Hunger isn’t the enemy that fad diets make it out to be. On the contrary, it’s your body’s built-in food-tracking app.
“Listening to your hunger cues is essential for regulating energy throughout the day,” says Bridget Murphy, a registered dietitian and clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. It tells you when you need to fuel your body, when you should put down the fork and, ideally, keeps you at your happy weight.
But, unfortunately, modern life has sent our perfectly healthy hunger response haywire. Everything from our hectic, always-on-the-go schedules to the foods we eat while we’re driving to work hack our bodies’ hormones so that “hungry” feels like a 24/7 state, she says. And, generally, the foods we crave have anything but a healthy reputation.
Get your hunger back on track though, and you’ll make a huge step toward developing a healthier relationship with food, losing weight and reducing your risk of chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Here are seven science-approved ways to do just that:
1. Prioritize Sleep
It doesn’t matter if a steady drip of coffee can keep you awake at your desk throughout the day – poor sleep sets off a chemical cascade designed to keep you eating. While science has long known that sleep quality influences levels of satiety regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin, a 2016 study from the University of Chicago found that sleep deprivation also raises your body’s levels of endocannabinoids, the same molecules that are to blame for the marijuana munchies. The National Sleep Foundation recommends getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night for optimal health.
2. Sit Down to Eat Your Breakfast
Sure, you’ve heard this “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” stuff since elementary school, but it turns out that the cereal bar you eat on the way out the door won’t cut it. In one 2015 University of Surrey study, dieters who ate a cereal bar while walking ended up eating considerably more food (including five times more chocolate!) later on compared to those who ate their cereal bar while sitting. Researchers explain that when you eat while distracted – whether it’s by getting dressed and styling your hair or by traffic on the road – your brain isn’t fully able to register the amount of food you’ve consumed. The result: You don’t feel full and eat more later. To make sure your brain fully registers any calories consumed, it helps to make your meals mindful ones. Sit down, stop multitasking and pay attention to every fork-to-mouth maneuver.
3. Perform Interval Workouts
Any workout will help you get fit. But when it comes to building a healthy hunger habit, interval workouts may be the way to go. In one 2014 International Journal of Obesity study, about an hour after working out, men who completed 30 minutes of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, ate up to 170 fewer calories than those who performed moderate, steady-state exercise for the same amount of time. Researchers believe HIIT may reduce post-workout munchies by modulating levels of the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin and increasing levels of blood lactate and blood glucose, both of which help keep your hunger levels in check. For the best results, Murphy recommends working out in the morning, since a.m. sweat sessions have been linked to improved insulin sensitivity and healthier hunger responses.
4. Avoid Overeating at Mealtime
This one might feel a little bit like a chicken-and-egg scenario. After all, if your hunger levels aren’t out of control, the less likely you are to overeat. But it turns out, if you don’t overeat, the less likely your hunger levels are to get out of control. “Constant overeating exposes the body to higher and higher levels of circulating leptin, a hormone that lets your body know that it’s full and satiated,” Murphy explains. “This high exposure can actually damage the hypothalamus, the gland responsible for secretion of our hunger and satiety hormones. As a result, our hypothalamus isn’t as sensitive to the leptin anymore, so we end up having trouble registering that we’re full!”
5. Eat Every 3 to 4 Hours
“One of the most important things I advise my patients to do is to eat frequently throughout the day,” Murphy says. “When you eat small, frequent meals every three to four hours, your body is better able to manage the information that it’s taking in to properly signal hunger.” The International Society of Sports Nutrition has even issued an official position stand, stating that increasing meal frequency improves insulin levels as well as hunger and appetite control. Still, it’s important that you make your meals mini-ones. If you eat a restaurant-sized meal every three to four hours, all of the overeating is just going to throw off your leptin levels like we just discussed.
6. Cut Down on Processed Foods
Besides the fact that processed foods are often devoid of fiber, reducing their staying power in your stomach, they are also a prime source of added sugars including high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. What’s more, research published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism shows that HFCS consumption significantly decreases levels of circulating insulin and leptin while increasing ghrelin concentrations, triggering hunger and overeating. Unfortunately, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 75 percent of Americans eat too much added sugar, with HFCS and other refined sugars providing more than 10 percent of their daily calories.