Your Health

Hunger game

Learn how to control your appetite

Learn how to control your appetite

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Summer 2015

Appetite is defined as a desire to satisfy a need such as eating food.

But as simple as that may sound, your appetite is actually governed by a complicated process, one that can be influenced by a variety of factors that determine how much or how little you eat.

To understand how that process works, it helps to be aware of the gut-brain connection.

When your stomach is empty, it releases a hormone called grehlin, which sends a message to the hunger and fullness centre of the brain, called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus has appetite receptors that give us the urge to eat. After eating, a hormone called leptin is released from the stomach and intestines. Leptin suppresses appetite by travelling to the hypothalamus in the brain to say you are satiated or full. Normally, this feeling of fullness causes you to stop eating and not think about food for several hours.

Based on this, we know that hormones play an important role in the ability to regulate appetite and, therefore, weight. But what other factors can drive appetite?

Poor appetite can result from physical disease like cancer, emotions such as grief over a loss, or mental health issues such as depression.

Stress can also play a role in reducing appetite. Food isn't as tempting when you're anxious, worried or feeling hopeless. In these instances, there is often unintentional weight loss due to lack of motivation or energy to eat or not feeling well enough to prepare food or eat.

Many people want to know what causes them to have an excessive appetite, resulting in overeating, feeling out-of-control and gaining unwanted weight. It is obvious we eat for many other reasons besides appetite - to celebrate, to be social, to relieve boredom and loneliness are a few examples.

But, what you eat and how you eat it can also affect how much you eat. Making a few small adjustments may help prevent overeating, and you might even end up enjoying your food more.

Here are a few things to consider:

Choose foods with volume

Studies find we tend to eat about the same amount of food regardless of its calories. Choose foods with a lot of volume compared to energy value. In other words, foods with more water and fibre and less fat, such as fruits, vegetables, broth-type soups and whole grains, will fill you up with fewer calories than low-volume, calorie-dense foods such as doughnuts. Also, drinking something hot like tea or a cup of soup cools your appetite by making you feel full.

Look for proteins

Make sure you are eating foods with protein like nuts, legumes and fish regularly because there is scientific evidence that protein foods increase satiety more than carbohydrates. Increasing intake of low-fat dairy foods is another good way of getting protein into your diet. In addition, some research shows that whey and casein, the protein found in dairy products, are appetite suppressors. 

Try smaller plates and bowls

Some people use visual cues rather than hunger to tell them when they've had enough to eat. In an experiment at Cornell University, people who ate from soup bowls that automatically refilled without them knowing it consumed more food, but reported they did not feel more full than the control group. Food and beverages served on smaller plates and bowls and tall, narrow glasses give the illusion of larger portions. Try not to eat from the bag or the box. Instead, put a portion into a small bowl. Chances are you won't eat as much.

Pay attention to how you feel

Satiety is when you feel ready to stop eating. As Ellyn Satter points out in her book Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family, it is when all the body feelings that say you want to eat go away. Food still tastes good even after you're not hungry anymore, but eventually your appetite disappears and you feel full. If you keep on eating past being full, you will begin to feel stuffed and won't be able to eat another bite. Most people don't like that feeling because it is uncomfortable. Try to get in touch with your body's hunger and fullness cues and eat when hungry and stop when full. Infants and children are very good at this.

Don't get distracted

Studies also show that eating while distracted - watching TV, driving, reading, working - can make you eat more. That's because you aren't paying as much attention to your hunger and satiety signals. Since it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to get the message your stomach is comfortable and you've had enough, you need to eat slowly. This gives your brain a chance to catch up with your stomach and you'll be less likely to overeat. It also makes you more aware of the smell, taste and texture of foods leading to more enjoyment. This is called mindful eating.

Avoid short-term highs

Do you crave soothing comfort foods such as ice cream and cake, particularly when feeling down or lacking energy? One reason for this is that foods high in simple carbohydrates and fat increase levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that elevates mood and is related to pleasure. In the short term, eating foods high in sugar and fat may make you feel better, but a steady diet of comfort foods may lead to weight gain and increase your risk of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. It's important to be able to enjoy your favourite comfort foods from time to time, as long as they don't take over a balanced diet. In the long run, a varied diet full of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean meats, nuts and legumes, and low-fat dairy and substitutes will give you more energy and make you feel better. 

Get your sleep

A lack of sleep can also cause appetite changes. According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, people who slept only four hours a night for two nights had a decrease in production of the fullness hormone, leptin, and an increase in the hunger hormone, grehlin, compared with those who got more rest. Sleep-deprived people in the study also reported an increase in appetite. When we are exhausted we tend to crave comfort foods that are high in simple carbohydrates and fat because these foods cause the release of serotonin, the brain chemical that elevates mood. To get the energy boost you need, reach for a combination of complex carbohydrates and protein for long-lasting energy. Fibre is digested slower than simple sugars, and adding protein keeps you fuller longer. Try to get the right amount of sleep for you because it will help control your appetite.

There are many other factors that affect appetite, and reactions can be different depending on the person. For example, alcohol can cause a decrease or spike in blood sugar, resulting in appetite changes. This is often why people snack on foods like nuts while drinking or sometimes feel hungry after drinking more than usual. Stress can cause a loss of appetite in some, yet will have the opposite effect on others. Constant stress causes your body to produce high amounts of hormones like cortisol, which over time can boost appetite causing you to overeat. Yoga, meditation or going for a walk can help keep tension in check. 

The reasons we eat are complex and there is no right or wrong way to do it. But there are choices. Most people do well with planned meals and snacks. Learning to pay attention to what your body is telling your brain will help you to eat when hungry and stop when full.

Cheryl Ogaranko is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: March / April 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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