Americans have a fixation on eating and weight, and every year countless articles, books, and TV segments are churned out telling us about the latest diet fad. But rarely do they consider the essential component, which is hunger.
For thousands of years, hunger was humankind’s constant companion and scourge. The Bible spells out dozens of plagues, starting in Exodus with the seven years in Egypt, of which it was said, “But the hunger and destitution and starvation were very severe and extremely distressing in the land.”
In modern times there was The Great Famine of 19th century Ireland, and numerous 20th century famines in Russia, Vietnam, China, and North Korea, each of which resulted in millions of deaths.
Today, despite great advances in agricultural production and food preservation, almost 800 million people – more than 10% of the world’s population – go to bed hungry every night, according to World Hunger Education.
Even here, in The United States of Plenty, hunger remains a stubborn problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2016 some 41 million people were “food insecure.”
Perhaps a more serious problem is obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one-third of all Americans are obese. A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Public Health says obesity may be responsible for almost one in five deaths in the United States. “[O]besity significantly shapes U.S. mortality levels, placing it at the forefront of concern for public health action,” the study concluded.
It would seem strange that hunger and obesity can exist side by side in America, but they do. There are many reasons for this seeming anomaly, everything from the psychology of eating to poverty and the problems of food distribution and preservation. The issues are complex if not intractable.
But at the center of it all is the simple fact of hunger. Many Americans have lost the experience of hunger. Cheap food is plentiful and people eat in clockwork fashion, morning, noon, and night, without regard to whether they are hungry or not. For these people, obese or not, it would be hugely important to regain the sensation of hunger.
For one thing, hunger is an essential signal, the body’s way of regulating appetite and intake. Without it, we eat mindlessly and mechanically, heedless of appetite or taste.
More generally, hunger is a reminder of the huge problem of food insecurity and starvation around the world. To experience hunger, even a little, is to remind ourselves of what so many people face every day. That is one reason why so many religious observances – including Lent, Yom Kippur and Ramadan – include some form of abstinence.
Even in the secular world, hunger can be a spiritual statement. As former U.N. General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold put it, “Hunger is my native place in the land of the passions.”
We need to reacquaint ourselves with the experience of hunger.