A few weeks ago, I overheard an eight-year-old girl say to an adult in all seriousness, “I’m so hungry, I’m going to die!”
I couldn’t help thinking to myself that she had no idea what true hunger was; nor do I. In Hunger: An Unnatural History, Sharman Apt Russell details what it means, physiologically, to be hungry. Then she goes beyond the science of hunger and into the social aspects by reviewing the history of how we learned to help starving people recover and the various current worldwide issues surrounding hunger, from Anorexia Nervosa to refugees. It is an intriguing look into a social problem that everyone experiences, even to a small extent, every day.
The first portion of Hunger details the various stages of hunger: how does the body react after 36 hours without food? 7 days? 30 days? Interspersed with the explanations (which, thankfully, are not overly scientific) are historical examples of people who lived or currently live without eating for various amounts of time. (One morbidly obese man fasted for 380+ days, for example.)
Subsequent chapters of Hunger detail various social issues, for example, the ways hunger has been used as political statement; studies during World War II when people were starving to death; the Minnesota Experiment, in which some young men were given near-starving diets for six months in order to determine the best way to re-feed (in preparation for re-feeding the hundreds of thousands of hungry people at the end of World War II); the anthropological aspects of being hungry; anorexia nervosa; hungry children worldwide; re-feeding malnourished adults in the midst of famine; and more.
True story: Every time I began to read this book, I’d feel like eating. But then I’d eat too much and have a stomachache, because I wasn’t really hungry. Just thinking about being hungry (and reading about starving people) made me want to eat! There’s a chemical explanation for that – I read about it in the book.
I found Hunger to be a fascinating introduction to the subject. Russell’s book is best described, I believe, as an overview, neither focusing heavily on science nor on social issues. It’s very accessible and a quick read. I highly recommend it if such an overview is what you’re looking for.
I chose to read Hunger: An Unnatural History as a part of the World Citizen Challenge for the “Worldwide Issues” category, my issue being world hunger. While it didn’t focus on world hunger to a great extent (as I had hoped), I feel it provided a wonderful foundation for other books I hope to read about the worldwide social issues surrounding hunger. I do hope to read more about the subject, and Russell’s book has sparked my interest.
Personally, I have a hard time going more than about 20 hours without food: I get very faint and my arms and legs start to shake, especially if I stand up too fast. I must eat breakfast. But everyone is different. When did you last eat? How long have you gone without food? How did you feel?
If you have reviewed Hunger on your site, please leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.