You ate a rather large lunch two hours ago. Now, you’re feeling that nagging desire to eat again! Why so soon? It’s no secret that overeating and lack of physical activity contribute to obesity – but what causes those hunger hormones to rage out of control? Most importantly, what can you do to control those nagging feelings of hunger?
Sometimes, it’s hard to pin it down to a single cause. It takes a little experimentation and dietary adjustments to get to the root of why you feel hungry so soon after a meal. Your body is a complex, finely tuned system. Everything that you do, your diet and lifestyle habits, influences everything else. Sometimes, there’s a medical reason for uncontrolled hunger, such as an overactive thyroid, but more often than not, it’s a combination of physiological and emotional factors that drive the desire to snack frequently or overeat at a meal. Let’s look at 5 ways, backed by science, that you can get control of this problem.
Change the Composition of Your Diet
What’s on your plate when you eat breakfast and lunch? Processed foods and foods high in sugar are rapidly absorbed and cause quick rises in blood sugar and insulin. The faster it rises, the quicker it falls. You might get a brief surge of energy after eating a meal of refined carbs, but you’re also likely to feel fatigued and ravenously hungry a few hours later as your blood sugar level drops just as quickly as it rose.
The key to avoiding a plummet in energy level and an appetite surge is to eliminate sugar and refined carbs from your diet. Instead, build your meals around whole foods and include a source of protein with every meal and snack. Protein is satiating and fiber-rich foods, like fruits and vegetables, slow stomach emptying so your blood sugar rises and falls more slowly so that you stay satisfied longer. Sometimes, all you need to dial down your appetite is to change the composition of your diet and eliminate the junk.
Is thirst making you feel hungry? Studies show that thirst can be mistaken for hunger pangs and most people get busy and forget to drink enough water. Sip a large glass of water when you wake up in the morning. Then, keep a stainless-steel water bottle handy to sip on throughout the day. When you’re tempted to nosh on a snack outside of mealtime, drink a glass of water or unsweetened tea first and then reassess. The fluid may be enough to vanquish those hunger pangs. At the very least, you’ll feel better because you’re fully hydrated. Too often, people walk around in a chronic state of low-grade dehydration and wonder why they don’t feel their best.
Reign in Emotional Eating
Often, we eat not out of hunger but to fight boredom or ease stress. Emotional eating is closely tied to stress. Food offers comfort when things get hectic and it’s often a conditioned response that you carry over from childhood. When you were a child, your parents may have offered you an ice cream cone or doughnut when you were unhappy. These memories still linger in your subconscious and are reactivated when you’re feeling overworked or stressed. When the going gets tough, you absentmindedly reach for a snack when life becomes too chaotic, not recognizing that your inner child is telling you to do so.
While there’s no way to completely remove stress from your life, you can find better approaches to managing it. Don’t let eating be your “go to” way of coping with hard times in your life. Taking a brisk walk when the urge to eat something sugary hits you can help. There are better ways to manage stress than indulging in a plate of food. Mind-body exercises, like yoga and meditation, can also help you tackle stress and eat more mindfully.
If you suspect you’re an emotional or stress eater, keep a food journal for three weeks. Write down everything you eat and what thoughts and feelings you had around the time you ate it. After a bit, you’ll be able to identify emotional triggers and stressors that cause you to eat. When those thoughts arise, you can quickly put an alternative plan, like taking a walk, into action.
Sleep Longer for Fewer Hunger Pangs
Superficially, it might sound like sleep would have little to do with your appetite – but it does. Studies show that skimping on sleep increases levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin. It also lowers the level of an appetite-suppressing hormone called leptin. In one study, subjects who slept for only four hours for two nights in a row experienced a 28% uptick in ghrelin and an 18% reduction in leptin. Not surprisingly, the participants also felt significantly hungrier. Since you’re sleeping less, you have more waking hours to be active. Unfortunately, losing sleep makes people feel more fatigued and less like exercising. So, you’re likely to eat more and exercise less. Not a good combination!
Ditch the Sugar-Free Substitutes
Sugar-free might sound like a good solution for those sweet cravings, but some studies suggest they may actually make them worse. For one, when you eat something that tastes sweet, your body expects calories to follow. If the calories aren’t forthcoming, your appetite isn’t suppressed as it might be if you took in a food without a sweetness-calorie mismatch. In fact, a study found that artificial sweeteners cause animals to seek out more food to compensate for the mismatch. Plus, there’s also some evidence that artificial sweeteners alter the gut microbiome in a way that increases the risk of metabolic problems and obesity. So, don’t try to trick your body, just gradually cut back on or eliminate sugar.
The Bottom Line
There you have it. Five scientifically-backed ways to control your appetite. Now, you just have to put them into action!
LiveScience.com. “The Science of Hunger: How to Control It and Fight Cravings”
Scientific American. “How Slight Sleep Deprivation Could Add Extra Pounds”
Scientific American. “How Artificial Sweeteners May Cause Us to Eat More”
HealthLine.com. “Do Artificial Sweeteners Harm Your Good Gut Bacteria?”