Stare long enough at a piece of carrot cake placed in front of you and you'll probably eventually take a bite, even if you weren't that hungry.
What makes us eat or not is a complex process of mechanisms that starts in the brain. It's not that easy to control sometimes because the psychological drive to eat, "head hunger," can take over. Not only are triggers such as stress and anxiety the wrong reasons to eat, but biology, conditioning and metabolic influences also drive our appetites and hunger. Researchers are studying at least 70 receptor sites on individual brain neurons known to play roles in how hunger works to shed some light on our hunger mechanisms.
True hunger, the stomach-growling kind, is an intense feeling of having to eat something, and it results from low blood glucose. We're faced with hundreds of food choices every day, of wanting to eat, but good food choices go out the window when you are this hungry.
Nor does it help that supermarkets tempt us with 17,000 new products on the shelves yearly, most of them dense with calories and fat. To make matters worse, when you're over-hungry or skip a meal, the body needs to make up for this missing blood glucose to sustain itself, and it uses the amino acid alanine that's stored in muscle. Over time your lean muscle shrinks, and your body becomes better at storing fat. A better way to control your weight and hunger is to eat small meals throughout the day. Researchers found that female gymnasts and runners who ate less than what was required of their sport during the day had the highest body-fat levels. Other studies that looked at athletes showed the ones that ate smaller, more frequent meals and snacks, instead of bigger end-of-day meals, had lower body fat and lower overall insulin release.
We receive signals from the brain to eat and when we've had enough, but they aren't always reliable. Ghrelin is one of the hormones responsible for producing a desire to eat. When you're sleep-deprived, this same hormone amps up to drive us to eat more, and it decreases the turn-off switch, leptin, that tells us we're full. A recent Stanford University study showed that adult men's appetites for high-fat food increased by 45 percent when they were getting less than eight hours sleep a night. Interestingly enough, anorexics are masters of ignoring these strong signals to eat. These signals to eat, if we listen to them, can help us understand our eating behavior.
It just might be that maybe you really are exhausted or you might be dehydrated, because you haven't been drinking enough water. Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University, explains how you can eat normally, without dieting, if the foods you choose are simply less dense. For example, in her book, "The Volumetrics Eating Plan," a pale-looking, traditional, high-fat shrimp fried rice is transformed to one that includes broccoli, carrots, scallions, frozen peas, red and green bell peppers, fresh garlic and ginger. High-fiber, lower-calorie and nutrient-rich vegetables replace high-fat, dense calories like oil.
It would be easy if there were just a pill to help curb appetites and up metabolisms. To date, two drugs are FDA approved, and 300 clinical trials are under way, and are tackling the complicated issue of obesity. The lifestyle changes involving diet and daily exercise are still your best bet to have a healthy, happy appetite for life.
Connie Aronson is American College of Sports Medicine certified, an ACE Gold Certified personal trainer and an IDEA Elite personal trainer located at Koth Sports Physical Therapy in Ketchum. She is currently working on eating slower.