The desire to eat starts with a twinge, and before you know it, you're rummaging through the fridge. But the real question is: Are you really hungry, or was that a twinge of habit, boredom, or some other emotion? Understanding your own eating habits and learning to recognize true hunger is an essential weight loss tool.
The decision to eat is affected by a host of factors: sights, smells, social settings, and more.
We eat to satisfy our appetites but also to soothe emotions, celebrate victories, satisfy cultural expectations -- and because it just tastes good.
Scientists have been researching influences on appetite and hunger for decades. The body's systems are complex. "Hunger hormones" (ghrelin) in your blood and an empty stomach signal the brain when you're hungry. Nerves in the stomach send signals to the brain that you're full, but these signals can take up to 20 minutes to communicate -- and by that time, you may have already eaten too much.
Rating Your Hunger
When you sit down to eat a meal, you want to be hungry, but not ravenous. (Letting your blood sugar get so low that you feel ravenous often leads to binge eating.) And your goal is to stop when you're comfortably full.
To get into the habit of evaluating your hunger, rate your hunger and satisfaction level before and after every meal. Here's a numerical scale you could use:
0: Ravenously hungry, salivating.
1: Hungry, belly growling.
2: Mildly hungry; you may need a light snack to hold you over, but you could hold out a little longer.
3: Satisfied; don't need to eat any more.
4: More than satisfied; ate too much.
5: Stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey.
And whenever you're about to run to the kitchen or break room or detour to the nearest drive-thru, ask yourself these questions first:
- When was the last time I ate? If it was less than 2-3 hours ago, you're probably not feeling real hunger.
- Could a small, nutritious snack rich in fiber tide you over until the next meal?
- Can you drink a glass of water and wait 20 minutes?
If you find that you don't easily recognize the signs of hunger, schedule your meals and snacks. Divide your eating plan into several small meals, spaced every three to four hours. Rate your hunger each time you sit down to eat, and try to become more aware of what real hunger feels like.
More Mindful Eating
Most of us wolf down our food without really tasting it from time to time. Do you suffer from "eating amnesia" when the hand-to-mouth activity becomes automatic -- usually in front of the television or while reading a book? Bad habits are hard to break, but if you want to control what you eat, you must become more mindful of everything you put into your mouth.
It helps to slow down and enjoy your meals, like they do in France. Sit down, turn off the television, and create a peaceful environment free of distractions to take pleasure in your meals.
Keep in mind that the first few bites are always the best (your taste buds soon become less sensitized to the chemicals in food that make it taste so good). Focus on the quality of the food, not the quantity. Be mindful of each mouthful, and appreciate the flavors, aromas, and textures of the food.
Enjoying leisurely meals gives your stomach time to signal your brain that you are comfortably full. Put your fork down between bites, sip water, and enjoy conversation while you dine.
Deal With Your Hunger
Here are some more tips to help you get in touch with real hunger:
- Exercise portion control. The old expression "your eyes are bigger than your stomach" may be sage advice. Researcher Barbara Rolls and her colleagues at Pennsylvania State University have found that the more food you're served, the more you're likely to eat. The theory is that the environmental cues of portion size override the body's cues of satisfaction.
- Eat foods that are bulked up with water or air, which gives them more volume and makes them more satisfying. Increasing the bulk in your meals helps fill your belly, signals satiety to your brain, and allows you to feel full on fewer calories. Broth-based soups, stews, hot cereals, and cooked grains are good examples of the foods that go the distance.
- Fiber can help satisfy hunger and reduce appetite. Choose high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, popcorn, and whole grains. Starting a meal with a large salad can help you eat fewer calories during the meal because of the fiber and water content of greens and vegetables. Also keep in mind that fresh fruits have more fiber and water than dried ones.
- Avoid the buffet line. When there are lots of choices, most people eat more. Keep it simple, limit the number of courses, and fill up on the high-fiber foods first.
- Include lean protein in your meals and snacks to help them last longer in your stomach. A handful of nuts, some low-fat dairy, soy protein, or lean meat, fish, or chicken will tide you over for hours.