Waiting Until We Are Hungry Before We Eat

We can (as Diogenes observed) greatly enhance our appreciation of any meal by waiting until we are hungry before we eat it and greatly enhance our appreciation of any beverage by waiting until we are thirsty before we drink it.
--William B. Irvine, from A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

In the modern world, nearly all of us can eat and drink whatever we want, whenever we want.

But wait: isn't food all the more delicious when we wait a little while for it? Even a simple glass of cold water becomes delicious when we're deeply thirsty.

Voluntary Discomfort
In his exceptional book A Guide To the Good Life, William Irvine explains how the Stoic philosophers sought different forms of voluntary discomfort as exercises of discipline, gratitude and pleasure. Yes, you read that right: pleasure. There are many modern misconceptions the Stoics, and one of the biggest is the inaccurate belief that the Stoics were "stoic" in the modern sense of the word, meaning unemotional or Spock-like. On the contrary, they knew how to enjoy the good things in life, and they frequently sought them out.

But the Stoics weren't hedonists. Yes, they sought enjoyment, but they also sought the understanding and acceptance that the things that bring us pleasure can also be lost. And they practiced voluntary discomfort by "going without" from time to time in order to better understand this concept. After all, knowing you can lose something--or worse, that it can be taken from you--helps you appreciate that thing even more.

Of course, eating and drinking is something we often taken entirely for granted. We do it every day, repeatedly, often with little enjoyment and sometimes without any thought at all. Which, if you think about it, is not only unhealthy but a little depressing too.

So, why not, periodically, wait a little bit to eat? Why not experience an hour or two (or more?) of hunger from time to time, and therefore turn that meal you waited for into a significantly more satisfying experience?

Stoic Kurtosis
Interestingly, this plays right along with some of Arthur De Vany's ideas about kurtosis: the concept of introducing variability, randomness and even occasional meal-skipping into your eating and exercise schedule. Our bodies were built for varying meals and varying caloric intake. Despite all our modern cultural programming, we were not built to eat three predictably-timed square meals a day.

Of course, just the mere act of waiting until we're hungry to eat is practically unknown for many modern people. Just look around. Judging by our society's obesity rates, we eat mindlessly, all the time, and whether we're hungry or not.

Isn't this typically ungrateful First World behavior? Maybe we could take a page or two from the Stoics, and wait until we're hungry before we eat.

Readers, what's your take?

Read next: Applying the 80/20 Rule to Diet, Food and Cooking

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Anonymous said...

What about the theory that when you are hungry, your body goes into starvation mode - holding fat...

Also waiting to drink until you are thirsty means that you are already dehydrated - also not good for your body.

Daniel said...

Anon, there's an enormous distance between "waiting until we are hungry until we eat" and starvation. Don't get wrapped around the axle on that and miss the point of the post.


Melissa said...

I am a big proponent of voluntary discomfort. It teaches discipline which only leads to greater joy. Good post, Dan!

Juli said...

I like how you combined the two concepts. It makes sense!

This doesn't happen as often anymore, since I'm more mindful of my health/nutrition in general, but in the past, if I'd slip up a little with portion size (maybe due to holidays or special events), I would find myself continuing to eat at a larger portion size afterwards by default. Since it's always easier to face a short-term challenge than a permanent one, to resolve this situation, I would focus on eating really lightly for just a day or two, just to "reset" my stomach (anybody can suffer for a day or two, right?). I was still EATING (not starving myself), but I would limit the amount to bare sustenance, rather than eating until I felt pleasantly full. Afterwards, my portion sizes naturally returned to what they had been before, almost as if my stomach had literally shrunk back to an "original" size, and didn't require as much to fill it to the point of pleasantly full. So I wouldn't have to go on a permanent diet of restriction, but instead, suffer through a couple bad days, and then be perfectly satisfied by a more normal portion size.

I've also been surprised to discover lately how much of my eating had to do with habit and, well... lack of things that absolutely consumed my attention. It used to be that when I got off work at 5pm, I was ravenously hungry... immediately. Now, I'm pursuing my passions of teaching, taking classes, and going to the gym in the evenings after work, and many nights I don't get home and eat until about 10pm. Surprisingly, I rarely notice any kind of hunger during that time, because I'm so consumed with what I'm doing. I'm definitely hungry when I get home, and the enjoyment of that meal is high! But amusingly - if I have a night off from these flow-state activities, I find myself "needing" (big air quotes there) to eat earlier in the evening.

So I would say, at least for me personally, my eating schedule did have a lot to do with conditioning, and I discovered the hours between meals could be stretched a lot further than I thought, without actual discomfort, thanks to the flow state. Of course, this post is making me think that, on my random nights off, perhaps I should exercise some Stoicism by stretching those hours --even when I'm aware of the hunger-- to experience some elective discomfort and increase my level of badassity. ;P