Tip of the Day
Are You Really Hungry?
It’s a question we all should ask ourselves every time we pick up a fork
Here’s the scenario: you’ve just come back from a vigorous workout at the gym. It’s been six hours since lunch. You are ravenous. You tuck into a plate of pasta with vigor. You’re so hungry and it tastes so good, you quickly finish your first portion and, still feeling hungry, help yourself to a second. Fifteen minutes later, you get up from the table having eating twice as much as you should. Sound familiar? It’s because you’re confusing hunger and appetite. There’s a difference, and understanding it can put you on the path to healthy eating and a healthy weight.
Hunger is biological, appetite is behavioral. Hunger is a physical drive; appetite is the desire to eat. People who are naturally thin eat based on physiological signals – relying on their bodies, not their minds, for cues when to start and when to stop. Lucky them.
“Most of us don’t eat based on physiology,” says Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D., who teaches nutrition at New York University. “We eat what’s in front of us, what we smell, what we see.” The appetite trap – I’m not hungry, I just think I am – is hard to avoid because appetite can mimic the physical sensations of hunger. When you see a food that looks good, the brain releases peptides – the hormones that stimulate hunger. A desire to eat becomes indistinguishable from the need to eat.
Some foods can put us on a roller coaster ride of appetite. Needing quick energy, we reach for something sugary. Indeed, sugar is a fast fix because it’s digested so quickly. Blood sugar rises and we’re on top of the world. But that stimulates insulin production, which drives blood sugar back down. Now the brain, which uses sugar just like the rest of the body, starts asking for more. We’ve all experienced the sugar crash that has us reaching for another sugary treat.
How do we get off the roller coaster, and begin to eat only what our body truly needs rather than what our mind is telling us we want? The answer is mindful eating of the right kinds of food. Australian researchers have developed a satiety index that tells us how filling various foods will be (Google “satiety index” for an easy-to-read chart). Here are some of the findings: whole grain breads are 50 percent more filling than white bread; popcorn is twice as satisfying as a Mars bar; oatmeal ranks 50 percent more satisfying than an egg. Fiber has weight but no calories, so it makes us feel full at very little cost. That’s why whole grains score higher. Water can also help us feel full, but only if it is part of a food – like the high water content in vegetables and fruits; an effect you can’t mimic by simply drinking a glass. Studies show that chewing your food longer increases satiety, and making a meal last longer – eating mindfully – is a big factor because it takes around 20 minutes for satiety signals to be generated. If you’ve already overeaten (remember our 15-minute pasta meal), it’s too late.
Here are some other tips from leading nutritionists for reining in our appetite.
Record your “cheats.” Keep a food diary, but instead of writing down every morsel you eat, which can be dreary and cumbersome, just keep track of the nibbling you do. Pretty soon, you’ll have a clear picture of where the problems lie.
Listen to your cravings. Everybody craves certain foods. The trick is not to deny yourself, which ultimately leads to over-eating, but learning how to allow yourself small treats. A friend of mine has a single square of chocolate every night. Just one.
Start your meal with salad or soup. A low-calorie, high-volume food distends your stomach, triggering satiety hormones. At the Pritikin Longevity Center, people are urged to eat as much as they want; the food is nutrient-dense, calorie-lean, so they can load up on salads and soups and still lose weight.
Eat often. Frequent small meals minimize the reward that food represents. A meal eaten after a long fast stimulates the reward center in the brain. Before long, you’re associating food with rewards (sound familiar?).
Wait 20 minutes. A friend of mine quit a two-pack a day smoking habit by waiting 20 minutes before lighting up when he craved a cigarette. The same rule can help with food. Eat a modest amount, then wait for satiety hormones to kick in before eating any more. Chances are, you won’t want to.