Once, one of my clients half-jokingly requested an exorcism from the demon possessing her body: hunger. Kind of a gruesome analogy but, truth be told, it’s fairly accurate considering how out of control she felt. When my clients struggle like this, I often say I wish I could wave a magic wand to make it all better, which of course I can’t. But what I can do is offer some tried and true advice to effectively rein in appetite and help regain a sense of balance. The five strategies below are tops for doing just that, and each also has the power to enhance your overall health. Win-win!
Make sweating fun
Have you ever found yourself hungrier after working out, and then “ate back” more calories than you burned exercising? It’s a common phenomenon, and the trick to breaking the cycle may just be choosing ways of being active that feel like fun. In a recent Cornell University study, researchers asked two groups of adults to take a two kilometer walk before lunch or a snack. Those who were told they had been on an exercise walk wound up eating 35% more chocolate pudding for dessert at lunch and 124% more M&Ms at snack time than those who were told they had been on a fun, scenic walk.
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Other research shows that intense exercise—sweat sessions that are perceived as work—can lead to eating more overall. In other words, a “no pain, no gain” mentality may wind up wreaking havoc with your appetite. If you’re in a similar boat, try mixing things up. Trade grueling workouts for activities that get your heart rate up but seem like play. Think dancing, hiking, roller skating, and swimming. Many of my clients find that even if they burn fewer calories, engaging in recreational activities often helps them lose more weight, because they don’t experience rebound hunger spikes.
Get enough sleep
Catching too few ZZZs is notorious for not only ramping up hunger, but also increasing cravings for junk food. One study from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found that too little sleep triggered excessive eating and weight gain, and getting more sleep slashed the consumption of carbs and fat, leading to weight loss. Another from the University of Chicago found that getting 4.5 hours of sleep (rather than 8.5) ups hunger and appetite, especially in the early afternoon.
In addition to causing appetite craziness, sleep deprivation has been tied to a number of health problems, including weakened immunity, and a greater risk of type 2 diabetes, depression, and heart disease. For these reasons, in my opinion, making sleep a priority may even be more important than exercise for weight loss. If you’re falling short like most people, read up on ways to improve your slumber.
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Drink more water
Research backs what I find to be true for myself and my clients: drinking plenty of water can help manage appetite. One study found that people who drink about seven cups of water per day eat nearly 200 fewer daily calories compared to those who gulp less than one glass. Another found that when adults drank two cups of water right before meals, they ate 75 to 90 fewer calories. A second study by the same researchers showed that when two groups of people followed the same calorie-limited diet for 12 weeks, those who downed two cups of water before meals lost about 15.5 pounds compared to about 11 pounds for the water-free bunch.
Finally, a German study showed that a 16-ounce dose of water resulted in a 30% increase in metabolic rate within 10 minutes. The effect peaked 30 to 40 minutes after consumption, but was sustained for more than an hour. To take advantage of the benefits, drink about 16 ounces of H2O four times a day. If you dislike the taste of plain water, spruce it up with wedges of lemon or lime, fresh mint leaves, cucumber slices, fresh grated ginger, or a bit of mashed fruit.
Eat on a schedule
Your body loves consistency, which is why in my own personal experience, as well as my clients’, eating at the same times every day can go a long way in regulating appetite. Try eating breakfast within one hour of waking up and spacing your remaining meals about three to five hours apart. In addition to consistent meal times, strive for a steady meal structure in terms of the foods and proportions you include.
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For example, I recommend always including: produce, lean protein, plant-based fat (like avocado), and a small portion of a healthy starch. I’ve seen that mixing up the foods you choose within these categories, while keeping the types and quantities comparable, can have a huge impact on regulating hunger, supporting sustained energy, and creating a predictable return of hunger, almost like clockwork. In other words, when your meals are all over the place, it’s much easier to feel hungry all the time or confuse true hunger with boredom or other emotions.
Learn how to deal with stress
For most of my clients, stress is the number one eating trigger. And research backs the old adage: “stressed is desserts spelled backwards.” One recent animal study found that female monkeys chronically exposed to stress overate calorie-rich foods, unlike their calm counterparts. They also ate more throughout the day and evening, while the chilled-out chimps naturally restricted their noshing to daytime hours only. This behavior parallels what I see in so many people, and until they find effective ways to reduce stress, emotional eating is a difficult pattern to break.
The best place to start: stop beating yourself up. Instead of berating yourself for not having enough willpower, acknowledge that when your stress hormones are surging, you’re programmed to reach for chips or chocolate. Speak kindly to yourself, and shift your energy toward testing out positive ways to cope, like listening to guided meditation, venting to a friend, spending time outdoors, reading, stretching, drawing, or whatever gives you a mini-vacation from the intensity of your emotions. That strategy, rather than “dieting,” is a much better way to set yourself up for successful weight control and better overall health.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.
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