Andrew Siegel, MD Blog #112
Hunger is one of our most basic and primal urges and a fundamental part of our hard-wired engineering in order to ensure adequate intake of calories, energy, and nutrition for the purpose of survival of the individual. It is one of nature’s clever “bait and switch” mechanisms: we think we are satisfying an urge, but we are really fueling up to stoke our metabolic processes and provide fodder for cellular growth and maintenance.
Hunger is functionally based upon chemicals including hormones and neurotransmitters—for example, ghrehlin (appetite stimulating), and leptin (appetite inhibiting). Additionally, our circadian biorhythm plays an important role as our brain’s body clock drives the cycle of hunger which is typically at its lowest at 8 AM in the morning and peaks at 8 PM at night. This cycle can lead to a tendency to gain weight by not eating when you need it (breakfast) and eating when you don’t need to (evening after dinner). Furthermore, emotional factors—particularly stress—can impact our “hunger” in a major way. Our environment—which can expose us to the sight, sound, and smell of food, television commercials and other triggers—also has a significant influence on our hunger, causing us to suddenly desire food when moments before we had no appetite whatsoever.
It is important to make the distinction between physiological hunger and emotional hunger. Physiological hunger is the instinctual drive to seek food versus emotional hunger, which is psychological and largely influenced by environmental exposure to food triggers as well as to our emotional state of mind. If you haven’t eaten for hours and are famished and have a stomach that is producing a symphony of growling sounds, it is a pretty clear-cut case of physiological hunger. However, if you have just eaten dinner and are sitting on the couch relaxing in front of the television and become “hungry,” typically for a very specific food item, it usually bespeaks emotional hunger.
Interestingly, our physiological hunger drives us to consume a fixed weight of food every day, regardless of calories/nutrient content; therefore, low-caloric density foods—those that contain abundant water content—rule. For this reason, it is good to “preload” before a meal by eating low density foods such as salad, soup, a piece of fruit, cut-up raw veggies or drinking a glass of water to help curb caloric intake.
Fatigue eating is a very common phenomenon, which has a physiological basis. This is why a good night’s sleep goes a very long way in helping to maintain a healthy weight. It is important to not succumb to the temptation to eat yourself awake—see my blog on FATigue eating: https://healthdoc13.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/fatigue-eating/.
The nutritional content of our meals is of fundamental importance in quelling our hunger. Specifically, eating protein as well as some healthy fats can go a long way in diminishing our hunger. A diet that is balanced in terms of carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats can keep one satisfied until the next meal. So, try to have some protein for breakfast as well as for an afternoon snack— it does wonders in terms of maintaining high levels of our satiety hormones to keep hunger at bay. Carbohydrates without protein or fat provide only a short-lived suppression of hunger.
Stress is a particularly toxic emotion in terms of driving “hunger.” It is best to try to avoid “eating” stress away and instead trying to “exercise” it away. Exercise has numerous positive effects, including the enhancement of the brain’s executive function to help inhibit temptations and impulses—see my blog on Exercise To Exorcise: https://healthdoc13.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/exercise-to-exorcise/. Like fatigue, there is a clear-cut physiological basis for stress- induced eating. Stress causes the release of a number of hormones and chemicals including cortisol, which can profoundly influence us to eat, often fatty, salty, and sugary foods—see my blog on The Mind-Body Connection and How It Relates To Our Eating Behaviors: https://healthdoc13.wordpress.com/2011/12/31/the-mind-body-connection-how-it-relates-to-our-eating-behaviors/.
Bottom Line: Exercising “mindfulness” is a vitally important asset in the struggle to maintain a healthy weight. It is a good idea before putting any food item into one’s mouth to consider what you are eating, why you are eating, when you are eating and where you are eating. If what is a bad what, why is for non-physiological reasons, when is late at night and where is in front of the TV or in the car while driving, it is worth considering an alternative activity to occupy and amuse yourself in lieu of eating. Am I saying it is bad to sit in front of the television and have a snack? Not at all…but if you are really not hungry and just desire entertainment and diversion, it is best not to down a large bag of chips mindlessly. Consumption should be accompanied by conscientious choices.
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food: www.promiscuouseating.com
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Tags: calories, circadian rhythm, cortisol, emotional factors, emotional hunger, energy, Fatigue Eating, ghrehlin, hunger, leptin, low-calorie density foods, mindfulness, nutrition, physiological hunger, promiscuous eating, stress eating