One of the most common questions I am asked goes something like this: “How can I stop feeling hungry all the time?” Managing appetite and different hunger cues is a common goal of most dieters, and learning how to cope with these feelings is essential to long-term change.
It has been well known that reductions in calorie intake and resulting weight loss can influence hunger and appetite, making weight maintenance, after and during weight loss, challenging. When our stomach is empty, it produces a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin then goes to the brain and acts on the hypothalamus to produce hunger cues and initiate food-seeking behavior. Scientific studies have shown that as one reduces their caloric intake, there is an increased production of ghrelin, which means an increased feeling of hunger, along with a reduction in the feeling of satiety. This change in hormonal status could last for up to a year after weight loss, which makes maintaining weight loss difficult.
Another factor in hunger and appetite is the pleasure center of our brain. The brain receives cues from pleasure pathways that are influenced by dopamine and serotonin, which in turn can influence eating behaviors. A high sugar diet can reduce the production of dopamine and in response to this, the brain triggers more food seeking-behaviors to seek out more sugar and return dopamine to a normal level. This is typically what can cause different cravings for sugar and other refined carbohydrates, since they will increase dopamine production. Remember that just because one craves a food does not mean that they are physiologically hungry; this craving could be caused by food addiction, lack of dopamine, or using food to cope with stress or other forms of emotion. It is important to self-reflect and learn yourself, so you can determine if the sensation you are feeling is a craving or true hunger.
The interesting thing I have learned about hunger is that you can move through and beyond the signals if you work at it. Hunger is like a wave. It comes rushing in and hits you hard, and then it retracts and goes away. Most have experienced a hunger pain, which typically consists of a growling stomach paired with a desire to eat and maybe some irritability; however, most of my patients have also reported that if they are busy doing something else (i.e., working in the yard, playing with their kids, or traveling) they tend to forget about it for a few hours. The biggest factor in whether we act on the hunger signals or not is whether we are engaged in something that sparks our interest or entertains us. Whether you are on a beach in the Caribbean or at your office desk, staying calm and not responding impulsively or emotionally to hunger cues is extremely important. A growling stomach is just a sign that it is empty, not that doom and despair are on the way. Next time you get a hunger/appetite cue, especially if it has only been a few hours since your last meal, just relax, busy yourself with something else, and it will most likely go away. We can accomplish almost anything if we are mentally strong and have a positive mindset. Mindfulness is such a powerful tool in weight loss. Mindfulness will help you connect with your body, understand the sensations or signals it sends, and assess those signals logically versus emotionally. Since we now know that your body will fight you by sending hunger signals as your caloric intake decreases, it is vital to be relaxed and mindfully assess these cues as they come versus responding impulsively.
To reduce these hunger and appetite cues as much as possible, it is important to create filling meals. Combining lean protein sources with healthy fats and fiber slows gastric emptying and digestion and allows the stomach to stay fuller longer, hence increasing the time that the brain receives signals that the stomach is full. Patients have expressed agreement to this concept daily and report a big difference in a breakfast made from 1 slice of whole grain toast with an egg, ½ small avocado, and a sliced apple (fiber, protein, healthy fats) versus a bowl of cereal with skim milk (only carbohydrates). A reason I recommend salads often is due to how filling they can be when properly made. For example, a garden salad with mixed greens and vegetables and a light dressing lacks protein and healthy fats, and while it has insoluble fiber from the vegetables, it does not have much soluble fiber, which can assist in slowing digestion as well. I typically recommend adding a source of protein like chicken, fish, tofu, or an egg, along with some healthy fats, like olive oil or avocado, and a high fiber carbohydrate, like chickpeas, corn, peas, or sweet potato, to ensure that the meal is balanced, nutrient dense, and overall very satiating.
Proper hydration is also important to preventing hunger. The signal “I am thirsty” is often misinterpreted as “I am hungry.” The recommendation of 64oz of water a day is a good place to start, and this does not include coffee, tea, or any sweetened beverage. Some evidence suggests that a higher intake of artificially sweetened beverages can heighten sweet and salt cravings, hence impacting appetite. The best bet is to stick with plain water and ensure those 64oz are consumed prior to adding in other beverages so you can guarantee you are well hydrated and not confusing hunger for thirst.
Never forget that your mind is a powerful tool, and learning how to use it to support your weight loss efforts is so important to long-term success. Properly identifying hunger versus appetite versus cravings takes time and practice, but mastering this will allow you to move beyond the hunger signals that come with weight loss and will support true behavior change in your response to hunger over the course of your lifetime.