Let’s talk a little about hunger – real vs make believe.
Hunger and the need to eat is a basic human urge, but it can be a tough thing to grasp. A variety of factors, including neurotransmitters and hormones, play into feeling “hungry”. Some of these suppress our appetite, while others boost it. And then there’s others that impact satiety(the feeling of fullness) and stress. And, of course, all of these are managed by our body’s clock.
So what’s happening when we say we’re “hungry”?
Consider that there are two kinds of hunger: physiological and reward-driven. The first is driven by our body’s natural instinct to find energy to survive, while the latter is psychological, influenced by things like smell, sight, stress, social situations and daily life.
The problem for many people is often they struggle to differentiate between the two. Many times the question becomes – are you REALLY hungry or are you REWARDING yourself w/ food because of something you see, smell or feel? Research tells us that we can control the brain’s reward system to help with body composition(less fat, more muscle) goals. Just remember that hunger can’t be shut down, the goal should be to contain it!
If you’re like most, maybe you find yourself eating out of emotion instead of the need to fuel your body. If so, check out these 6 “Warrior” strategies we employ at TFW to control cravings and shrink our waistlines.
WARRIOR STRATEGY #1 – KNOW YOUR NUMBERS
Counting calories can be tedious work, but it’s important to understand that true physiological hunger comes from an imbalance between calories in and calories out. Even though it may take you a bit of math to figure your total daily calorie consumption and expenditure, doing so can help you identify and ignore reward driven hunger. Try writing down everything you eat and drink for a few days, then add up the calories. If you’re within your target number but not losing weight, then you know your hunger is mostly reward-driven. If weight loss is a goal, then try cutting your calories by up to 500 per day. Only eating when you’re truly hungry will probably get you there.
WARRIOR STRATEGY #2 – EAT MORE
Yes, sometimes eating more can help you weigh less. TFW Nutritionist, Kym Wroble, a Registered Dietician and Grad Assistant at St. Louis University, says that “filling up on lower-calorie foods(such as a vegetable salad tossed with a small amount of dressing), at the start of a meal can help you eat less of higher-calorie foods(like steak, potatoes, bread or pasta). The hope is that by filling up on lower-calorie foods first, you will ultimately consume fewer calories throughout the entire meal. Also, eating regular meals and snacks can help with weight loss by helping keep physiological hunger levels in check and curb reward-driven cravings for less healthy foods. It also helps maintain high energy levels so you stay active throughout he day.”
WARRIOR STRATEGY #3 – DE-STRESS
A lot of people end up swallowing their stress. When our bodies are stressed, we release hormones which can interfere with natural blood sugar and insulin levels. While these hormones are good fuel for “fight or flight” situations, it’s unlikely you’re actually sprinting for your life. It’s more likely that daily life creates stress, which in turn ramps up our reward-driven hunger pangs and causes us to crave and consume fatty, salty, and sugary foods, like french fries, chips and candy.
Two helpful ways to deal with stress are to be mindful of stressful situations and lay out a plan to navigate through them. Try allowing yourself to feel angry or stressed for 10-20 minutes instead of turning to food. Hopefully, those emotions will subside and so will your reward-driven cravings. If not, try to do something active. Exercise is the greatest stress reliever on the planet. Daily exercise releases hormones opposite those that are released when stress arrives, and actually helps our brains deal with stress.
WARRIOR STRATEGY #4 – EAT MORE PROTEIN
Consuming high-protein meals can reduce reward-driven hunger simply because satiety remains elevated for a longer period of time afterwards. Make sure to consume 20-30 grams of protein at every meal, especially in the morning for breakfast and your afternoon snack. Studies show that people who consume high-protein meals during these times tend to have lower reward-driven hunger throughout the day.
Looking for a great, high protein breakfast or snack option? Try a cup of plain greek yogurt with 1 tablespoon of flax or chia seeds and 1/4 cup of berries!
WARRIOR STRATEGY #5 – TRAIN WITH INTENSITY AND INTELLIGENCE
Losing weight needs to be done intelligently. Avoid crash dieting and think about shifting your calories in and calories out equation gradually. Try to reduce daily calories by no more than 500 per day, while burning a bit more with higher intensity exercise. When we exercise with intensity on a regular basis, it gives us the “wiggle room” to eat a little more and keeps our physiological hunger normal. Intense exercise also helps us improve food choices and resist reward-driven cravings to eat junk. Even the worst eaters most likely won’t ruin a great workout with a trip through the fast food line for their post-workout meal.
The simple rule here is that you’ve got to reduce calories gradually AND crack a good sweat 3-5 times per week. Keep exercising after you’ve hit your target weight, even as the law of diminishing returns settles in. Weight loss isn’t forever, but health and fitness is.
WARRIOR STRATEGY #6 – GET MORE SLEEP
Sufficient sleep is critical to overall health and fitness, both physically and mentally.
It is no coincidence that the rise in obesity and lifestyle diseases runs parallel to a rise in sleep deprivation. Nearly 1/3 of all Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep every day. Tired people tend to overeat just as much as those who are stressed, creating a viscous cycle of reward-driven cravings for foods that offer up a quick “jolt” of energy, like simple carbs, sugars, energy drinks and other junk.
As much as we’d like to think that the solution is coffee and green tea, the only REAL way to have the energy and awareness to honor proper nutrition for better body composition is to get at least 7hrs of sleep every night. So if you’re alarm goes off at 6am, you should be relaxed and in bed by 10:45(Unless it’s the weekend. Then we should all stay out late, dancing)
Remember that reward-driven hunger is a false signal. Most likely, you’re not starving – it’s just a habit. Not sure if your hunger is physiological or reward-driven? Ask yourself the following questions…
1 -Are you craving a Kit Kat bar or would you eat ANYTHING? The Kit Kat would be reward-driven. ANYTHING usually points to true hunger.
2 – Is your hunger causing physical symptoms, like stomach growl or tightness of the throat? If so, it’s probably time to eat. If not, it’s reward-driven.
3 – Have you eaten in the past 4-5hrs? Yes = reward-driven. No = physiological
Still wondering how to avoid reward-driven eating? Try these tactics…
1 – Craving finger food? Dive into any activity that occupies your hands for a bit
2 – Eyeballing junk food? Ask yourself – am I feeding my body or my mind? Do I really NEED this Kit Kat bar, or do I really WANT it? What is the benefit?
3 – Out and about? Be mindful of and avoid your “triggers” – certain smells, people and places can pull us off track. Distance yourself from these situations whenever possible.
At the end of the day, if weight loss is the goal and you’re not seeing results, you might need to change your approach. Follow these tips, get control of your brain’s reward-driven system, and GET LEAN!
Zach Brace – Owner, TFW Central