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20 Things You Didn't Know About... Hunger

Get the skinny on why tummies rumble and how we might feed the world.

By Tasha Eichenseher
Nov 20, 2013 12:00 AMMay 17, 2019 10:16 PM


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  1. How to alleviate world hunger? The United Nations suggests entomophagy, or eating beetles, wasps and worms, as a partial solution. Pass the cicada stuffing. 

  2. Two billion people worldwide already rely on bugs for protein. One serving of caterpillar has more protein than a serving of beef. 

  3. Better than relying on the flesh of your traveling companions, like the survivors of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes. They ate the frozen bodies of their families and friends. 

  4. Hunger’s pangs don’t take long to kick in. Go a few hours without food, and grumbling ensues as continuous waves of muscle movement release pockets of gas in the intestines. 

  5. Eventually you start to burn fatty acids instead of glucose for fuel. And a few days into a fast, your body starts to feed on its own proteins. So, yes, your stomach will eat itself.

  6. Without calories, your body will no longer be able to produce enough glucose for your big brain (and it needs a lot — about the daily equivalent of the sugar found in three cans of soda). Instead of shutting down, it resorts to using ketone, a fatty acid derivative. 

  7. Early humans’ ability to switch to another staple in this way may be what allowed us to outlast other primate species. 

  8. The discomfort and weakness that mark this stage of hunger is nothing compared with kwashiorkor, extreme malnutrition that causes a distended belly and swelling of the liver. But the No. 1 cause of death in people who are starving is heart failure due to extreme tissue and organ damage. 

  9. Nearly 1 billion people will go to bed hungry tonight, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. And 200 million of them will be children. Lack of vitamins and nutrients, especially in a child’s first year, can affect brain growth and intelligence. 

  10. Some studies have found that iron deficiency, another consequence of malnutrition, may drive anemics to eat clay and soil. 

  11. Nearly 30 percent of pregnant women crave nonfood items, an eating disorder called pica — from the Latin word for magpie, a bird known to eat anything. 

  12. Studies have traced cravings for high-calorie meals back to caveman days, when hunters and gatherers needed to store energy between unpredictable mealtimes. Now our cravings for fatty and sugary foods, which release chemicals that can trigger mild euphoria, spur obesity and diabetes. 

  13. Refined carbs can make you hungrier by interfering with messages the digestive system sends to the brain to signal it’s time to put down the doughnut. 

  14. A 2004 brain-imaging study revealed that even thinking about a favorite food triggered release of dopamine, a feel-good hormone also produced during sex and drug use. 

  15. Food for thought: A 2007 study found that women who tried to quit thinking about chocolate ended up eating 50 percent more than those who were encouraged to talk about their cravings. 

  16. Suppressing hunger or appetite, normally the job of a hormone called leptin, is a multibillion-dollar industry in the U.S. 

  17. New research indicates that people carrying the obesity gene FTO keep pumping out the hormone ghrelin, which tells the brain to eat again. 

  18. But some of the highest levels of ghrelin have been observed in anorexia patients. 

  19. A body can hold out only for so long. In the early 1980s, 10 fasting imprisoned members of the Irish Republican and Irish National Liberation armies lasted 46 to 73 days before dying of starvation. 

  20. On the other hand, a little hunger may go a long way. Studies in rodents show reducing daily calorie intake by 30 percent can lower risk for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and increase longevity. So much for an appetite for life.

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