Starving? Read this and you won’t be.

One of the biggest downfalls I see with diet is the lack of protein across the course of the day. A typical pattern I see when I talk to people about their food intake and their appetite is:

“I’m ‘good’ all day, but can’t control myself come 5pm”

OR

“I’m fine all day, but after dinner regardless of how full I feel, I’m not ‘satisfied’ ”

OR

“I’m ‘good’ till Wednesday then it’s all downhill from there”

Any of this ring true? The reason I bring this up is that many people report being absolutely starving, constantly thinking about their next meal and (more often than not) their frustration with being unable to lose body fat as they view their diet as being pretty good. When we delve further, I see quite clearly that when people are “good” it generally means they are undereating during the day, and this leads to almost a binge-like pattern later in the evening, or just an inability to stop snacking. A typical pattern might be:

  • Breakfast: cereal + fruit + trim milk (cos, you know, fat is bad)
  • MT piece of fruit/trim latte OR nothing
  • Lunch: chicken salad perhaps 50g chicken, no-fat dressing, no carbs (hey, we got rid of them back in the 90s!)
  • AT: nothing, or a carrot or similar
  • 5pm: a small handful of nuts, then a slightly larger one.
  • 13pm: a carrot. And hummus
  • 21pm: a few spoons of PB,
  • 47pm: cheese while making dinner
  • 10pm: leftovers off the kids plate,
  • 32pm: dinner (full!)
  • 20pm: piece dark chocolate
  • 35pm: bite of icecream *well I’ve blown it now*
  • 40pm: bowl of icecream *I’ll be better tomorrow*
  • 10pm: 3 rows of chocolate…..

Does this look familiar? While they may be low calorie/fat/carb during the day, people with this dietary pattern will generally consume more calories than they realise in that pre-post dinner window. This isn’t just about calories and fat loss though. Many people also suffer from anxiety around their food intake, gut or digestive issues from consuming more food than what is comfortable, sleep issues due to an excess of food close to bedtime, and unhelpful self-talk related to their perceived lack of control. This last point can be particularly damaging to long term success, as for some this can perpetuate feelings of failure and subsequent behaviours which make it difficult to change in the long term. Other long term consequences of a low protein and low dietary energy early in the day include reduced muscle mass, reduced metabolic rate, low mood and a greater propensity for fat gain in the long run.

How to prevent this?

Eat more protein at the start of the day – it is more satisfying and is digested a LOT slower than other nutrients, and will prevent overeating later in the day. What you eat at the start of the day really impacts how you feel and what you eat at the end of the day. Many experts in the field of protein research view 0.8-0.9g protein per kilogram of bodyweight, based on nitrogen balance studies, are likely underestimating overall protein requirements. This is especially true for those in the older age bracket and for people wanting to drop body fat where studies such as this have found that 2.4g protein per kg bodyweight can help maintain metabolic rate and protect muscle mass. Clinically (which, to my mind, is as important as what the literature says), very few of my clients thrive on a lower protein diet. Athletes (FYI) are recommended around 1.7-2.2g per kg bodyweight and in general a higher protein intake will benefit mood, sleep, blood sugar and appetite.

So what does 2.4g per kilogram look like for the myriad of people out there wanting to drop body fat? IE if you weigh 75kg, your protein intake should be around 180g. If we consider the standard protein sources available, then it might look a little like this (amount of protein in brackets):

  • Breakfast: 4 eggs (29.2g) – with vegetables, scrambled, cooked in butter, coconut oil or olive oil
  • Lunch: Medium chicken thigh 146g (34g), sliced up into salad with olive oil dressing and lemon
  • AT: ½ cup of cottage cheese (18g) with pesto mixed through
  • Dinner: Medium steak (186g) with roast vegetables 57.3g

Well, that is 139.4g of protein per day, around 1.86g per kilogram body weight, leaving an additional 40g of protein being derived from plant sources. You can see that you have to eat a lot of food to get your protein in – which is completely different from the ‘being good’ scenario above.

While the run down of foods to eat above may freak you out if you’re used to a cereal and salad diet – don’t be scared. If your dietary pattern looks much as I described above, allowing more protein earlier in the day will have a huge influence on your overall intake – the pattern of grazing late afternoon into the evening will change. I promise. I’ve written about the protein leverage theory before when discussing the National Heart Foundation’s food guidance system (click here for that post) – that the body has an innate requirement for protein and will drive appetite until this is requirement is met. If you eat a lower protein diet, research suggests you may eat more overall calories (and calories from refined carbohydrate) compared to people consuming a moderate protein diet. I know many people don’t like eating more food earlier as they don’t believe they have the willpower to stop. I recently wrote about the main physiological driver of ‘lack of willpower’, and eating more protein will kill this response pretty quick. You just have to try it. When combined with fibre, a bit of fat and carbohydrate that takes longer to digest, protein is (to my mind) the nutrient to focus on for controlling appetite, hunger levels and helping maintain an optimal body composition.

