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Hungry kya?

In that wide chasm that exists between what an Amartya Sen and an Anthony Bourdain talk about, there’s that sturdy bridge: biology, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Jul 25, 2010 00:48 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

Earlier this week, suddenly out of the blue, a tremendous appetite came upon me like an angel bathed in gastric juices. Rather uncharacteristically, at a sit-down dinner, I had an appetiser (prawns), two main courses (a fish, rice and luchi combo followed by a ‘continental’ beef dish) and bottles of beer before and throughout the meal. Feeling the eyes around the table bore into me and my fellow diners seemingly making mental notes of my Bheem-like performance, I decided to skip dessert.

Instead, through the next five days and five nights, I mulled over my very temporary change of heart and belly.

Clearly, that evening, I had not only been hungry, but I had been much more hungry than usual. I also realised that because of being unnaturally ravenous, I had ended up appreciating my meal much more than I do even when presented with the same kind of menu on other occasions. So, to appreciate good food better, does one have to be a glutton? Does the capacity to eat more actually help to appreciate the quality of food on the plate?

Appetite, of course, is different from hunger. You can crave for a bar of chocolate even though you aren’t hungry. The munchies you get in the middle of the night aren’t the same kind of hardwired hunger that people denied basic nutrition live with. The malnourished feed off their own bodies, making them fundamentally unfit, in most cases on a permanent basis. The hunger that the fat lady on a diet feels is a battle between the desire to eat and the desire to be trim.

And talking about eating is a totally different dish from talking about the food one has eaten. The latter is the retelling of a communion that everyone from colleagues at a workplace to feted foodies love to share, turning a necessity into an activity rooted in the pleasure principle. The former remains a ‘subject’ that gets airplay only when one is talking about health or lifestyle or — when eating is ‘in shortage’ — socio-economics, the last bit driving home the difference between ‘hungry’ and ‘hunger’, between ‘be hungry’ and ‘go hungry’.

But in that wide chasm that exists between what an Amartya Sen and an Anthony Bourdain talk about, there’s that sturdy bridge and grand leveller: biology. Whether it’s one of the many who’d love to eat more than they usually do, or many of the few who’ll be tucking in something tonight that they’ll savour, the act of eating boils down to two characters that reside in all our bodies: ghrelin and leptin.

Ghrelin is the Tweedledee-like hormone that is produced in the stomach to tell your brain that you’re hungry and it’s time to eat, while the Tweedledum-like leptin tells that same brain that you’re filled to the rafters and it’s time to stop eating. Have a low level of ghrelin and you don’t feel hungry easily; have a low level of leptin and you need to eat more to stop feeling hungry.

Considering that despite the best efforts of our most well-fed brains, the country with the finest range of cooked and uncooked food available to mankind still hasn’t been able to figure out how to make everyone eat to their belly’s, if not heart’s, content, I propose a change of tack. Why not try and lower everyone’s appetite? In these days of escalating food prices, a nationwide drive to lower ghrelin levels and increase leptin levels in everybody’s bodies could be formulated. In 1994, researchers at Rockefeller University actually injected leptin into volunteers. The response was erratic — natural leptin levels differ from person to person — and many complained of side-effects like extreme skin irritation. So there’s much work to be done.

But in the land of the most famous hunger artist who made fasting a political performance art, semi-fasting upto nutritional levels could just be the answer. Appreciating those killer kakodi kababs a bit less is a small price to pay if it can make India the fittest, phattest, well-toniest nation in the sub- as well as supra-Saharan world.

First Published: Jul 25, 2010 00:46 IST