I am a creature of appetite. I always want to max out on experiences, engage in multiple conversations, stay up too late, use three electronic devices at once, read absolutely everything, fill every moment, and, of course, eat all the things. Learning to be an endurance athlete, adventurer, and martial artist has taught me a lot about physical appetite, which I will share with you as soon as I finish licking my fingers.
The main thing to understand is that food is not optional. I mean, duh, it’s not optional for living organisms. For endurance sports, if you don’t eat enough, you bonk. (To be distinguished from ‘boink’ which is not something you generally want to do when your blood sugar crashes). Bonking is what happens when the glycogen stores from your muscles are depleted. It feels really, really bad. Most people are probably acquainted with the feeling of being hangry, which is basically being hungry enough to be irritable and start verbally abusing people. Bonking leads toward total physical collapse. You’re out of gas and you’re stranded at the side of the road until you fill your tank.
The thing about endurance sports is that it gradually conditions your body, training your muscles to store more glycogen. This is handy when you want to walk, bike, run, or hike somewhere while carrying heavy gear. It’s not so convenient when you quit feeling hunger signals in the way that you once did. You have to learn how to eat when you’re not hungry, just like you have to learn to hydrate when you’re not thirsty. If you ever actually feel thirsty, like your mouth is dry, then you’re well into a state of dehydration. It’s the same with food. On a fifteen-mile hike or a twenty-six-mile run, you’re not just traveling on your breakfast, you’re traveling on your dinner from the night before.
This is where ox hunger and wolf hunger come in.
These terms come from Ancient Greece. We talked about it one day while I was studying Classics. Those of us who did not grow up in an agricultural area often have to have these things explained. Ox hunger was considered more desperate than wolf hunger, because a wolf snarfs its food down quickly, while an ox ruminates, grazing and chewing all day long. From a human perspective, the ox can never get enough to eat. It never feels full, even as it reaches a massive size.
This is actually turning into a weird metaphor for me, because I identify with the herbivorous diet of the ox, while still wanting to point to a shift in how I structure my meals.
When I was obese, I felt hungry all the time. I always cleared every last morsel off my plate. I regularly drank 40 ounces of cola or more every day. It wasn’t uncommon for me to eat an entire can of Pringles while writing a paper. I’m 5’4” and I’ve been known to eat half an extra-large pizza in one sitting. My activity level was basically nil, because I had a lot of issues, from chronic pain to migraines to a full catalog of sleep disorders. I felt like a mess.
Now I’m 15-20 years older. I probably eat about the same amount of total calories, although it would be hard to say because I wouldn’t have kept a food log back then for a thousand dollars. Right now I’m at twenty push-ups and a five-mile running route. Since my top weight, I’ve lost about fifty pounds of fat and I’ve put on about fifteen pounds of muscle. I’m hoping for another fifteen. The difference between being a middle-aged fit person and a young fat person is 90% food and 10% activity, mainly because you can never find the energy to do anything physical until you learn something about appetite.
Everything is upside down and backward, and that’s due to timing.
The typical food pattern of an adult with a full-time job goes like this. Oversleep, rush to work with little to no breakfast, slam some coffee and something sugary. Eat a cruddy lunch over your keyboard or your seatbelt, maybe even something terrible like a bag of microwave popcorn with a diet soda, or a candy bar. Perhaps graze on office snacks like cookies or candy. Run a bunch of errands and wait to figure out dinner until you’re practically faint with hunger. Eat the dinner. Then eat something sweet like a bowl of cereal or ice cream right before bedtime. Add sweetened, caffeinated beverages or energy drinks throughout the day just to make it harder to get any decent rest.
This food pattern is the perfect plan IF you want the maximum emotional volatility, lowest energy levels, most sleep issues, and an eventual case of pre-diabetes.
As an athlete, my biggest annoyance is crashing, which is what I call the stage right before bonking. I get really moody, slow, and dumb. On a hike, for instance, I’ll take my pack off to get my lunch and then forget what I was doing. I’ll start unzipping different compartments of my pack, staring at my blow-up lantern or something, feeling all weepy and pathetic, until I finally remember: FOOD! If I don’t eat enough for breakfast before my kickboxing class, suddenly I can barely do my jump squats, much less kick anything properly. It feels like it shaves off half of my strength, speed, stamina, prowess, mental focus, emotional equanimity... and IQ.
This is how I eat if I want to have a fun day.
Drink a glass of water as soon as I wake up. Eat a big bowl of porridge with oats, quinoa, extra dried fruit, nuts, and coconut marmalade. Also eat a protein bar. Walk two miles to martial arts class and crunch out something like fifty push-ups, fifty sit-ups, fifty jump squats, three minutes of jumping rope, fifteen minutes of circuit training, and round out the hour with a couple of hundred kicks and punches plus some wrestling. Drink more water. Leave class and eat a snack. Walk two miles home. Immediately eat a huge lunch and drink more water. Work. Eat afternoon snack. Work. Eat dinner by 7 PM at the latest so I can go to bed around 10. Stop eating for the day. Drink last water at 8 PM.
Timing is everything. Learning to plan WHEN I eat has helped me to get ahead of the hunger curve, so I’m fueling the next few hours rather than catching up on the last few. It helps that the 500 calories of soda I used to drink every day is now represented by real, solid breakfast food instead.
What I’ve found is that the bigger my breakfast, the stronger and faster I am during my workout. Part of the appetite for this big breakfast comes from closing the kitchen after dinner, which I do because it’s how I manage my parasomnia disorder. I’ve eaten 80% of my calories for the day before dinnertime anyway. I can get a full, restful night of sleep and start over ready to kick butt the next day. I’m no longer the ox, large and slow and stationary, chewing and chewing all day long. Whether I’ll ever be a lean, fast, and scary wolf-girl remains to be seen.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.