Managing your weight requires knowing what to eat. But that's only part of the story. Before you grab a snack or reach for seconds, you also need to know if you're really hungry. Is it your stomach, your head or your heart that's prompting you? Knowing the culprit can make a big difference on the bathroom scale.
Many of us eat when we're not truly, physically hungry. We often munch because the sight and smell of food is too tempting to resist - and it just tastes good. Other times we eat because we're bored, sad, lonely or stressed. And sometimes well-meaning family members and friends pressure us to eat.
Hunger is your body telling you it needs fuel. A growling stomach is usually the strongest clue you're hungry. Low energy, irritability, lack of concentration and/or having a headache can be other signs.
If you're uncertain hunger or appetite is responsible for your food craving, wait 15 minutes before eating. (Appetite is defined as the psychological desire for food without the feeling of hunger.) Distract yourself and then reassess how you feel a little later. If you are truly hungry, your stomach will tell you.
Or ask yourself if it has been a few hours since you last ate. If not, you're probably not feeling real hunger.
Don't get me wrong. There's no rule that you can't eat when you don't feel hungry. But if you do so regularly, you'll end up eating more calories than you need.
The key to successful weight control is learning to listen to your body's cues. You want to eat when you feel hungry, but not famished. Feeling overly hungry can trigger overeating.
You also want to stop eating when you feel satisfied, not full. Too often I see clients in my weight-loss practice who have become used to feeling full, even uncomfortable, after a meal. That feeling has become the benchmark for feeling satisfied.
The following tips can help you get in touch with the signs of hunger and satiety and, ultimately, prevent overeating:
Stick to a schedule
To prevent yourself from becoming overly hungry, schedule your meals and snacks. Plan to eat every three to four hours. (The clock stops after dinner.)
Include lean protein. Protein-rich foods such as lean meat, fish, poultry, egg whites, dairy, tofu and legumes help you feel full longer because they require more time to digest and absorb than other nutrients.
Don't skip protein at breakfast. Research suggests that eating lean protein in the morning keeps you satisfied longer than if eaten at other times of the day.
Divide your protein intake among three meals and two snacks. Protein-rich snack choices include nuts, soy nuts, edamame, hard-boiled eggs, part-skim cheese, yogurt and soy milk.
Choose low-glycemic foods
Avoid refined (white) starches and sugary foods. These are high-glycemic foods that cause blood glucose and insulin levels to spike after eating. In response to excess insulin, blood glucose levels drop more quickly over the next few hours, which can trigger hunger and overeating.
Low-glycemic foods are more slowly digested and help keep hunger at bay. They include beans, lentils, nuts, pasta, brown rice, sweet potatoes, steel-cut or large-flake oatmeal, oat bran, Red River cereal, 100 per cent bran cereals, yogurt, milk, unflavored soy milk, apples, oranges, peaches, pears and berries.
According to a 12-week study of 91 overweight adults, eating half a grapefruit with meals can result in weight loss.
People who ate grapefruit had significantly lower levels of insulin after eating which was thought to control hunger. The researchers speculated that natural plant compounds in grapefruit were responsible.
Spice up meals
Research has found that capsaicin, the component that gives red chili peppers their heat, can reduce hunger and increase calorie burning.
Last month, a study from Purdue University demonstrated that adding cayenne pepper to meals was effective at reducing appetite for fatty, salty and sweet foods, especially among people who did not consume it regularly.
Season pasta sauces, pizza, chili and stews with dried cayenne pepper, red chili flakes or hot paprika. Garnish meals with hot salsa or chopped hot fresh chili peppers. (Wear rubber gloves when handling fresh chilies as they contain oils that can burn your skin and eyes.)
Chew (sugarless) gum
A recent study found that chewing gum for one hour in the morning helped participants eat fewer calories at lunch. The theory is that chewing stimulates nerves in the jaw connected to the brain region that regulates satiety.
It takes roughly 20 minutes for appetite-related hormones to kick in and tell your brain you've had enough food. That's why eating quickly can cause you to overeat before you're aware of it.
After every bite, put down your knife and fork, chew thoroughly and sip water. Do not pick up your utensils until your mouth is empty.
Eating in front of the television, while reading, or while driving leads to mindless eating. Reserve the kitchen or dining-room table for meals and pay attention to the fact you're eating. Savour your food.
Assess your hunger
Determine how hungry - or satisfied - you feel before you eat, halfway through a meal, and after you finish. Stop eating when you feel satisfied, but not full.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.