Are you trying to lose weight but your appetite just won’t play along? Do you need to rely on willpower to control your appetite and cravings? It doesn’t have to be this difficult. If you are relying on willpower to get you through the day chances are you are not controlling your body’s physiology properly and you are thereby setting yourself up for failure. So how do we need to eat to control the physiology correctly?
Keep it simple with these rules:
- Breakfast is a non-negotiable
If you’re not eating breakfast the rest of your day will become more difficult to control because the body will try to catch up on these missed nutrients later in the day. This will manifest as hunger and cravings through the day, large dinner portions or late evening craving and snacking.
- Eat regularly in the day
There is no one correct rule as to how many meals and snacks we should eat in a day, but the general guideline is to eat every 3-5 hours, according to hunger (see ‘the body’s signals’ below). Most people do better when they eat smaller meals and snacks more often as it is easier to keep the energy levels and blood sugar levels constant. Find the right routine for you, and have snacks on hand for when you do get hungry and a meal is still an hour or 3 away. Eating regularly, and never getting too hungry, is the key.
- Ensure your meals contain energy as well as lean protein and/or healthy plant fat
The energy (carbohydrate such as fruit, legumes, starchy vegetables) portion of the meal helps to keep the blood sugar levels constant, but with it you need to add some lean protein (such as fish, chicken, eggs) and/or plant fat (such as avocado, nuts, seeds) so that the energy food will be digested slowly and the energy will be released into the blood slowly. Protein and fat help to sustain your energy levels for longer.
- Eat enough, especially in first half of the day
Many people eat too little when they are being ‘good’ and are trying to lose weight. And although you will lose weight nicely to start with, your body’s metabolism will slow down to adjust for the low energy intake. This will result in future difficulties in maintaining the weight loss. When you eat too little your blood sugar levels tend to be on the low side and your body will send out hunger and craving signals. It is important to eat enough, especially in the first half of the day as this will set you up for better blood sugar control throughout the day.
- Drink plenty of water
When you don’t drink enough water it is easy to confuse thirst and hunger, leading to a greater consumption of food. Try to drink plain water, which you can flavour lightly with some lemon pieces, mint leaves, berries, orange slices etc. Keep a water bottle with you at all times to cue you to drink regularly.
The Body’s Signals
Hunger is an important and natural signal; a reminder to keep our bodies regularly fuelled. But where you feel this signal is an indication as to whether you should or should not eat. If it is the body sending out a signal (empty or hollow feeling in the stomach area), you should have something to eat, but if it comes from the head (a thought or smell or just bored etc.), you need to learn to go do something nurturing instead.
On the other side of hunger is satiety. Satiety is the body’s signal that it is satisfied, that you have had enough to eat. If you’re not sure what this feels like, start eating more slowly and mindfully. Mindful eating is when you are present, when you are enjoying each and every bite of the food. Remember that it takes at least 20 minutes for the brain to register that food has arrived, so eating slowly and mindfully is important as it helps you feel full and satisfied. Your mouth has also spent time enjoying the food, so you won’t go looking for more tasty food later.
Many people eat because of mouth hunger. This means you are using food to fulfil some of your needs. It is important to start distinguishing which hungers are real and which can actually be satisfied by doing nice things for yourself. Write yourself a nurture list i.e. a list of things that you can do when you just want to eat. Examples include:
- Sit outside in the warm sunshine
- Enjoy a cup of tea or coffee
- Read a book or magazine
- Go for a walk and enjoy nature
- Do a puzzle or play a game
- Phone a friend or family member
- Take a warm bath with some oils or bubble bath (ok, not for Capetonians at the moment!)
- Listen to your favourite music
- Lie on the grass and watch the clouds go by
- Just sit and do absolutely nothing
Once you start looking after yourself properly again (eating in a way to control your physiology, learning hunger and satiety signals and nurturing yourself), your appetite will naturally become more controlled and will not feel like an out of control monster anymore.