Toxic Hunger? Toxic Clickbait is More Like It!

Posted on 27 Oct 2014 00:27

I am very happy to be bringing you this guest post by Dave Hargreaves, a fantastic personal trainer operating out of Melbourne, Australia, who specializes in Flexible Dieting with an interest in the avoidance of relapse for those in recovery from, or susceptible to eating disorders. His current and past clients include marathon runners, triathletes, powerlifters and others with general fitness and body conditioning goals. Dave has an infectious passion for the truth, and absolutely no tolerance for the pseudo-scientific and often harmful claims and prescriptions that plague the fitness and health industry. He goes after nonsense, and those who perpetuate it, with a fierceness and complete lack of pretension that is not often seen in this industry. Here, he rebuts an article from T-Nation, and its fantastical and baseless claims concerning 'toxic hunger.'

By Dave Hargreaves

Last week the T-Nation website ran an article on nutrition, which included some highly dubious claims about what happens when you choose “the wrong foods,” according to a new theory apparently coming out of the nutrition community.

The theory? So called “toxic hunger.”

For those who missed the article, the suggestion is that if you choose the wrong foods, you'll get heroin-like withdrawal symptoms forcing you to overeat because you think that you're hungry when you actually aren't. Therefore, (not really, but according to these clowns) “counting calories is a fool's errand” because… well, actually it's not clear why. I guess the inference is that you'll blow your targets anyway due to the badness of these bad “addictive” foods.

For what it is worth, we are not told exactly which foods cause this problem. Rather, we are given only vague descriptions of “crappy processed foods” or “pro-inflammatory” foods. It seems reasonable to me that if an author is to claim that certain foods promote a response “similar to withdrawal symptoms of a heroin addict,” they should be able to name at least a couple of these foods so that the theory can be tested with a scientific level of scrutiny.

It goes without saying that no references to any scientific literature to support these claims are provided.

Now, I don't pretend to know everything or to necessarily always be up on the very latest developments and changes in our understanding of nutritional science. So, just because I'd never heard of it before doesn't automatically mean the guy just made it up for the sake of a subheading that would encourage people to click. Assuming the idea wasn't just fabricated for the sake of this article though, I would be interested to learn exactly which members of the nutrition community are putting forth this theory. It certainly hasn't come from any of the reputable sources that I follow, to the best of my knowledge.


What's always interesting to me when I hear about a “new theory” on nutrition, is how often it is a theory explaining why you can't be successful doing something that many, many people have already been successful doing. A new theory to the terms of “here's something that through observation we know does happen, and this could explain why” would be worth hearing and worth considering, if there is sufficient evidence to support the claim. Honestly though, this is just the latest example of certain aspects of the fitness community grasping at straws to prove that they're the only ones with an approach that can work. Because, you know… it's not enough just to be right and have an approach that works and is suitable for you… you have to prove that everyone else is wrong and doomed to fail, as well.

It is disappointing that a site such as T-nation, which does feature contributed articles from some reputable sources, would publish an article that includes such unfounded and unscientific fear-mongering. It is puzzling to me that the same author recently published quite a good article on the same website discussing orthorexia nervosa and exposing many of the baseless claims about different food choices. How does someone go from writing that article, to writing this article that is tantamount to the active promotion of orthorexia through similarly baseless fear-mongering? It does not add up.

To be fair, though, I didn't disagree with every point the article made. For example, the article suggested that if you choose only nutrient dense, calorie sparse foods you are extremely unlikely to over eat, especially as an active person participating in strength training. The article then goes on to espouse the benefits of organ meats such as liver, and suggests the most nutrient dense choices of vegetables. I am an advocate for people meeting their requirements through the choices that best suit them, so I don't have much to disagree with here other than the inference that you're in any way likely to fall short of your micronutritional requirements due to eating the more familiar, more palatable choices of fruit and vegetables rather than the “nutritional powerhouses” recommended here.

Having an abundant intake of vitamins and minerals via a variety of nutrient dense sources is undoubtedly beneficial, but the law of diminishing returns does apply here. There is a limit to how much your body has a use for, and beyond that limit you're just going to piss the rest out. The comment that “good nutrition isn't for wimps” struck me as particularly toxic and pro-orthorexic. So, if you're not enough of a hard man to force yourself to eat things you don't like, then you don't want it bad enough… Is that how they think it works?

