If you’ve ever tried to lose fat, you’ve probably sought out ways to manage hunger. Rather than re-spin the common counsel to eat more fruits and veggies, increase protein intake, drink more water and try a cocktail of hunger-suppressing supplements, I've made it the goal of this article to provide you with 5 nuanced tips I’ve found to be helpful when dieting.
LEARN HOW HUNGER WORKS.
Mathematician Oliver Heavside famously asked, “Am I to refuse to eat because I do not fully understand the mechanism of digestion?” His point was that we don’t need to understand a process fully to be able to put it to use. Just because he couldn’t name the enzymes responsible for digesting protein in the stomach (pepsin, trypsin and chymotrypsin), he would enjoy his steak dinner nonetheless. With respect for Heavside’s classic pragmatism, I have found that learning the psychophysiology of hunger can have the practical effect of reducing one’s temptation to overeat.
A few years ago I was reading the appetite chapter in a psychology text called Brain and Behavior during a cardio session on the treadmill (a required level of multitasking for a student in both exam week and peak week at the same time). Somewhat surprisingly, I found that studying the hormones and organ systems that were responsible for driving my appetite made me feel more in control of my own body. I’ll explain what I mean with an analogy.
Suppose you have a feeling that your computer is on its way out but you’re not much of a tech expert and you’re unenthusiastic about its future. It has been routinely overheating and crashing and sending you notifications about errors that you’ve been ignoring. I’m inclined to think you’d be more likely to take confident, corrective action if you knew what was going on inside the computer. At the very least, you’d feel like you actually have the option to take certain actions, even if you chose not to. Or perhaps you would have already remedied the problem by responding appropriately to the errors in the first place.
Like technological illiteracy would probably give a decreased sense of control, I found that psychophysiological literacy gave me an increased sense of control.
When I learned how hunger evolved because of the starvation risk our ancestors faced; a mere artifact no longer relevant to modern Western society, I realized that my cravings didn’t really apply to me.
When I learned that leptin, ghrelin, PYY-36, orexin and other little proteins in my blood were responsible for making me feel like a puppet having its strings pulled, I was able to see the strings for what they really were (hypothalamolimbic tracts) and actually felt more in control of my own behavior. I concluded that my intentions were ultimately what would drive my actions.
Learning about studies like the Minnesota Starvation Experiment gave me the perspective that hunger is temporary and reversible, even though the recovery may be slow. And that a lot of people have it a whole lot worse than I do.
In all, I’ve found that our sense of control scales nicely with our knowledge base: when we feel more fully informed on a topic, we are given an extra degree of freedom to choose and behave how we really want. It’s been said that knowledge is power, and in this context, I couldn’t agree more.
This idea borrows from a learning strategy called meta-memory where the goal is to stop and ask yourself how well you’re memorizing something as you’re learning it.
Research has shown that when you slow down your eating, you tend to eat less (1). That isn’t exactly what I’m getting at with the “meta-satiety” thing, but it’s important enough that I’d like to chew on it for a second.
A 2008 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that when 30 healthy women were given a meal and instructed to eat slowly they reported increased levels of pleasantness and satiety after finishing the meal (1). While the results were not particularly strong, these findings dovetail nicely with our commonsense intuitions about ingestion rate and other mechanistic data suggesting that it takes time for the whole hormonal tango to work its magic on the brain (2).
Interestingly, some researchers have speculated that it isn’t eating rate per se that causes us to eat less, but instead the concomitant increased number of chews. To quote a 2014 systematic review on this topic, “It may be that some people have developed a learned association between the number of sips, bites, or chews and feelings of satiation that bring a meal to an end.” (7) Since eating more slowly tends to equal more chews/sips/slurps/facial smearing (in my case) it’s difficult to discern what the true causative factor is. In any event, “eat more slowly AND take smaller, more numerous bites” is good advice.
But this isn’t quite what I wanted to get at with this trick. The idea here is to actually consciously monitor and self-assess your own hunger as you go. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Of course, this will be difficult to do if you are double-forking at a pace this guy couldn’t rival, so take your time and listen to what your brain is telling you. And give it time to respond because sometimes brains aren’t that talkative.
In his book “The Happiness Hypothesis”, Jonathan Haidt asks us to imagine a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety, increase contentment, increase self-esteem, empathy, trust and memory. And the pill is all natural and costs nothing. Would you take it?
