One of the hardest things about trying to lose weight is coping with feelings of hunger. That’s why it’s important to choose foods that keep you satisfied for longer — and to recognise the factors that can scramble normal hunger signals.
Always include lean protein and healthy carbohydrates at each meal. The two of them work together to keep hunger under control — protein because it’s satisfying and quality carbohydrates (like whole grains) because they help keep blood glucose levels even.
Compared to whole foods like a bowl of porridge or an apple, refined foods like soft white bread or snack packs of processed foods are less satisfying. For one thing, processed foods have a soft texture that makes them easy to overeat (it’s hard to overeat apples). Part of your body’s appetite control involves receptors in your oesophagus and stomach that register food as it makes its way through your system. When food touches these receptors it triggers a chain reaction that tells your brain you’ve had enough. Highly-processed foods barely make an impression on these receptors — so your body lets you keep eating.
At the same time, many processed foods have intense sweet or salty flavours that encourage you to keep eating. That’s why it can be so hard to stop eating foods like highly-sweetened yoghurt, pizza and salty snack foods.
Research in the journal Appetite suggests that drinking a bowl of (non-creamy) vegetable soup before a meal has such a satisfying effect that it can reduce the total kilojoule intake of your meal by 20 percent. A salad before a meal can also reduce kilojoule intake.
Feeling a little hungry is fine, but going without food until you’re ravenous can make you overeat later on. And when you’re very hungry, you’re more likely to eat any food that’s available, including high-kilojoule foods. It’s also easier to eat too much — hunger makes you eat quickly and this speed can override your body’s hunger signals. A Japanese study found that people who ate quickly were three times more likely to be overweight, suggesting that eating behaviour, not just the type of food we eat, can add to our weight problems.
Fatigue can make you eat more in an attempt to stoke your energy levels. Studies have found that chronic sleep deprivation can increase levels of your 'hunger hormone' called ghrelin which boosts your appetite, especially for sugary foods. Not sleeping enough can also decrease your levels of leptin, the hormone that tells you when you've had enough to eat.
Some reasons for overeating have less to do with appetite and more to do with how we live — like having too much to do and too little time. We often eat too fast because we’re in a rush to get to the next thing, or we eat unhealthy foods because they’re easily available when we feel we’re too busy to find an alternative. We may eat too much because we’re eating and watching TV or eating and working — instead of paying attention to the food. Sometimes we eat because we’re bored or lonely.
The lines between mealtimes are blurring too. When grazing replaces breakfast, lunch and dinner it gets harder to keep track of how much you really eat.
Avoid mindless eating by:
A weight management plan usually involves an appropriate weight loss diet and physical exercise. In some cases, however, your doctor may discuss with you prescription medicine that can help control your appetite. But these medicines often have the potential for side effects as well as a risk of interactions with other medical conditions and medicines, so prescription medicines for appetite control are not for everyone.
Harvard School of Public Health. Defensive Eating www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/defensive-eating/
Bowen J Noakes M Clifton P. Role of protein and carbohydrate sources on acute appetite responses in lean and overweight men. Nutrition and Dietetics. 2008; 65: S71–78.
Flood JE Rolls BJ. Soup preloads in a variety of forms reduce meal energy intake. Appetite. 2007; 49(3): 626–634.
Maruyama K Sato S Ohira T et al. The joint impact of being overweight of self reported behaviours of eating quickly and eating until full: cross sectional survey. British Medical Journal. 2008; 337(212): a2002.
Spiegel K Tasali E Penev P et al. Brief Communication: Sleep Curtailment in Healthy Young Men Is Associated with Decreased Leptin Levels, Elevated Ghrelin Levels, and Increased Hunger and Appetite. 2004; 141(11): 846–850.
Wynne K Stanley S McGowan B et al. Starling review: appetite control. Journal of Endocrinology. 2005; 184: 291–318.
Taheri S Lin L Austin D et al. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin and increased body mass index. Public Library of Science Medicine. 2004; 1(3): e62.
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Last published 31 October 2010