When you’re really hungry, you want to eat everything in sight. Everything smells delicious and tastes so good. It doesn’t take long, though, before your stomach hurts and you realize you’ve eaten too much.
Why is it so easy to go from the stomach-growling, hungry-as-a-bear feeling to the can’t-eat-another-morsel, belt-loosening pain of overeating? Why is it so hard to regulate what, when and how much we eat?
The science of hunger
Some people are seemingly hungry all the time. Others eat because the clock says it’s time for a meal. Still others get busy and forget to eat until they feel shaky or get “hangry.”
While there are a variety of triggers that make you hungry, what really drives your appetite is the “information superhighway” made up of brain stimuli, your hormones, and the nervous system in your gut. Researchers have found a sophisticated connection of neurons, chemicals and hormones that link the brain and gut.
Eating activates volume receptors in your stomach that tell your brain that you are getting full. The information superhighway isn’t super-fast, as it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to receive the signals from the gut indicating that it’s time to stop eating. During this delayed transmission is where some people get into trouble by continuing to eat even though their stomach is full.
Ways to prevent overeating
These tips can help you avoid that painful, overstuffed feeling:
- Ask yourself how hungry you really are. Nutritionists measure hunger on a scale of 1 (“I’m starving”) to 10 (“I’m so stuffed I’m in pain”). The ideal is to be in the 3-7 range.
- Drink water before you eat. While water won’t satiate your craving for real food, the liquid will start to fill your stomach, and by the time you eat the volume receptors will have started communicating with your brain.
- Take your time. Chew slowly, and put your utensils down between each bite. This will give your stomach more time to signal to the brain when it’s reaching capacity.
- Begin your meal with foods that fill you up faster. Salads, fruits and vegetables that have high water content or are higher in fiber and protein can fill you up faster.
- Snack between meals. Don’t default to the chips or candy. Grab a healthy snack such as berries or unsalted nuts to stave off the “hangry” feeling.
Below is a handy visual we hope will serve as a helpful reminder as you consider your level of hunger the next time you sit down for a meal.
If you have any tactics you use to manage your hunger, please leave us a comment below.
To learn more, check out these books: “Mindless Eating” by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., and “Eating Mindfully” by Susan Albers, Psy.D. You may also ask your health care provider for nutrition education resources in your local area.