Why you gain weight — appetite and hunger

In the 1960s, only about 13 percent of the population of the United States was obese. By the year 2004, that figure jumped astoundingly to 32 percent. Despite the understanding of the health risks associated with excess weight, the rate has not declined, and it is anticipated that by 2015 (merely seven years from now) that 75 percent of all adults and 34 percent of American children and adolescents will be overweight or obese. Seems illogical? It just may be.

Most people eat the way they do because of convenience, cost, taste, habit, hunger and appetite. If we ate only in response to physical hunger, we would eat only when our bodies told our brains we were hungry and then stop when we are full. But appetite is more complicated than just our bodies’ physical needs.

Appetite from a physical perspective is a combination of hormones, metabolism, nerve signals, sight, smell and taste of foods, and factors in your stomach. On the non-physical side, we have emotions, habits, boredom, food availability and visibility all playing a factor in our appetite. What does this all mean?

Think about how easy is it to snack when you are not really, truly hungry. Researchers call this the hedonic appetite; when you eat for pleasure or as a means of coping when you are stressed and not for sustenance. For example, foods high in sugars cause the brain to increase the production of a chemical called serotonin, giving us a sense of calmness and well being. By conditioning our bodies to this reaction, we justify eating the foods to promote the feeling.

So what can you do with appetite?

De-stress. Strive to remain calm. You cannot avoid stress, but you can control how it impacts you. Tactics to help are: journaling, yoga, meditation, exercise and talking it over.

Choose foods high in fiber and water, but low in sugar. This includes fruits and vegetables. These foods are more filling, and in turn you’ll eat less overall.

Drink water or a calorie free beverage instead of those beverages with a lot of sugar.

Eat a salad before the rest of your meal. Keep the salad dressing on the side and dip your fork into it before you take a bite of salad. You will be amazed at how little you will use while still getting the wonderful flavor of the dressing.

Put less meat on your plate, allowing more room for vegetables and whole grains. A normal healthy adult needs less then one gram of protein to support approximately two pounds of body tissue. As Americans we tend to eat more protein than we really need.

Eating soups before meals (which tend to contain high levels of water) has been shown to decrease overall calories consumed by 20 percent. Broth-based soups work best.

Keep “high risk” foods out of reach. The availability and visibility of foods trigger our appetite. So keep those foods that you tend to overeat out of the house and-or out of sight.

Eat regularly and do not starve yourself. This can have a major negative impact on brain chemistry. The brain becomes overly sensitive to a low serotonin level, causing you to crave high calorie foods.

Exercise. Moderately intense exercise temporarily curbs hunger and increases alertness by boosting endorphins in the brain.

Eat slowly and you will eat less. It takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to send the message to your brain that you’re full. The faster you eat the more likely you’ll eat more than you need to feel full.

Sleep well. Research shows that if you do not get a good 7 to 8 hours of sleep consistently, this sets off a hormonal change that boosts your appetite and decreases your body’s ability to feel satisfied when eating.

Appetite and hunger are very different, but are the two biggest factors in what we eat. Always ask yourself before you are going to eat, “Am I truly hungry?”

If the answer is no, then seek to understand why you feel the need to eat and you’ll be learning what makes your appetite click. Hopefully it will give you some insight on how to control it.