One of my clients today told me she rarely feels hungry. She’s not the first one to make this claim. In fact I would say that a majority of clients coming to me for help with weight control, say exactly the same. Yet when you look at popular diets they always claim to help you lose weight without feeling hungry, and every other week there is a new appetite suppressant on the market claiming to help you to lose weight by taking away hunger. No one I know is overweight from eating to hunger so what is really going on here?
Part of the problem is clearly that we never have to be hungry. We have ready access to relatively affordable tasty food, that is often very energy dense. The minute we are hungry we can pretty much always eat. We start this cycle in childhood. Parents carry snacks with them wherever they go and children seem to be in this constant cycle of meals and snacks. As adults this just continues and as a result many of us don’t go too long between eating occasions. The sheer array of snack foods on the supermarket shelves is testament to our snacking behaviour and they add significant kilojoules to our daily intake.
We have also been sold the message that eating more regularly is good for us. The 6 small meals a day approach has been popular and came out about after research showing that compared to one big meal at the end of the day, you burn more kilojoules digesting and metabolising the same amount of food spread over several meals. This was comparing two ends of the extreme however. There is no evidence that eating 3 meals a day with one or two snacks, compared to 6 small meals is any different in terms of the energy used to digest the food. In my experience eating more frequently just results in more overall food being consumed, thinking about food constantly and never truly feeling hungry nor satisfied. When a client comes to me looking to gain weight, I get them eating more frequently, so it just doesn’t make sense to do the same for weight control.
On the other hand getting ravenously hungry is not helpful either. All of us tend to overeat when get to that point of hunger, or we go for the wrong things. For example hoeing into the bread basket before we even start the meal. But feeling a little hungry is a normal sensation and one we should be able to live with for a short while. If you are trying to lose some weight feeling a little hungry between meals is actually a good thing; it means you are burning fat. If food is not coming in from the gut you have to be using stored energy to fuel your body – and that means body fat along with glucose. So embrace the feeling rather than thinking negatively about it, and when it does come to mealtime you will enjoy the food even more.
I use a hunger rating scale to help get that balance right. Think of your level of hunger on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is ravenously hungry and 10 is stuffed full. You never want to get to either extreme. While eating try to stop at number 8; the feeling of being satisfied but not full. Number 5 is neutral; you cannot feel food in your stomach but you are not yet hungry. This is a good time to exercise. You want to feel at a number 3 by the time it’s meal time – hungry and definitely ready to eat. If you’re not you need to ask why? Did you eat a snack too soon to mealtime? Did you eat too much at the last meal? Between meals if you feel at number 4, that is slightly hungry, consider how long it will be to your next meal. If it’s more than 2 hours then it’s appropriate to have a snack. This will stop you feeling ravenous by mealtime when overeating is a risk. But if it’s less than 2 hours to mealtime then wait. Learn to live with a little hunger – I promise you won’t starve in the meantime!
When it comes to snacks be careful with what you choose. Processed packaged snacks are so often high in energy (kilojoules) and low in nutrients. A piece of fruit and a yoghurt, a handful of nuts, a smoothie made with skim milk, natural yoghurt and berries, or a bowl of chopped vegies with hummus are all ideal. Snack bars are convenient to throw in your bag but they vary substantially in nutritional quality. Look for a bar with a nice list of all natural ingredients and somewhere between 500 and 750kJ per serve, depending on your energy needs. This was my brief to Goodness Superfoods while they were developing their new bars launching next month, and they come in at the lower end of that scale with 500-530kJ per bar. Used judiciously snacks can indeed help you to control your hunger and avoid overeating that in turn leads to poor weight control, but the bottom line is don’t overdo it. Get in touch with your hunger and respond to those internal cues to eat, rather than constantly grazing on food throughout the day. Your body will benefit, you’ll think less about food and weight control will become second nature.