famine: it's a bad thing

My unifying theory of eating, disordered eating, weight dysregulation, and eating disorders: famine defense. I am not alone in this, and the numbers are growing. Some feel it doesn't matter "why" a medical disorder arises and survives, but for me the famine defense helps me organize these disparate issues; I do not struggle to reconcile these many issues and don't feel they pull against one another.

Assuming you are a fan of evolution -- and not all are -- why would humans have such a complex and multi-faceted relationship with feeding ourselves if not for survival of one's genes through famine? If finding food was as simple as reaching up and having it, grazing through a field of adequate nourishment, our hunger drives would be pretty simple. Yet we have terribly complex and multifaceted systems to help us seek, choose, refuse, and feel sated by food. Only one system has to go down to make the others go awry as well.

Intermittent famine is the threat that humans have faced and survived most often, and we are well-adapted to it. We're not all that adapted to turning down food, and I have no doubt any more that the turning down of food opportunities is doing serious harm:

  • It sets up moral and anxiety-based relationships with foodstuffs: we have good foods and bad foods to choose from, and our morality and intellect are judged by those choices.
  • It creates "dieting," an artificial and unhealthy intermittent famine. This self-imposed famine condition sets  us up for internal forces built to fight a lack of food: compulsive food-seeking, a melting of social connections, a messianic value to restriction.
  • For some it breaks the development of normal social eating and intuitive feeding behaviors.
  • Others suffer by setting off a genetic cascade of thoughts and behaviors that make normal eating nearly impossible.... something we now call an eating disorder.
For those interested in this idea, look into Shan Guisinger's Adapted to Flee Famine hypothesis. Worth a read.


  1. I cannot speak for the US, but in Oz, there is a real tredn towards not allowing one's self to ever be hungry. Kids generally do not know what hunger feels like. They probably know all about undernourishment, in terms of inappropriate foods fuelling their body, but true gut wrenching hunger? No. We now place a 'bad' value on this feeling, but it merely one feeling of many that we experience over a lifetime. No better or worse than being overfull, sad, angry, pleased or well rested. My youngest son, 7, admitted of his own volition that he has no idea of what it means to be hungry.

    There are states of being that we aim to be in: happy, well fed, etc; all the 'good' feelings of contributing to our overall sense of wellbeing and growth. I do not state or believe it is something to avoid, but it is somewhat artificial to be in these states permanently. I feel much more challenged by my ability to feel and experience life in its grand whole: the good, the bad and the inbetween. Like Winona Ryder's character in Girl, Interrupted said, I'd much prefer to be with life in all its complexity than to be removed, numbed or one faceted. Hunger is merely a state of being. Anorexia is a prolonged state of hunger.

    I watch my boys as they grow and I have taken three approaches to their eating over the years. Being an anthropologist, I am keen to learn and observe. Also, I am anorexic and have massive eating disorders. I used to make the boys sit and eat what was on the plate. Didn't work. They rebelled and knew how to subvert my 'control'. Then I tried having them choose their food; they would not eat half the time. The best policy I have that is working is for me to simply attach NO value to food or anything to do with eating. They eat.

    I have few rules, but I stick to them.

    1) Food must be identifiable when I buy it or obtain it; land, sea or ground. No processed stuff, unless I make it at home.

    2) Wide variety each day. Small amounts of everything, sweet savoury and all else.

    3) Food is put on the table three times a day. Period. Nothing said other than food is ready. Snacks are their choice and they get/prepare them.

    Our emotions are spoken of all the time and are removed from food. It seems the boys eat more, sleep better and develop their own boundaries. I hope this will prevent them from going through the horrors of disordered eating.

    I choose to be in a state of mild hunger a lot of the time. It IS better than being anorexic hungry and it affords me a chance to absorb all the nutirents from my food. It also means I am in control of my body's power and abilities. My oldest son noted that he likes not being fat for it allows him to climb, run fast and be agile. He knows hunger and is a well rounded, empathetic person. He faces what life throws at him and simply shrugs his shoulders. I learn a lot from him.

    I think that an inability to know how famine feels and how to cope with it is doing an injustice to ourselves and our children. We teach them how to cross a road, under all circumstances: whether there are traffic lights, loads of cars, deserted streets, congested by motorbikes etc. These are survival skills. Feast and famine survivial are survivial skills too, but how many of us know how to respond HEALTHILY to them?

  2. Kate, while I do think hunger is a natural part of the human experience I don't think we're seeing it the same way.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts