So this video came across my Tumblr dash, and it triggered a rant.
Basically, the gist is this: a researcher fed volunteers milkshakes. One group got milkshakes that were labeled as low-calorie. The other group got milkshakes labeled as high-calorie. The group given the “high-calorie” milkshakes felt less hungry afterward.
This is an interesting example of the placebo effect, for sure. However, it is now being bandied about as “You can change your metabolism with your miiind!” And, predictably, people are discussing it almost solely in the context of weight-loss dieting. As if it offers hope.
Because I’d like it preserved for posterity, here’s what I said on Tumblr (with a few minor edits):
The fact that this works for one feeding with a single milkshake means nothing. It’s basically a trick to fool your body into feeling fuller, temporarily, but it says nothing about how your body treats hunger over the long term.
There’s mechanical hunger, which is your stomach being empty and growling. It says “PUT FOOD IN YOUR STOMACH.”
There’s mouth hunger or aesthetic hunger, which is your need to eat food that satisfies you psychologically. Comfort food, the native foods of your culture, foods whose tastes and textures satisfy you innately. It says “PUT YUMMY THINGS IN YOUR MOUTH!”
And there’s chemical hunger. Chemical hunger is craving … something. That feeling you get when you don’t eat enough fruit for a while, and suddenly you crave citrus. The feeling you get when you are bleeding from your vagina for the tenth day in a row, and would literally murder old ladies for a steak and/or a bucket of bone marrow. The feeling you get when, for no reason you can name, you crave something like almonds or anchovies or really dark chocolate. At its most immediate, it’s the low-blood-sugar shakes and dizziness. At its most insidious, it’s the thing that leads you to eat and eat until you are satisfied. It says “MEET YOUR NUTRITIONAL REQUIREMENTS BECAUSE YOUR CELLS ARE STARVING, YOU NUMBSKULL.”
Reduced ghrelin may not have much effect on mouth hunger, and it absolutely isn’t going to affect chemical hunger. It will affect mechanical hunger, but only for a short time.
As someone who, out of a hateful illness, starved herself for years like nobody else could do it right, I probably know more about actual hunger than most people ever, ever will. I can tell you all kinds of things about it. Things you probably don’t want to know, honestly.
I can tell you right now that I tried all the tricks.
I tried using smaller plates.
I tried drinking loads of water before each meal.
I tried chewing slowly. (SOOOO SLOWLY.)
I tried filling up on really bulky, low-calorie foods.
I tried really small, frequent meals.
I mean, if there was a trick, I tried it. If I’d known about this, I’d have tried this too.
And none of the tricks worked. I was still hungry pretty much every few hours, and the less I ate, the less time it took for me to get hungry. Eventually, I was hungry all the time. Like, I was so hungry I stopped being able to feel mechanical hunger.
No, stop, think about it. My body had become so used to my stomach being empty that it stopped sending me those signals completely. And yet … I was hungry. All the time. Even when I satisfied my mouth hunger, I was hungry. I needed to eat. I can’t even describe what that felt like, except to say that it was overpowering.
When I finally started recovering, I ate whatever I wanted. And for two years, two years, all I wanted to eat was salt, fat, sugar. For several months, I still never felt hungry, but I couldn’t stop eating. I would eat until I felt physically sick, and I still WANTED to eat more. Because I had been starving myself, and that is what starving yourself does.
Because my body knew, it knew, that 700 calories a day was not 2,000 calories a day. It knew it was starving. It thought it was dying.
You cannot fool that. You cannot permanently change your body’s metabolism with tricks. Just because it works once doesn’t mean it will work the nine hundredth time you try it.
So, unless it can trick your body into literally thinking that 100 calories is 300 calories forever and ever, your weight loss tricks are not going to work forever, you will rebound, you will gain back the weight you lose.
Research like this is useful, because knowing how the human body and mind interact is useful.
Research like this in the hands of people who aren’t qualified to draw conclusions from it is not useful. This will no doubt somehow enter the vocabulary of weight-loss “tricks” intended to help desperate and misguided people fool themselves into thinking they are smarter than the literal cells in their body, when they are not. And that is a sad thing.
So for the people saying “If you think of your kale/wheatgrass/quinoa/goat placenta smoothie as really indulgent, you won’t feel hungry afterward!”, you’re wrong. Do it often enough, and you’ll feel hungry constantly.
There’s not a shortcut. I don’t recommend weight-loss dieting to anyone, but if you’re going to pursue it — again, just don’t do this if you still believe all the crap about being thin being a somehow magical state that will insulate you from all kinds of physical and psychological and social ills — you should know that you are working against literally every cell of your body. There’s not a work-around for that. It is a bone-scraping, desperate hunger you will feel every minute of every day, worse and worse the longer you go.
Clever “tricks” like this are sops thrown to you to say “Look, look, it’s easy, look how easy it is! Look how stupid the human body is! Look how much more powerful your brain is! You can totally fool yourself out of being a meat-popsicle that craves fat and starch and salt if you just work at being satisfied with less.”
All they do is make it easier to start, and easier to keep limping along pretending nothing is wrong, when you can feel with every fiber of your being that there is.
Whenever new “science” shows something that implies, from research based on a single event, one single meal or item of food, that there is a faster way to lose weight, or an easier way to not feel hungry, give it the stinkiest of all stink-eyes. Because one meal? One meal more or less is not hunger. Not really. The measure of hunger is what happens once you have depleted your body’s reserves enough for it to start eating itself away … and then you keep going. And going. And going. What you feel then is hunger.
You know what else probably kills your appetite? Videos of surgery. Nobody’s suggesting that we take up watching those before our meals so we don’t feel like eating as much. And if we did? We’d get used to it pretty fast, as the large number of surgeons, nurses, veterinarians, and techs who can still eat will attest.
They get over it because our bodies need food. We need to eat, both physically and psychologically, to be healthy. And that is stronger than pretty much any other urge we have except maybe thirst — I don’t know, I never tried to dehydrate myself to death. Hunger takes longer to kill you. (And yeah, you feel every minute of it.) It is stronger than the urge to lick Ben Barnes. Stronger than the urge to pet kittens. I could stop thinking about those things for hours at a time. I never forgot that I was hungry.
Also, as one final note, there’s a huge error in this research. Food is not neutral, okay? We have such a guilt complex around food these days that if I give a random person a 600-calorie treat, it’s 99% certain that they will feel some guilt. And they will feel less guilt over a 100-calorie treat. And guilt? A surprisingly good appetite-killer. Which is why the diet industry is so huge on guilt and shame. So unless you could find someone who had literally no associations with food/calories/guilt — and these days, even finding tiny children who do not have that is going to be a job of work — your study might be measuring something other than what you think it is.
(And guilt doesn’t work long-term, either. I was still hungry enough after four years of 700 calories a day to eat a whole goddamn box of Pop-Tarts. I felt pretty fucking guilty after the first one. I still ate them all, and every piece of fruit in the house.)
(Also, anyone who expects you to endure that sort of hunger just to access a higher tier of respect in the pecking order is a fucking douchebag and you can safely disregard anything they say as toxic bullshit.)
Ugh. Rant over. I’m going to go eat something bad for me, because I fucking can. The best way not to feel hungry — eat when you want to eat.