Are you fighting a battle with hunger? Then take a closer look at the micronutrient composition of your diet. Micronutrients and macronutrients are the nutritional backbones of a healthy diet. Macronutrients, not to be confused with micronutrients, are the calorie-containing food components that your body uses to produce energy and encompass protein, carbohydrates, and fat. You need macronutrients in relatively large amounts, to supply the energy needs of your body.
In contrast, micronutrients are nutritional components you need only in very small amounts. Without them, you couldn’t make the enzymes and hormones that support numerous chemical reactions, including those involved in energy production, growth and health maintenance. Vitamins and minerals that you need only in tiny quantities fall into this category.
Don’t underestimate the importance micronutrients play in your diet for helping you stay healthy. For example, you need iron, copper, vitamin B12 and folate for healthy red blood cells, and iodine and selenium for normal thyroid function. Some micronutrients, like vitamins A, C, E, and selenium are antioxidants that help protect cells against oxidative damage. These are only a few examples of the role micronutrients play in keeping you healthy – and alive.
Phytochemicals, compounds made by plants that benefit human health, are also classified as micronutrients. Examples are the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables and components in plant-based foods that seem to offer protection against disease.
Can Micronutrients Help Control Hunger?
It’s obvious that you need vitamins and minerals in your diet for health, but there’s evidence that they may serve another purpose – hunger control. A study published in Nutrition Journal that involved 768 people showed participants, after adapting to a micronutrient-rich diet, experienced less hunger when they ate foods rich in micronutrients, even when the micronutrient-rich diet was lower in calories. Participants even felt hungry less often when they skipped a meal. They were also less likely to experience food cravings symptoms like irritability, headache, and fatigue that might be interpreted as hunger.
How might a micronutrient-rich diet curb the desire to eat? Many processed foods are low in micronutrients, in contrast to whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, which offer an abundance of vitamins and minerals in their natural state. One theory is that eating a typical Western diet, depleted of micronutrients, leads to “withdrawal” symptoms after a meal that people perceive as hunger. This is sometimes referred to as “toxic hunger.” As a researcher involved in this study, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, who coined the term “toxic hunger” points out:
“The typical Western diet is loaded with calorie-dense processed foods, oils, sweeteners, and animal products. Regular consumption of these foods results in inflammation, oxidative stress, and accumulation of metabolites.”
No wonder our hunger signals are out of sync! Plus, eating foods that are high in sugar and refined carbs can lead to blood sugar spikes and drops that trigger hunger. In addition, a diet short on micronutrients may lead to cravings as a way to get the vitamins and minerals your body lacks.
Why Calorie Counting Isn’t Enough
When trying to lose weight, most people begin counting calories and reduce the QUANTITY of food in their diet, but fail to address the issue of food QUALITY. In general, foods that are rich in micronutrients, like fruits and vegetables, are lower in calories. Not only do you get more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals when you eat these foods, you can eat more of them because they’re lower in calories. You may be able to lose a few pounds counting calories without addressing food quality, but you’ll feel hungry, frustrated and gain the weight back later because you can’t tolerate feelings of “toxic hunger.”
Remember the TYPE of calorie you consume affects energy expenditure and the tendency for your body to store fat. For example, consuming protein increases the “thermic effect of food” more than consuming carbs. As a result, you expend more energy breaking down protein and enjoy a short-term boost in your metabolism, whereas refined carbs trigger insulin spikes that tell your body to store calories as fat. All calories aren’t equal when you take into account how they influence energy metabolism and hormones like insulin.
Calorie balance does play a role in weight control, but it’s not the only factor. The composition of the calories also influences how satisfied you feel after a meal. When you eat a protein-rich meal, it maximizes the release of appetite-suppressing hormones like CCK that turn off your appetite.
Focus on Calorie Quality and Macronutrient-Rich Food Choices
Get rid of the mindset that losing weight is about calorie restriction and deprivation. Eating a micronutrient-rich diet of whole foods is not only better for your health – it may help you curb hunger and cravings.
Other Tips for Controlling Hunger
Eat protein with every meal and snack. Protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients. Skip the high-protein bars and drinks with added sugar and get your protein from sources like eggs, poultry, fish and plant-based sources like tempeh and legumes.
Get 7 plus hours of sleep nightly. Lack of sleep dials up ghrelin, an appetite hormone that increases carb cravings.
Learn to distinguish between true hunger and eating because you’re bored or stressed. Rate your hunger between 1 and 5. If it’s not at least a 4 or 5, you’re not truly hungry. If after dinner snacking is your downfall, as it is for many people, make a list of other things you can do to stay busy after dinner.
Eat breakfast and don’t skip meals. Keep healthy snacks with you like chopped veggies, fruit, nuts, and string cheese so you always have a healthy option when true hunger strikes.
Drink water throughout the day. Sometimes thirst and hunger pangs are hard to distinguish. When you feel hunger, try drinking a glass or two of water before reaching for a snack.
The Bottom Line
If you’re fighting a battle with hunger, take a look at the composition of your diet. Make sure you’re eating fiber-rich, micronutrient-dense foods and avoiding refined carbs and foods with added sugar. Focus on food quality first rather than obsessively counting calories. Excessive focus on calories creates added stress that can drive you to want to eat the wrong things. Listen to your body and give it the nutrients AND micronutrients it needs.
Nutr J. 2010; 9: 51.Published online 2010 Nov 7. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-9-51.
American Cancer Society. “Phytochemicals”
Eliminating Toxic Hunger with a Nutrient-Rich Diet. Joel Fuhrman M.D.
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