Rule 7. Eat when hungry
When I talk about the benefits of hunger, many people get scared. But they shouldn’t because healthy hunger is not our enemy but our ally. A healthy physiological appetite is more than just a wish to eat. It is a sign of health and the zest for life. A slight hunger is normal and a person’s natural state. For healthy metabolic function, well-being, and healthy eating behavior, it is important to follow a simple rule — eat when you are hungry and eat to satiety. Despite the apparent simplicity, this rule has many nuances.
A slight hunger is a natural state of a healthy active person. For healthy metabolic function, well-being, and healthy eating behavior, it is important to follow a simple rule — eat when you are hungry and eat to satiety.
A normal appetite and eating full meals ensure the excellent work of the hunger-satiety system, which is based on the balance of two hormones, ghrelin, and leptin. Please understand that the word hunger is often misunderstood. It mixes up the three different physiological phenomena: appetite (3–5 hours, glycogen diminishes), hunger during nutritional moderation (fasting, up to 70 hours), and famine (strong hormonal changes).
Learn to treat hunger as a signal. Imagine driving a car and suddenly your fuel indicator lights up. Do you accelerate and rush to the nearest petrol station and ignore what you were doing? Not likely, because you have a reserve of another 50–100 kilometers in the tank so you can finish things up and then drop by a petrol station. Similarly, hunger signals that the glycogen level in the liver is reduced. Usually, you get hungry when you still have about 20 percent of your energy reserve. Therefore, it is possible to wait an hour to an hour and a half and then eat well. But if you ignore hunger, it can affect you in a bad way, increasing the level of the stress hormone cortisol. Therefore, listen to the signals!
How did the problem arise?
Greedy genes. Scientists characterize the current epidemic of obesity and overeating as a theory of greedy genes. Long ago, when food was rare, the important strategy for the survival of our ancestors was to eat as much high-calorie food as they could because they couldn’t store food. These greedy genes stimulate overeating because attractive images of high-calorie food or exciting flavors constantly bombard us.
Hunger signals that the level of glycogen in the liver is reduced. Usually, you get hungry when you still have about 20 percent of your energy reserve. Therefore, it is possible to wait an hour or an hour and a half and then eat well.
Stress and food. Hunger was the main problem of survival for our ancestors. Therefore, with chronic stress, our appetite increases. It works like this, stress increases ghrelin. That’s why psychological stress without proper control causes overeating. High-calorie foods cause a rise in dopamine and in this way supports overeating and welcome stress. We support our overeating caused by #stress and get into this vicious circle from childhood. Under stress, ghrelin levels increase, which pushes us to search for resources and solutions to our problems. We become more irritable, but it helps us solve our problems better and strengthens our will to live. Unfortunately, the stress increase in ghrelin often leads to us eating and not solving our problems. Often, obesity is not just extra pounds but the loss of the zest for life.
Imbalanced hunger. When we use food inappropriately, to shut up a child, calm down, cheer up, or reduce stress instead of for its intended purpose of satisfying physical hunger, we destroy the natural hunger chain — food. We start associating hunger with different triggers like stress or boredom with food. The very strict schedule of meals, regardless of appetite, can also have the same effect. Forcing someone or yourself when you are not hungry to eat is wrong!
How does it affect health?
Hunger and taste. According to a popular proverb, hunger is the best spice. Ghrelin enhances the dopamine response to normal foods and we eat it with pleasure. Therefore, when we are hungry, ordinary food seems very tasty and we eat it with pleasure.
A frequent concern that causes people to ask is since hunger improves the taste of food, is there a risk of overeating? People are afraid that they will eat too much by working up an appetite. Yes, ghrelin increases the amount of food eaten, but eating more frequently and not eating more during one meal. After all, ghrelin is produced by the stomach wall, so if you eat enough food, including vegetables and greens, and keep an eating regimen, then you have no reason to be afraid of ghrelin.
Ghrelin and the brain. Ghrelin’s action as the hunger hormone is not to weaken you, but to stimulate you to move faster and think better. That is why ghrelin has many beneficial effects. It activates the release of the growth hormone somatotropin, which stimulates autophagy.
The action of hunger and ghrelin on the brain’s functioning is very beneficial. Ghrelin stimulates the production of the neurotrophic factor BDNF, the neurogenesis, and helps protect the brain from aging. Hunger improves memory, and learning and supports the normal functioning of the hippocampus, reducing the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
The antidepressant effect of ghrelin is also important. Yes, hunger significantly reduces the risk of depression. It stimulates the search for novelty, the release of dopamine, and maintaining a zest for life. If you add ghrelin to experimental animals, they became active explorers, strive to learn something new, and so do humans.
Hunger and motivation. Ghrelin enhances not only the desire for food but also motivation. Animal studies established that the more ghrelin there is, the more the animal is ready to work for a reward. More ghrelin — more motivation!
