Hungry?

One of the things that clients fear most is being hungry. When I talk to some of them about removing snacks and eating just three times a day (or 1-2 times, depending on their individual plan), there is a look of fear that comes into their eyes. For others, though, they almost relish the opportunity to feel hungry because it has been forever since they’ve felt the grumbling in their stomach that tells them they are ready for food. This doesn’t, however, mean that they never eat! But it does affect their enjoyment of food – and, let’s face it, food is not only fuel, but it is one of life’s pleasures. One that, for many, they’ve denied themselves the opportunity to experience.

Which camp do you fall into, why do you feel that way, and how do you change your mindset around hunger (if you need to?)

Why do you fear being hungry?

In my clinical experience there are two main reasons why people are scared to be hungry. Firstly, hunger is not actually just felt in your stomach, your entire being experiences it. If your hunger comes on suddenly and without warning (you go from feeling fine to being ravenous), if it changes your physical state (ie you start feeling light headed, lacking in energy, maybe even start sweating) and your emotional state (you feel irrationally angry, sad or conversely, on something of a high before a big energy crash), then our emotion around being hungry can be one of fear. No-one likes being shunted from one emotional state to another, particularly if it comes completely without warning, which is often the case in this type of scenario. The fear of over-eating in response to this physiological and emotional state is the second reason for being scared to be hungry. When they do finally get to eat, they don’t trust they will make good decisions around food, and thus starts a (sometimes perpetual) cycle of fear, eating, self-punishment, eating….

What gives? This kind of hunger isn’t hunger at all – it’s blood sugar. Whenever we eat too little, or too little of nutrients that regulate our appetite hormones (nutrients such as protein, fibre and fat) at a meal, it is going to cause our blood sugar to drop and – in some instances – drop too rapidly. This response from our blood sugar sends an alarm signal to our brain that we are in danger (or potential danger) of having no fuel on board. In evolutionary times, this could have meant almost certain death: we wouldn’t have fuel to either fight for our life or run for our life. There may be no sabre-tooth tigers lurking around in everyday life now, but our body’s genetic blueprint hasn’t changed in that regard. Those ringing alarm bells drive us to search for food and do it fast – hence the rapid change in our physical and emotional state. The type of food our brain tells us to seek out is that which is going to deliver quick energy – sweet or starchy food. That is what will bring our blood sugar back to within normal range and get us out of the state of emergency our brain was experiencing. The problem is, though, is that the type of food we go for is the same as what got us into the blood sugar position in the first place.

No wonder you are scared to be hungry, and you feel you can’t trust yourself around food. While one option is to eat frequently (thus, almost to prevent being hungry), this isn’t the best approach. Every time you eat, you send signals to your body that you’ve taken on board fuel, therefore causing changes in your blood sugar levels and creating a hormonal environment that is more favourable to fat gain. In addition, it’s likely the types of food you are snacking on are those which created this blood sugar problem in the first instance (this is not your fault! We’ll blame the 80s-early 2000s for that, and the message to eat ‘six small meals a day’*). They may not be high in free sugar (ie ‘junk’ foods), but they could well be low in fat, fibre or protein, all potent regulators of our blood sugar. Cue the creation of the same problem as if you had just eaten a high sugar snack. Your body doesn’t know the difference without a good amount of the aforementioned nutrients to go alongside it.

If not ‘eat more often’, then what? Eat more but eat less often. The main driver of this is fluctuating blood sugar levels, therefore to combat this we need to fill up more at our meal times (be it 1, 2 or 3 times per day) to avoid a dramatic drop in them. The approach to eating I advise takes care of that for you. As I said, this physiological response is because you’ve eaten too little (or too little of the right** foods) in the first place. Your blood sugars won’t rise to the same extent, will be buffered by the additional protein, fibre and fat, so will decrease at a far slower rate, thus there will be no alarm bells ringing, and no stress response. Hunger will come on gradually (perhaps 4 hours after a meal) and, if you were called into a meeting, you would be able to concentrate on the situation at hand, rather than be distracted, irritated or hangry.

And what if you fall into the other camp, when you are never hungry? The main reason for this is often due to the first scenario – you are pre-emptively eating, thus never allowing yourself the opportunity to digest food and wait for your body to send signals to your brain that you are hungry. More often than not, this is because you are scared to be hungry (so, back to the first reason then). However, there is also another factor I see that impacts on appetite – and it is stress. If you are in an elevated state of ‘doing’, and are constantly on the move, stress hormones can suppress your appetite – therefore eating is somewhat of a chore, something that you feel you should do and therefore you don’t enjoy it. Conversely, you don’t eat which leads you to overeating later in the day when you are finally able to relax. Interestingly, a lot of clients report that, in both scenarios I have described, they continue to eat after having a normal (or larger) size meal because they are not satisfied.  This is usually despite the fact that physically they feel full, but emotionally they are somewhat empty. If you don’t take the time to enjoy your food (and it’s something you derive pleasure from) then no amount of additional food at this time is going to make you feel better. In fact, most people report feeling worse. Taking the time to sit down and enjoy your food helps you to listen to your body and eat when you are truly hungry.

*like anyone knew what six small meals a day were – most examples were enough to feed a 110 kg body builder, not a person trying to maintain a size they felt comfortable at.