Protein quality definitely counts here too. This measure has been revised recently to reflect updated knowledge regarding the digestibility of protein, however regardless of technique used to establish bioavailability of protein source, animal protein consistently scores higher than plant protein in terms of protein quality (with 0.75 as a cut-off for good digestibility – see here for some food-based tables). This will have implications for their effect on appetite (i.e. ability to keep you satisfied). In part this is due to the presence of anti-nutritive factors in plant based proteins (such as lecthins, tannins, phytates etc) that prevent our absorption of them (see here for a comprehensive report on the digestibility of protein). This is not to say that plant protein doesn’t count. I have many clients who are vegetarian and, for them we ensure a good intake of eggs, cheese and protein powder (whey, pea or egg white protein powder for a good variety). People following a vegan diet are a little more challenged. While they will get protein from legumes, nuts, edamame beans, tempeh and seeds, I recommend (again) protein powders, and incorporating a variety of these (such as pea, hemp and sacha incha) in their daily diet. These are lower in overall protein compared to, say, whey (sacha incha has around 12g per 20g serve (60% protein), compared to whey protein (17-18g, or 85-90%). But if we are looking to increase protein across the course of the day, these will certainly be useful.

So…what about you?

If you’re a numbers person, think about your goals (weight loss, muscle maintenance etc) and shoot for the grams per protein I’ve mentioned above. Use Easy Diet Diary, My Net Diary, Fat Secret or Cronometer to find out how much protein is in the foods that you’re eating, and what the distribution of it is across the course of the day. Then use the information provided to plan for a higher protein intake and a more even distribution. At the very least, aim for around 25-30g of protein in your meals. If you’re not a numbers person, then use tables like these to give you an indication of where protein is in food. Aiming for:

  • 3-4 eggs at breakfast, or 120g protein-based food or 1-2 fist-sized worth; and
  • at least 120-150g of protein-based food at lunch (or 1-2 fist-sized); and closer to
  • 160-200g protein-based food at dinner (or 1-2 fist-sized); and

shooting for the higher numbers the more active or the bigger you are and THEN base the remainder of your macronutrient intake (carbohydrate and fat) around this – and don’t forget the abundance of non-starchy vegetables. If you want some help with this, get into contact with me or sign up for my online nutrition coaching – this is pretty much how I build my meals. While initially you may feel hungry, this will likely be habit rather than actual hunger (or a hormonal response, as your body’s appetite hormones work on a circadian rhythm and ghrelin may well be released as your body is used to eating at that time. Brushing your teeth is one of the best things to do to cut that hunger. If you wait it out, it will eventually pass and you’ll easily eradicate the feeling of hunger, the grazing later in the day and regain the feeling of control around your food (rather than letting the food control you).

protein_world_hunger_buster_thumb

Thankfully, it hasn’t come to this. There is an easier way to control your appetite… (PC healthycompare.com/diet-pills)

No willpower when it comes to food? Read this.

‘ The chocolate bar calls my name. No, really – I can’t NOT eat it if it’s in the house.’

Many people I talk to lament that they can’t control themselves when it comes to sugar or junk food – that they don’t have the willpower to say ‘no’ despite their best efforts. This implies that they have all the control. Now I’m not saying there isn’t an element of discipline that may initially be required when changing the way you eat, especially for people who have lost touch with their appetite and satiety signals which can happen when the food eaten drives unfavourable hormone responses in the body; a phenomenon which is common in the current food environment. However, there are other more powerful forces at play here. Your No physiology has far more say in your food decisions than you think, and I’m going to cover one of the main ones I see (and one of the easiest ones to correct) that will help people control their food intake, rather than let their food control them: the blood sugar rollercoaster

This is one of the biggest drivers of cravings in my experience. The type of diet that many people follow is either carbohydrate heavy or devoid of protein and fat. Both situations are going to set your blood sugar up for rise and fall of (what can be) epic proportions. When carbohydrate is broken down into the bloodstream into glucose, this takes our blood glucose level out of homeostasis (normal). One thing our body likes is homeostasis – a blood sugar level too high or too low will send signals to the brain that this needs to be corrected. The greater the fluctuation, the louder this signal is. Insulin is the hormone responsible for removing glucose from the bloodstream to be used immediately for energy or to store it for later use (in our muscles and liver) and return the blood glucose level to homeostasis (normal). However, a meal that has a large amount of carbohydrate (a high carbohydrate load) will accelerate this process, as will a meal that has minimal protein or fat (even with a lower carbohydrate load, as the proportion of carbohydrate will still be greater). This is because insulin responds first and foremost to carbohydrate, with a minimal response to protein containing foods, and (for most people) a negligible response to foods predominantly containing fat. When this process is accelerated, insulin moves too much glucose into cells and our blood glucose level rapidly drops to below normal (an over-correction). The signal to our brain therefore becomes a panic signal: blood sugar has dipped below normal and needs to be rapidly restored – enter sweet food cravings as our brain recognises these foods are going to return our blood glucose levels back to within that normal range much quicker than, say, a salad. Along with the cravings, we may experience ravenous hunger (where 15 minutes earlier you felt fine), irritability (‘hangry’) and (in particularly bad cases) dizziness, light-headedness, sweating and vision loss.