The increased level of the hunger hormone ghrelin improves memory, supports the normal functioning of the hippocampus, reduces the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, and has an antidepressant effect. It is a hunger that significantly reduces the risk of depression and stimulates the search for novelty, the release of dopamine, and maintaining a zest for life.
Hunger and immunity. Many people know that with diseases like injuries, infections, and tumors. Appetite disappears, and this is normal. The return of the appetite is a good prognostic sign. Ghrelin can affect immune function, reducing inflammation and stimulating the growth of lymphoid tissue. The hormones ghrelin and somatotropin are anti-inflammatory, but leptin and insulin are predominantly pro-inflammatory. Ghrelin helps with many autoimmune diseases, and supports the normal functioning of the thymus gland and the average production of the immune cells.
Of course, hunger has many drawbacks. When we skip meals because of an intense stressful workload, our body takes the necessary energy badly, increasing the cortisol level, destroying muscles, and causing over-fatigue. The stimulating effect of ghrelin also has negative aspects. When increased ghrelin pushes somebody the search for novelty, it increases the risk of drug addiction and risky behavior. Therefore, it is crucial for those who are getting rid of addiction to avoid being HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) and not to expose themselves to severe hunger.
The rule is, to eat when hungry to achieve a feeling of true satiation. Therefore, it is normal and logical to change the time for dinner and supper in such a way as to build up an appetite by those times.
Flexibility in dinner and supper. Hunger is a signal of readiness to eat. This rule can seem a little unusual when we are constantly told to sit down before we get hungry, and get up before we are full. So, to follow this rule, you should work up an appetite and not slow it down.
Work up your appetite. There are long intervals between meals. Real hunger does not occur instantly. It appears gradually as glycogen stores in the muscles and liver are depleted. The instant desire to eat something is a sign of hunger caused by stress.
Do not reduce your appetite. Do not snack. This is important because even a small snack to reduce hunger can lead to a drop in ghrelin level and a dulling of hunger. This principle is used in the method of split meals, which I do not recommend. For the normal functioning of the hunger-satiety system, we need a good appetite at the time of eating. People often eat snacks consuming a few calories instead of a full meal. Such a strategy can lead to both malnutrition and overeating. Constant snacks create an increased load on the gastrointestinal tract, from teeth to digestive glands.
Real hunger does not occur instantly; it appears gradually, as glycogen storesin the muscles and liver are depleted. The instant desire to eat something is a sign of hunger caused by stress.
Appetite comes with eating. The ghrelin level increases markedly the moment we sit at the table. Looking at food and smelling it stimulates the appetite even more. I will discuss the pause before eating later (see rule 8). In healthy people, the level of the hunger hormone ghrelin is greatest on an empty stomach and after eating for 20 minutes. Then it decreases by 35–55 percent and remains at this level for two to four hours. Insufficient plasma reduction after eating is part of the resistance (or decreased sensitivity) to ghrelin. Usually, it can be caused by an impaired appetite.
Distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. Physical hunger occurs gradually, after eating. You want to eat any food and it all seems attractive. Although physical hunger is persistent, delaying a meal and waiting for an hour or two is easy. In response to physical hunger, you want to eat a lot; after eating, you feel relieved and satisfied and the hunger disappears.
Emotional hunger occurs suddenly and quickly becomes intense; often not associated with a certain meal. It demands attention and requires quick satisfaction. During this time, it will make you want to eat specific dishes that are fatty, spicy, and crunchy, like pizza, chips, and sweets, just enough to satisfy your craving. You want to eat something other than the usual meals. After eating in response to emotional hunger, the feeling is often tension, regret, and disgust. Understand that you cannot solve the problem of emotional hunger with a slice of sausage. But awareness, control, and relaxation techniques will help you reduce the intensity of emotional hunger.
Control your appetite. Controlling hunger is the most important condition for the long-term value of any diet. If hunger is not under control, then you can hardly use the diet for the long- term. Ideally, arrange the dietary regimen as follows: a hearty breakfast that is enough to keep you till dinner when you become hungry again. It’s good to have a bountiful dinner, enough to make you feel hungry again for suppertime. Your supper should be such that you keep satiety till sleep. Control your hunger when it occurs and satisfy it sufficiently to keep satiety for a long time.
Emotional hunger demands attention and requires quick satisfaction. It will make you want to eat specific fatty, spicy, and crunchy dishes, like pizza, chips, and sweets, just enough to satisfy your craving. You want to eat something other than the usual meals. After eating in response to emotional hunger, the feeling is often like tension, regret, and disgust.
Eat to satiety. As we know, satiation is best experienced when it comes after previously feeling hungry. After 20 minutes of eating, ghrelin quickly decreases and is low for two to four hours. Therefore, satiation is what makes hunger disappear. This is the most reliable indicator of satiation. ‘I cannot eat another bite’ is already a symptom of overeating but not physiological satiation.
