do with our raging appetites. In 1960, the average British woman spent six years of her life cooking but, thanks to microwaves and our love of dining out, that figure has now halved. Since 1951, the number of working mothers has tripled, so meal times became less rigid and family members helped themselves to food when they felt the urge. We are overeating, but doing it so quickly that we don’t recognise when we are full, as it takes a while for the brain to get the message. This mechanism harks back to our caveman days, when food was scarce, and eating a lot when you could find it was vital for survival. “The people who could gorge themselves and keep going would survive longer during the next famine,” says Dr Jeffrey Flier of Harvard Medical School.

Then there’s the pressure of modern life. Stress, that all too common affliction which leads around 12 million of us to go to our GP every year, is not just responsible for increased anxiety or insomnia, it also increases our appetite. A recent study found that 51% of people’s appetites surged when they were feeling stressed. Our drinking habits have a effect too. Drink alcohol with your evening meal – as 42% of drinkers do to unwind after a stressful day – and your hunger will increase further yet. A 2009 Australian study found that consumption of red wine led to a marked increase of appetite.

So it seems that psychology, sociology, biology and modern culture have conspired to create a small island with a very large appetite. Of course, giving in to the urge to reach for the Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese or Gail’s baguette might not always be great for our waistlines, but there is something quite marvellous about what it might be doing for our psyches. After all, who doesn’t want to be Nigella, dripping in caramel and not terrified by a hamburger (albeit a gourmet one made with 100% organic beef), rather than worrying about every calorie? Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a dinner reservation…

Words: Julia Maile

Picture credit: Rex Features

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