If you often find that you eat only to notice your stomach screaming in hunger an hour later, you may be left wondering why. Even after a seemingly sufficient meal, it happens to the best of us.
Most of the time, you may think hunger and overeating have an obvious cause, like not eating enough fiber and protein or seeing one too many commercials for tempting foods. The reality, though, is the reason you often stare down at a plate where only crumbs remain yet feel unsatisfied can be much less obvious than that.
Appetite — which we can define simply as the desire to eat — is a complex phenomenon involving physiological, psychological and sociological factors. Over time, the causes of your cravings and eating beyond what is necessary can contribute not only to unintentional weight gain, but can also leave you feeling less satisfied with what you’re eating.
If this is your struggle, it might be about time to get your appetite back in line with healthier eating patterns. The following steps will help overcome the underlying culprits of overeating once and for all.
1. You’re Skimping on Sleep
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that poor sleep can be linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and other chronic health conditions. It also appears to be a risk factor for weight gain. Perhaps a big reason for these connections is the impact that a lack of proper shut-eye has on our eating habits.
A recent study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics using data from nearly 20,000 adults aged 20 to 60 years enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES 2007-18) found that individuals who get less than seven hours of sleep tended to snack more often — not on apples and carrot sticks, but usually on calorie-dense and sugary snacks with little nutritional value — compared with those who sleep more than seven hours per day. This resulted in a higher daily snack calorie intake.
Staying up later offers more opportunities to eat and let’s face it: At night, most of us aren’t choosing nutritious munchies. Over time, this can contribute to weight creep and poor health. Poor sleep has also been shown to impact a neural mechanism in our brains that increase the desirability of food and to seek out food rewards. So there is a reason why a sleepless night could make a donut seem more desirable. One study discovered that extending the sleeping hours of short sleepers lowered their intake of added sugars. Psychologically, the stress incurred from a disrupted sleep pattern can also drive us to the cookie jar.
So, if you’re struggling to maintain a healthy diet and find yourself indulging in less-than-optimal snacks, perhaps working towards better sleep hygiene is a good place to start. At the very least, you’ll feel well-rested with less brain fog.
2. You’re Concentrating on the Wrong Thing
Much of the eating we do today is distracted eating — in front of the television, smartphones, computer screens and behind steering wheels. This can be a problem when trying to put the brakes on overeating.
When your senses are taken up by an engaging task, you’re less likely to be able to adjust how much food or drink you are taking in. This is the conclusion of a study published in the journal Appetite which provided 120 participants with lower and higher calorie drinks while giving them tasks that demanded both low and high amounts of their attention. People who were fully engaged in a perceptually-demanding task ate roughly the same amount of follow-up chips regardless of whether or not they were initially given a high or low calorie drink. But the people who were engaged in a task that demanded less of their mental power could adjust how much of the additional snack they ate. The people in this group ate 45 percent fewer chips after the higher energy drink than after the lower energy drink.
Separate findings published in Obesity involving 55 adults, mean age of 26 years, revealed that those who ate meals while using media, such as playing video games or watching television, consumed nearly 150 more calories than those who ate without media interaction. Further, research published in Physiology and Behavior found that using a distracting smartphone while noshing can lead to a 15 percent increase in the total number of calories ingested.
What these results suggest is that if you’re eating or drinking while your attention is distracted by a Netflix show or your Instagram feed, you’re less likely to be able to tell how full you feel, which may lead to overeating during the meal as well as later on. Also, distracted eating can encourage mindless speed eating. Meal after meal, this can eventually lead to unwanted weight gain as it results in a delayed realization of fullness. You’re not reading this article while wolfing down your lunch sandwich, are you?
Complete distraction-free eating is not realistic for most of us. But it might be a worthwhile goal to take the necessary steps to make sure the grub in front of you is the center of your attention more often. That could mean keeping the television turned off during mealtime, not inhaling lunch in front of the computer and, like our elbows, keeping the smartphone off the dinner table.
To slow down the pace for better satiety try slicing your food into smaller pieces, putting utensils down between each bite and chewing your food more thoroughly. A study in Frontiers of Psychology discovered that the simple act of chewing, regardless of taste, odor, or actual ingestion, is enough to reduce impulsive eating.
