How do I know when I'm hungry?

Picture this: You’re sitting next to someone special, and you’re compelled to ask a question that only Google can answer. You dutifully pull out your laptop, but just before you place your cursor in the search bar - or worse, just after - you remember something dreadful. The ever-helpful Google is about to show you - and more importantly, the person next to you - your most recent searches in the drop down. All you can do is wait.

Well, you can wait - and hope for a few of those innocuous weather queries to replace your embarrassing medical symptoms and cyber stalking.

I know that feeling. I also know there’s an app on my phone for weather, which means it never takes up real estate in my recent searches.

A few years ago, I was sitting next to my ex when it happened to me. I don’t remember what we were about to Google, but I remember vividly what Google suggested.

Why do I shiver when I have to poop?

There it was. I blinked, gave a little scream, and quickly snapped my laptop shut. He crumpled in laughter. Life as a nun or a leper flashed before me.

To be fair, it’s a great question. Why do we shiver when we have to poop? I for one am not going to tell you. Let’s make it part of your search history, too.

If you were sitting next to me today, and we'd both been struck with a Googleable question, here's what a cursor in the search bar would reveal:

You’d see that I’ve recently had an excruciating run-in with my internet company, TDS. You’d see that I’ve been obsessively comparing costs of living between here and Portland. You’d see I recently went in search of a Six Flags and local music. You’d see that I quite responsibly scheduled a trip inspection with Chet's Car Care. You'd see - but then, you'd already know - that I googled what Elizabeth Gilbert has to say about dating women.

Oh, right. And you'd also see that early this morning I Googled, "What does hunger feel like?”

If I were sitting next to a romantic partner, it’s hard to say whether that would feel any better than the poop query. Both call into serious question the way I spend my mental energy.

But here's the deal: At 4am, I couldn’t decide if I was hungry, tired, or nervous. I know that stomach rumbling signals hunger, and I’ve also discovered that listlessness means hunger, too. But what about other signals? When I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about food, am I hungry - or is it something else? Do I simply want to be soothed?

I would guess that, for most of our evolutionary history, eating when hungry came as naturally as sleeping when tired or breathing, um, always. In the last hundred years or so, the culture has thoroughly convinced us to doubt our instincts. Maybe you’re not hungry; maybe you’re just thirsty! Maybe you’re stressed! Maybe you just need exercise or a good cry. Maybe it’s high blood sugar; try snacks with a lower glycemic index. Maybe you need to have that conversation with your boss or take a vacation. But honey, whatever it is, you’re probably not hungry. After all, you just ate!

If none of that sounds familiar to you - well, what planet are you from? What’s the address? I'm not much for gated communities, but if there’s an opening on Mars and you promise I’ll know when I’m hungry, I’ll call the U-Haul.

It would be one thing if all those suggestions were demonstrably false. If it were never about blood sugar or a much-needed conversation, and always about real, physical hunger. But the fact is, when I woke up this morning wondering if I needed to eat, what I actually wanted was intimacy. I wanted to reach over and feel the presence of a loving human, to know that my needs were and would continue to be met. If I were an infant, I would have yelled indiscriminately, and it would have confused people.

In 2017, I felt particularly recovered from my eating disorder. At the time, I was consciously curating my media consumption: Inclusive images on Instagram, affirming podcasts in my ears. At times, the latter strayed into somewhat draconian messaging, as podcast hosts are wont to do, but nevertheless I got closer to balance and truth. Most of my disordered eating - moreover, my disordered thinking - can be attributed to diet culture. If I simply followed my instincts, rather than questioning them, I’d be mostly right.

And yet: There would be moments when I was sad, and thought I was hungry. Lonely, and thought I was hungry. Nervous, scared, fearing abandonment - all the while, thinking I’m hungry.

It’s a shame that we sometimes don't know what we need. But it's only really tragic when we're deathly afraid of being wrong. Using sleep, exercise, or meditation to fix the problem, and being wrong, is just a neutral signal to try something different. But trying food and being wrong - not hungry, still sad - is distinctly uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable in the context of a culture that fears both the concept of emotional eating and the consequence of weight gain.

On Mars, that would just be trial-and-error.

How do I know when I’m hungry?

Perhaps next time, I'll have the willingness to try eating - even if it's 4am, I should be sleeping, and I shouldn't be hungry - and see if that fixes the problem. If it does, beautiful. If it doesn't, that's interesting, too. In either case, it's worth wading through the discomfort, and challenging what's underneath.