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Being hungry is not fun. It’s uncomfortable and distracting and it is a major reasons why people struggle with their weight. People experience hunger in different ways: some individuals can tolerate or even ignore hunger pangs, while even the slightest twinge of hunger can feel like an emergency to others. There’s no simple reason to explain those differences. Hormones, gut bacteria (microbiota), sensory processing, past experiences with starvation, emotions, and even the childhood feeding environment can affect how we sense and respond to hunger.
Satiety is the state of feeling satisfied after eating. As you would imagine, it’s a crucial component of weight control, since hunger is a fundamental reason for eating. About 65% of Americans are on a diet at any given time, and of those dieters, two out of three admit that they are driven to “cheat” on their diet because of hunger.
Hunger can undermine any attempts at healthful eating. I’ll tell you a personal story about one of my more memorable experiences with hunger. I recently had such a busy day traveling among stores for work that I inadvertently skipped lunch. By the time I got to my last store at 3:00 p.m., I was ready to eat anything that wasn’t nailed down! I ordered a slice of pizza and scarfed it down while standing over a trash can—not my finest moment as a dietitian. That experience was a good reminder of how powerful hunger can be. I naturally incorporate several satiety strategies into my daily eating, so I sometimes forget how hard it can be to make a good choice at a meal if I feel ravenous.
Weight control is really complex, with many factors influencing success. Of course, we all want easy answers for weight loss like “eat fewer calories than you burn,” “use your willpower,” “cut out carbs,” or “eat like a caveman.” But, those simple recommendations just don’t address the causes of overweight and will not afford long-term success. For successful weight control, we need to take into account all of the different and complicated factors that affect appetite and satiety.
Blood Sugar Control
I have long said that everyone should eat as though they already have diabetes in order to prevent it and many other chronic diseases. It is also an excellent strategy for weight control. Processed carbohydrates from foods made with flour or sugar and carbohydrate-heavy meals all require your pancreas to secrete a hormone called insulin to collect and deliver sugar to your cells for energy. Insulin also tells your body to store fat. People who are insulin resistant or diabetic also become hungry when there is excess insulin floating in their blood, while the rest of us may experience a “crash” or blood sugar low after eating these types of foods, which can also trigger hunger and cravings for sweets and carbohydrate rich foods. Eating to control blood sugar is a good way for everyone to get a handle on appetite control. I’m going to talk more about eating to control blood sugar in my next podcast, but you can review this topic in depth with my tenth podcast called “Shaking off Sweets”. In a nutshell, you need to eat balanced meals that contain protein, some minimally processed carbohydrates, and some healthful fat—and you need to eat three meals a day.
Good Gut Bacteria
Our microbiome--the community of bacteria that live in our guts--is emerging as an influential factor in satiety. The microbiome can influence our appetite, metabolism, and even the number of calories we absorb from food. Obese people have higher representations of less desirable strains of bacteria, as well as fewer varieties of bacteria in their microbiomes. Studies indicate that people who have the greatest diversity of good bacteria in their microbiomes experience greater satiety with eating, and tend to be leaner. Eating a plant-based, vegetable-rich diet that also includes probiotic foods, like yogurt, can help to nurture a more diverse microbiome. You can learn more about this topic by listening to my podcast “10 reasons to grow your good bacteria.”
One factor that makes appetite even more complex are the hormones that are involved in appetite regulation. Fat makes hormones and the more body fat you have, the more hormones you make. There is really interesting evidence that being overweight actually increases your appetite and makes it harder to feel satisfied. Furthermore, resistance to certain satiety hormones can develop in overweight individuals, making it harder to fill up and thus lose weight.
If you think about what the implications of this cycle are, you can see how challenging it is to lose weight if the state of being overweight makes it harder to feel satisfied. One way to break this cycle is by eating a more anti-inflammatory diet since this cascade of appetite hormones that overweight people experience is considered a pro-inflammatory condition. Therefore, eating an anti-inflammatory, plant-based diet like the Mediterranean Diet is one approach that can help improve the situation. My listeners know how much I love the Mediterranean Diet as a framework for healthful eating. It’s great because it’s flexible and can be adjusted to fit your individual needs and preferences. It’s pretty much already an anti-inflammatory diet, but you can add extra anti-inflammatory emphasis to it if you understand both diets. I’ve covered the Mediterranean diet extensively in my first few podcasts, so you can go back and review them at anytime. Here are some important things to know about anti-inflammatory eating: most foods that grow on farms are anti-inflammatory and highly processed foods are pro-inflammatory. Since the med diet is a plant based diet that emphasizes minimally processed foods, you can see how easily these eating styles fit together.
In order to combat inflammation, you need to replace most of the harmful pro-inflammatory foods in your diet with healthful, antioxidant-rich anti-inflammatory foods. Pro-inflammatory foods, which should be minimized or avoided are mainly unhealthy fats; processed foods; and processed foods that contain refined grains, sugars, and unhealthy fats.
Make vegetables, fruit, whole intact grains, beans, legumes and healthful fats the basis of your daily diet. Produce (including herbs and spices) contains phytonutrients that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties; grains, beans and legumes are nutritious slow-digesting carbohydrates and proteins that help to control blood sugar; and extra virgin olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish are rich in monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, which are strongly anti-inflammatory. Try to eat plant proteins, like beans, lentils, and nuts instead of animal proteins. You can still eat fish and seafood, organic yogurt, cheese, milk, and eggs several times a week--but not necessarily daily, and poultry and red meat even less frequently, as it is better to reduce your consumption of animal products if you’re trying to reduce inflammation.
Now that you understand some of the factors that can influence appetite and satiety, tune in next time when I’ll discuss some more concrete strategies for planning satisfying meals and snacks.
Q: What are some of the most satisfying foods you can recommend to our listeners?
Top Satisfying foods
- Beans and bean soups
- Chia seeds
- Fatty fish such as salmon and sablefish
- Greek yogurt (plain)