Do you have a love/hate relationship with your appetite? Do you have some days where you eat breakfast and find yourself hungry an hour or two later? Do you have other days where you don’t feel hungry until well into the afternoon? What’s causing you to feel ravenous one day and content and full the next? Not surprisingly, science can give us some answers, and we’ll see what strategies we can use to help keep our appetites in check.
Let’s begin with defining satiety. I like how Dr. David Katz puts it, “Satiety is about staying comfortably full." Some of our biggest influencers in that regard are our hormones. Leptin and ghrelin are the primary hormones involved with appetite and satiety and have somewhat opposite effects in that leptin decreases hunger and ghrelin increases hunger. There are a handful of other hormones known to be involved with satiety too. Together they respond to your stomach and intestines stretching when you eat, determine the rate of gut-emptying, and also dictate whether to burn what you ate or store it as fat. There is fascinating research happening on how we can positively influence and manipulate these hormones for our benefit. We’ll tie some of those recommendations together at the end.
Next comes our brain—like some many things in life, it’s mind over matter. For starters, when you eat, be mindful of your meal or snack versus watching television, checking emails, or studying at the same time. The more distracted you are, the more food it will take to feel satisfied. Then there is that popular expression that we eat with our eyes as well as with our stomachs. We psychologically feel more satisfied if we feel we have a bigger portion of something. To take advantage of this, use small plates and bowls. A smaller portion of lasagna looks much bigger on a small plate vs a big dinner plate. Finally, adopt the Japanese principle of “hara hachi bu” which means eating until you are 80% full. As americans we are conditioned to eat until our plate is clean or until we are stuffed. With practice we can begin to sense stomach pressure when we eat, and know we are at that 80% full stage. That is the point to put the fork down or push the plate away.
So what should you do and eat to maximize satiety? There is little argument that protein contributes to satiety much better than either of the other two sources of macronutrients—carbs or fat. Begin your day with a breakfast that is high in protein. An omelette or scrambled eggs with vegetables is ideal. Also, try to eat 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal to help you stay satisfied and prevent the munchies between meals. If you eat carbs, make sure they are fiber-rich such as beans, whole grain bread or cereal, and fruit. Opt for healthy sources of fat such as those found in salmon, nuts, or avocados. They are both filling and nutritious. Remember to eat slowly and mindfully with few distractions. Finally, go to bed early and get enough sleep. Studies have repeatedly shown that when you don’t get enough sleep, your appetite-regulating hormones of leptin and ghrelin are adversely impacted.
Ideally we’d all like to eat a moderate amount of food that helps us stay healthy, trim, and energized. For certain, what drives us to eat is complex with many mitigating factors and circumstances. We don’t have all the answers yet, but employing some of the suggestions listed above is a good place to start.