As it turns out, luckily, the pill does exist (sort of) and (spoiler alert) it’s meditation.
A very cool 2012 study looked at the effect of mindful eating meditations on caloric intake at a restaurant meal.
The researchers defined mindful eating meditations as the “intentional, nonjudgmental focus on the present eating experience.” The basic idea was to focus attention on the sight, smell, and texture of the eating experience to maximize enjoyment. Impressively, not only did the budding buddhas eat less calories at the restaurant meal, they also ate less over the rest of the entire day and lost significantly more weight over the 6 week trial (8).
To me, these findings suggest that mindfulness meditation likely has effects on appetite that go beyond the duration of the meditative practice itself. My personal experience corroborates this result, as I’ve found that by incorporating a quasi-daily meditative practice into my own routine I’ve felt less of a mental burden to thwart hunger and resist food temptation. I’ve also felt generally less remorse when I have given in to the tasty temptress. I recommend using the Calm app, which has been incredibly valuable for me.
I’m not saying you should skip breakfast (even though a sizeable body of research suggests it’s probably not the worst idea) but just delay it a little.
Of course, a lot of us have work schedules that won’t allow for procrastination, but if you are able to delay your first meal for a few hours after waking, you may be able to better sync your natural hunger signals with your meals.
In support of this notion, a 2015 study found that skipping breakfast all together (a semantic glitch, I’ll admit, since the first meal you eat still breaks the overnight fast) didn’t lead to overeating later in the day and was effective at reducing total daily calorie intake (4). Try putting off breakfast a couple hours, just rehydrating with some coffee or tea on waking, and see if it helps.
EAT MORE BLAND FOODS.
Since the iifym explosion, dieters have become increasingly drawn to increasingly palatable foods. And while there is research suggesting an inverse relationship between disordered eating and dietary flexibility, I can’t help but question the applicability of these studies to populations of dieters who have taken a flexibly controlled approach and turned it into actual macro magic and wizardry.
In any case, research suggests that high fat (3) and high sugar foods (5) tend to promote overeating. In my experience, finding a balance between restricting palatable foods while allowing for sufficient dietary flexibility can feel like riding a unicycle with a flat tire on a tightrope, backwards, upside down, with ankle weights on. Pediatric research tells us that restricting certain foods just makes children focus on wanting those foods even more and may encourage the intake of those foods (6). I can relate to the kids. Every time I’ve purged my fridge of ice cream it’s lead to an ice-cream-rebirth of phoenix-like proportions. So with this trick I’m not suggesting that you cleanse your entire kitchen and purify your grocery list, but simply choose the more bland, less tasty foods first and then use the yummy stuff as a reward for good behavior: “Eat your veggies first” kind of thing.
Along with the now age-old tips of increasing fiber, drinking more water, eating more protein and spacing your meals evenly, I hope these 5 nuanced tricks are able to help you deal with and manage hunger more effectively while pursuing your fat loss goals.
1) Andrade AM, Greene GW, Melanson KJ. Eating slowly led to decreases in energy intake within meals in healthy women. J Am Diet Assoc 2008; 108(7): 1186-91.
2) Ann MacDonald. Why eating slowly may help you feel full faster. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-eating-slowly-may-help-you-feel-full-faster-20101019605 (accessed 30 August 2015).
3) Blundell JE, MacDiarmid JI. Fat as a risk factor for overconsumption: satiation, satiety, and patterns of eating. J Am Diet Assoc 1997; 97(7): S63-9.
4) Clayton DJ, Barutcu A, Machin C, Stensel DJ, James LJ. Effect of Breakfast Omission on Energy Intake and Evening Exercise Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2015; Epub ahead of print.
5) Erlanson-Albertsson C. How palatable food disrupts appetite regulation. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol 2005; 97(2): 61-73.
6) Fisher JO, Birch LL. Restricting access to palatable foods affects children's behavioral response, food selection, and intake. Am J Clin Nutr 1999; 69(6): 1264-72.
7) Robinson E, Almiron-Roig E, Rutters F, de Graaf C, Forde CG, Tudur Smith C, Nolan SJ, et al.. A systematic review and meta-analysis examining the effect of eating rate on energy intake and hunger. Am J Clin Nutr 2014; 100(1): 123-51.
8) Timmerman GM, Brown A. The effect of a mindful restaurant eating intervention on weight management in women. J Nutr Educ Behav 2012; 44(1): 22-8.