The quicker the carbohydrates are digested (especially in the absence of fat and /or protein), the higher the rise and fall in blood sugar, and the greater the effects on energy and subsequent cravings for food (and ‘lack of willpower’). You may be fine for the morning and rapidly cave in post 3pm. Or it might be that Monday and Tuesday you are sweet, but by Wednesday you are raiding the kids ‘treat’ box in the pantry.

This isn’t just an issue with regards to blood sugar management and fat loss goals, but more importantly it can make you feel pretty rubbish. So many people start a tirade of negative talk that they weren’t able to say ‘no’ to a paleo muffin or chocolate biscuit, that they have ‘failed again’ and they ‘may as well finish the entire packet as it’s the last time they’ll eat X food again.’ Or their inability to resist a sweet treat clearly indicates they aren’t worthy of whatever health goal or life goal they’ve set themselves, and will eat junk food as a form of punishment (or undereat to try to get it under control), and so starts the rollercoaster ride of the blood sugar crash.

While I’d like to say it’s really easy to figure out which foods are most likely to cause this process, recent research tells us that there is wide individual variation. You are your own best investigator when trying to figure this out. It is useful, of course, to know where carbohydrate comes form in the diet and starting to explore how these foods affect you specifically. You can use an app like Easy Diet Diary, My Net Diary, Fat Secret to help you determine where the carbohydrate is in your usual diet if all of this is new to you. That said, an energy dense, carbohydrate source is more likely to trigger a blood sugar response. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Dates
  • Other dried fruit
  • Honey
  • Rice malt syrup
  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Cereal (including Nutrigrain, Cheerios, most cereals with a Health Star Rating)
  • Honey
  • Coconut sugar
  • Kumara
  • Potato
  • Grapes
  • Fruit juice
  • Vegetable juice with a fruit juice base
  • Vegetable juice with beetroot/carrot base

This doesn’t mean that all of the above choices are bad! At all, however, in the wrong amounts, and when eaten in isolation of other food choices, these are more likely to spike your insulin levels than other foods. Artificial sweeteners do not get a free pass either, unfortunately, with some showing the same physiological effects as sweet foods, eliciting a glucose/insulin response.

So… it’s not willpower, people – it’s physiology.

The easiest and *best* way that helps mitigate this is NOT a supplement. While these can be useful in certain situations or medical conditions, for most people it comes down to food timing and balancing. Protein and fat don’t have the same insulin effect, so they are not going to cause the same blood glucose rollercoaster that carbohydrate does. Incorporating these as the majority of your energy source is going to slow down the digestion of the carbohydrate you eat and the subsequent rise in blood glucose. Without reaching the same ‘highs’, your blood glucose doesn’t have the same drops – and cravings, hunger and crashing energy levels are FAR less likely. Fibre from non-starchy vegetables are another way to have this effect and help maintain a homeostatic state.

Despite what I say, what other experts tell you or what the literature or dietary guidelines tell us, you are your own best investigator when it comes to figuring out what works for you. One of the easiest ways to measure how food affects your blood sugar control is to assess the qualitative signs after eating: do you feel like falling asleep after a carb-based meal? Do you get moody, irritable, ‘hangry’ a couple of hours after eating? Are you fine, fine, fine, STARVING a few hours after eating? These are all good indicators that your blood sugar is in control of your actions (rather than you). From a quantitative perspective, getting a glucometer (finger-prick blood glucose reader) from the pharmacy and testing your blood sugar two hours after eating a particular food or meal is another good way to see how this affects your blood sugar levels. If it lurks above the 7 mmol/L mark at this point, then potentially the carbohdyrate type (or the context with which you ate it) isn’t ideal for you. Remember, this isn’t just about the food you’re eating at that time, it has implications for your food decisions later in the day. This is potentially more important if you find you have ‘no willpower.’ If you need help figuring out what to do from here, contact me for a consultation, we can sort it out.

Finally, pro-tip: when eating a meal, eat the protein and vegetables before tucking into the carbohydrate component. This will lower the post-prandial glucose response and the overall effect on your energy levels, levelling them out as opposed to leading to a crash.