Satiation is a multilevel process that includes the stage of cephalic (brain) satiation at the sight and smell of food, the mechanical stage (stimulation of the mechanoreceptors of the stomach), the intestinal stage (absorption of glucose and amino acids), the action of hormones (gastrointestinal peptide, cholecystokinin, etc.) and many other mechanisms. The more we use different satiation mechanisms, the faster it happens. You should distinguish satiation from satiety, a physical feeling of how long you last before you start feeling hungry again. Satiety is kept due to carbohydrates with a lower glycemic index (such as legumes), soluble viscous fiber (algae, vegetables, fruits), protein, etc. Choosing the right foods is key to controlling satiation and satiety.
How to follow the rule? Ideas and tips
False hunger. Understand the difference between true physiological hunger and false hunger. False hunger can be associated with stress, fatigue, lack of sleep, negative emotions, and other non-nutritional aspects. Stress makes ghrelin rise. Food in this case makes you gain weight and does not help solve any emotional problems but often worsens things.
Lack of exercise. Constant sitting increases stress and impairs metabolism even in a comfortable or ergonomic chair. Prolonged sitting and a lack of movement exacerbate hunger. Even a little activity like standing up, walking, and climbing stairs contribute to better control of hunger. Take short breaks more often and move!
Dehydration. We often confuse thirst with hunger. It is enough to drink just a sip of water to understand the difference (see the chapter “Water balance”, “Sodium-potassium balance”).
Hormonal changes. Often the hormonal changes cause appetite changes. Thus, a decrease in sensitivity to insulin (insulin resistance), a decrease in sensitivity to leptin (leptin resistance), and disturbances in the functioning of sex hormones can markedly increase appetite. Metabolic rigidity is a common cause of increased hunger (see chapter “Metabolic flexibility and circadian synchronization”).
Sleep deficiency and poor sleep lead to a decrease in the satiety hormone leptin and an increase in the hunger hormone ghrelin. The lack of sleep for one hour can lead to an increase of 250 kcal the next day. The less you sleep the more you will eat the next day. Therefore, quality sleep is an important step toward controlling hunger!
Substances that prevent satiation. Many substances can stimulate overeating and prevent satiation. These include salt (sodium), flavor enhancers, flavorings, sweeteners, sugar, and substances produced during smoking and frying (see Rule 17). Excess sodium stimulates appetite and overeating. Reduce the amount of salt and you will eat less; you will even need less water. The common calorie-free flavorings stimulate hunger and can make you eat 10 percent more than you would eat without them. The prolonged usage of sweeteners increases hunger, and cravings for sweets and reduces satiety. Avoid eating them regularly. The combination of fat and sugar destroys satiety most effectively and whets the appetite.
Spice. Bitter, spicy, and sour tastes and spicy seasonings can dull the appetite and contribute to better satiation. Spices also contain many biologically active substances and a negligible number of calories. Therefore, adding spices and seasonings is an important element of a healthy diet. Spices improve satiation in different ways: more stimulation, more bitter taste, enhanced bile secretion, better motility, and more conscious sensory contact with food. On average, a person eats 200 kcal less if food is spiced.
Fiber and greens. Fiber, especially soluble, is an essential component that provides long-term satiation and useful properties. Greens, vegetables, and algae contain mostly fiber. Use fiber not in powder but as part of whole foods and eat a wide range of fiber — this is useful for the microflora. Greens contain several biologically active substances that support satiety.
Respect food. The more you know about food and are sure that it will saturate you, the longer you can keep satiety.
Protein. Protein is a great nutrient that provides long-lasting satiety. Therefore, eat protein as part of your main meal and add it to control satiety.
Fats. Fats help satiety by increasing cholecystokinin production. The problem for people who want to lose weight is the high-calorie content of fats. The optimal way to consume fats will be either with proteins, like in fish or meat, or salads with greens and vegetables.
Normalization of hunger. During the process of weight loss, both ghrelin level and sensitivity to it, increase. This increase is a frequent reason for weight gain. Therefore, a gradual process reduces these risks. Unfortunately, this process takes a long time. Losing weight by 8.5 percent of body weight and keeping it for six months shows that ghrelin grows for six months; while a person loses weight; it remains increased for another six months and then returns to normal. Spices contain many biologically active substances and a negligible number of calories. On average, a person eats 200 kcal less if food is spiced.
Difficulty distinguishing the type of hunger. Use a simple working solution: if you cannot understand whether you are experiencing emotional or physiological hunger, do not eat. If in doubt, don’t eat!
Spices contain many biologically active substances and a negligible number of calories. On average, a person eats 200 kcal less if food is spiced.
Create abundance. Abundance is everything, from gratitude to people around us, food, ourselves, various products, and satisfaction with life. All these contribute to greater satiety and reduce hunger. Seek pleasure and satisfaction in food, saturating not only your body but also your mind.
Only go shopping when not hungry. Studies show that hungry people buy more high-calorie and less healthy foods. Add healthy food products to your shopping lists when you buy or order delivery online.
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