3. You’re Thinking About Your Meal the Wrong Way
Focusing on how tasty your meal is going to be could set you up for poor portion control. Researchers have found that there can be a portion size shift when people change their mindset to concentrate on different types of information when planning their meal. Adopting a health-focused mindset, such as focusing on the nutritional value of a meal or what impact it will have on your goals produces better portion control outcomes than focusing on pleasure or the desire to fill up.
Brain scans reveal that the health-focused mindset approach can trigger activity in the area of the brain linked to self-control. In contrast, during a pleasure mindset condition, there is a heightened response in a taste-processing region of the brain. Also, labeling whatever you’re eating as a “meal” instead of a “snack” in your head looks like a good way to reign in overeating. For instance, scientists have determined that those who had eaten pasta labeled as a “snack” ate more at a test meal later on than when the pasta had been labeled as a “meal.” When we believe we are eating a snack, we may not be as conscious of our consumption.
Whenever assembling a meal or snack, zero in on its healthfulness and how it will impact your body — for better or worse. You can do this also whenever you are ordering food from a restaurant. For example, ignoring the fact that pizza tastes amazing and instead focusing on how it’s likely a calorie bomb may help you resist that third slice. And to overcome snacking breakdown, we can call whatever we’re eating, including just an energy bar or yogurt cup, a meal to help make us more aware of what we’re consuming we don’t overeat later on.
4. You’ve Liquified Too Many of Your Calories
There is nothing wrong with following a hard-charging workout with a protein shake, but it might not be the best idea to wedge too many liquid calories into your diet. A study in the journal Obesity exposed people to the same number of calories in liquid or solid form only to find that post-meal hunger and desire to eat were greater when subjects consumed liquid calories.
It appears that the solid meal leads to a greater drop in levels of the hunger-inducing hormone ghrelin, which could help tame your appetite. Also, fibrous structure in foods like whole fruits helps slow its absorption, which can contribute to greater feelings of satiety.
A similar investigation discovered that when people consumed a high-protein breakfast in beverage form, they had a lower reduction in appetite for a few hours afterward and consumed more at a lunch meal than when they also took in a protein-rich breakfast but in solid form. The takeaway is that the body doesn’t register 300 liquid calories in the same way it does if those 300 calories came in the form of whole food. This could lead to increased hunger and higher overall daily calorie intake. Hence, one reason for the strong association between soda intake and weight gain.
Overall, you want most of your daily calories to come in the form of solid food. (Beverage intake accounts for up to 20 percent of calories in the typical American diet). That means bidding adieu to orange juice in favor of a whole orange, opting for a kale salad instead of green juice and saying sayonara to sweetened drinks like soda for calorie-free options like water or tea. And when you do whip up smoothies, make them nice and thick. A Dutch study discovered that a thick milkshake lead to greater feelings of fullness than a thinner version despite containing only one-fifth of the calories. Call it a case of phantom fullness. For this reason, a bowl of yogurt is likely to quell your hunger more so than a glass of milk.
5. You Eat in the Wrong Order
If you’re a big fan of bread or potatoes, save the best for last. A study from the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City found that when people ate a meal consisting of bread, orange juice, chicken and salad their blood sugar levels were about half as high afterward when the carbs (bread and OJ) were consumed following the protein (chicken) and veg (salad) compared to when the order was reversed.
The protein in chicken and fiber in vegetables likely slows the trickle of the sugar into your bloodstream. Better stabilization of post-meal blood sugar is not only important in slashing diabetes risk, but also can play a role in your energy levels and cravings. A sharper rise in blood glucose can increases your desire to eat more via the brain’s reward circuit. There’s a reason the waiter wants to drop off a bread basket before taking your order. The aforementioned research also discovered that front-loading the meal with chicken and salad boosted levels of the hunger-busting hormone GLP-1 that could leave you with less dessert lust.
The upshot is that it might be worthwhile to try practicing this carbs-last approach at your meals. So that could mean eating your hard-boiled egg before your breakfast oatmeal or devouring your salmon and steamed broccoli before digging into the brown rice.