**foods higher in protein, fibre, with added fat for satiety.

 

very-hungry-caterpillar-teaching-plan-lesson-plan-16-9

This caterpillar was, in fact, very hungry. (PC: scholastic.com)

The non-food reasons you’re constantly craving…

Cravings. We all have them at one time or another, and while a lot of it can largely be mitigated by building your diet around a foundation of good quality protein, fat and fibre, with the addition of some unrefined carbohydrates, for whatever reason sometimes even this is not enough to withstand the temptation to snack on something you wouldn’t otherwise grab. Not only is it distracting to be thinking about food, cravings do in fact reduce cognitive ability– affecting our ability to recall information.

Why is it that sometimes your energy and appetite is well supported by your diet, and other times they are not? Well, first – it’s not all about the food (obviously!) Here are other reasons for an increase in cravings that are often overlooked.

  1. Lack of sleep: this is one that we can all attest to: a bad night’s sleep makes it more difficult to resist the call of that raw vegan cake in the local café. That’s because even one night of sleep restriction (less than 6 hours of sleep) will affect the feedback-reward loop in your brain that makes you crave sweet (or salty, fatty) processed food. Lack of sleep will enhance the reward factor, leading to a more intense craving AND you’ll gain even more pleasure from eating it. Like anything that feeds into this pathway, though, the amount needed to satisfy the craving will increase the more you have it. One night’s rubbish sleep will also increase the body’s cortisol response – sending signals to your liver to dump glucose into the blood stream – this shift in blood sugar levels causes other hormones to kick into gear (such as insulin) and in no time at all, blood sugar levels drop -causing you to crave foods that are high in carbohydrate to bring them back up to within normal range. This fluctuation in blood sugar creates highs and lows in your energy levels, but ultimately leaves you feeling far worse than you would have otherwise.
  2. Stress – see above for why a situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed causes you to crave sweet or fatty, salty food and the effects of this. The situation itself, though, can also drive you to the vending machine outside of any blood sugar changes. Eating in response to stress is a distraction technique that will take your mind off what is going on around you, and many find themselves eating food they don’t want to eat, in amounts they don’t want to be consuming, as a way to avoid the stressor.
  3. Coffee – as a stimulant, coffee may affect the food choices of people who are sensitive to its effect. If you are sensitive to its stimulant effects, then the changes in stress hormones may cause the same blood sugar management issues that I’ve discussed earlier. However, it coffee can affect food choices in another way too – recent researchhas found that caffeine can dull our perception of a sweet taste by blocking the adenosine receptors in our brain. The same mechanism that increases our alertness may drive a preference for sugary foods as we don’t get the expected level of sweetness.
  4. Alcohol – another blood sugar disruptor, alcohol also causes a disinhibition of behaviour. While people can easily forgo a platter of food with no alcohol onboard, 1-2 drinks later and suddenly we don’t really care if we eat 1 cracker or 10. Alcohol increases the release of dopamine in the brain, much like eating sugar does. Over time we become less sensitive to the effects of dopamine and require more of a substance to help us get the same effect. This is another reason why we may have sugar cravings after drinking alcohol. Finally, to point out the obvious, alcohol disrupts sleep patterns and there is a disinhibition of the different sleep phases. We don’t get the type of sleep that is most restorative and therefore wake up feeling unrefreshed and lacking in sleep. I’ve explained above the effects that this has on our food cravings, and alcohol will further compound the issue.
  5. Hormones. When oestrogen levels drop, serotonin levels also drop (as serotonin requires oestrogen for its production). For some women, then, shifts in hormones across the month, and heading into menopause can trigger cravings where they would otherwise not have any. So that sugar/chocolate thing? It’s a physiological drive that can be super hard to ignore.

What to do about your cravings?

Obviously, the first thing I’m going to mention address the situations or triggers above. The more you prioritise good sleep hygiene and stress management, the better you are able to manage your diet, it is that simple. I’ve talked about both of these in more detail here and here, with tips to help you nail both. Further, consider your eating habits around the consumption of coffee and alcohol. If your intake is increasing, or at a level that you think might be too high for you, cutting down on both of these could help. If you’re unsure then ask a good friend their opinion, as it can help to have objective advice from someone you trust.

The second thing? Read this article I wrote last year, detailing some helpful food strategies and supplements which may support blood sugar and cravings, including chromium, 5Htp, magnesium and cinnamon.

The third thing? Use a distraction technique. Sometimes cravings are associated with a time of day, with boredom or (as mentioned) stress. Put some strategies in place to help offset the craving. Too often, the psychology around eating foods we crave is about ‘giving in’ – this brings about a sense of failure and people berate themselves for a lack of willpower. The food that we’re eating in this scenario is often eaten standing up, in front of the fridge or the pantry, is eaten quickly (for fear of being caught) and then brings about a sense of shame that we couldn’t ‘control ourselves’. Often, too, the mindset of ‘I’ve blown it’ leads to further unhelpful thought patterns – such as ‘I’ve had one biscuit, I might as well consume the entire packet as it’s the last time I’ll ever eat biscuits.’ Let’s be real: this won’t be the last time you’ll eat biscuits. And you haven’t ruined anything.

A distraction strategy might include (as it does for some clients of mine): having two glasses of water, brushing your teeth and getting outside for a brisk walk (of even 2 minutes). Then, if you are still craving something (or feeling like eating something), make the decision to have it. BUT you must eat it in a way that allows you to engage fully in the process. Get a plate or bowl, serve yourself some of whatever it is, then sit down and (where possible) using cutlery to eat it slowly, savouring the flavours. And really enjoy it. Then move on.

If you need a good food strategy to help mitigate your cravings, check out my real food meal plans – providing a 28 day meal plan each month along with personalised nutrition coaching to help meet your goals.

shutterstock_205784116

Junk food that’s not off the hook.