The author does specify that “nutrient poor, not just calorie dense” foods cause this so-called toxic hunger problem,. Therefore, it appears he is suggesting that it is not just “crappy processed” convenience type foods that need to be avoided, but that many of the more familiar and palatable fruits and vegetables would also be included in the “wrong” foods list that cause these supposed withdrawal-like false hunger signals. This would be a highly pro-orthorexic claim indeed.

Backing up a little though, we're talking as strength athletes here and discussing the prospect of getting fat, or failing to get lean, due to “wrong” food choices. While it is true that choosing nutrient-dense and calorie sparse foods will make over-eating very unlikely, this in no way should be interpreted as to suggest that over-eating is inevitable and a foregone conclusion if you fail to eat according to adhere to particular recommendations based on the ideologies of a particular author.

More to the point though, as a strength athlete the prospect of over-eating is the least of your concerns. While a misguided and excessive “bulking” period, or simply mindless (or belligerent) overeating in ignorance or defiance of your actual requirements would promote fat gain, outside of those specific circumstances it is quite unlikely.

People get fat through a lack of activity and excessive total intake. As strength athletes, we do not need to be concerned with restricting and minimizing energy intake as if we were inactive people and likely to get fat by accident. Rather, in the interests of improving performance at training, in competition and in body composition and condition, our concern is with what is an optimal (or at least adequate) level of minimal total intake and macronutrient breakdown.

Contrary to what we're conditioned to believe, we cannot expect optimal performance or results from training while under-eating, and we are in no danger whatsoever of ending up fat due to failing to restrict our food choices or energy intake. On the contrary, we are at far greater risk of squandering our efforts through under-fueling. We should be asking ourselves “what is the maximum amount of protein, energy and other resources my body can utilize”, and then aiming to get as close to those amounts as often as possible.

The T-Nation article makes the claim that “hunger is one of the main impediments to fat loss." Nothing could be further from the truth. Ineffectual exercise programming and continued over-eating is the impediment of fat loss, whether simply overeating due to a lack of mindfulness, or as the inevitable result of trying to restrict intake to a less than sufficient amount.

If you are suitably active, especially if you are participating in strength training, and are working to suitable total energy and protein targets, you will not go hungry. If you are still hungry, it is likely that you need to revise and increase those targets. As a strength athlete who is eating mindfully, hunger is your body's way of letting you know that it requires more resources to put to good use in furthering your progress and building your goal body condition as an adaptation to training.

Hunger is nothing to be afraid of. This so called “toxic hunger” does not exist, other than in the imagination of people who are clutching at straws to support the idea that the way that best suits them is the only way that could or should work for anyone else. The “tough guy” assertion in particular was completely asinine, and the comparison of people who make different food choices to drug addicts is simply offensive.

Furthermore, if people do end up overeating as a result of attempting to restrict diet to an inadequate total intake, as I described above, telling them “you weren't really hungry, you're just addicted to shit food because you're too much of a weak willed wimp to eat stuff that doesn't taste good,” as per the inference in this article, could be extremely harmful. Disastrous, even. Quite aside from not even being correct, I might add. For a related example read a previous post of mine which features an actual message from one of my clients who actually was recovering from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, and got sucked into paleo / clean eating, ending up in full-blown relapse. If you think this is unusual, it is not. It is all too common.

It is a sad indictment that the quality of much of the information related to fitness, health, weight loss, and nutrition in particular, is written with such a clear bias and is based on unfounded fear mongering that is not supported by science and has no basis in reality.

As strength athletes or for that matter as any human being who endeavors to achieve a physical result through training, we do require a certain amount of total energy, protein, and other nutritional resources to enable this to happen. Our primary concern is in ensuring that we meet a minimum adequate requirement, and preferably push closer towards what we would expect to be optimal levels. We can predict what these amounts might be with reasonable accuracy through mathematics, and fine tune as may be necessary the closer we get to our peak potential.

Provided our targets are appropriate and we do indeed meet them with reasonable consistency, the choices of foods we make to attain those resources is of little relevance.

This page created 27 Oct 2014 00:27
Last updated 20 Oct 2015 02:46

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