Appetite—which we can define simply as the desire to eat—is a complex phenomenon. There is no tidy answer to the question, Why do people eat as much as they do? Physiological, psychological, and sociological factors are involved. In addition to eating lots of whole foods, here are eight especially effective ways of managing appetite. You may not need to use all of them, but if you’re feeling hungrier after increasing your training, it may be worth trying a few out to lower your appetite.
1. Learn the Difference Between Belly Hunger and Head Hunger
In 2008 a team of researchers led by Mario Ciampolini of the University of Firenze studied the effects on body weight of training overweight persons to eat whenever and only when they experienced belly hunger (Ciampolini, Lovell-Smith, and Sifone 2010). In the first seven weeks of the five-month study, volunteers were trained to distinguish belly hunger from head hunger. The main symptoms of belly hunger were gastric pangs, feelings of emptiness or hollowness, and mental and physical weakness.
The subjects were instructed to eat within an hour of noticing these symptoms and to not eat again until they returned. They were also encouraged to adjust the types and amounts of food they ate in meals as well as their timing so that belly hunger tended to arise on a predictable timetable that allowed them to maintain a consistent eating schedule. The volunteers were allowed to eat whatever they wanted. They were also allowed to eat as much as they wanted at each meal as long as they were not still full when it was time for their next meal. If symptoms of belly hunger did not return before the next scheduled meal, they knew they had eaten too much and should eat a little less in the next day’s corresponding meal. This one change in the eating patterns of the overweight subjects included in this study—elimination of eating for head hunger—yielded an average weight loss of nearly 15 pounds in five months. That shows you how much “mindless eating” we are inclined to do if left to our own discretion.
The most powerful thing you can do for appetite management is to re-create this experiment in your own life. I recommend that you start by choosing a weekend (weekends are better because of the freedom they afford to dispose of time as you please) on which to abandon your normal eating schedule and eat only when you experience symptoms of belly hunger: gastric pangs, feelings of emptiness or hollowness, and mental or physical weakness. Eat a normal meal within an hour of the emergence of these symptoms, and then wait until they reappear to eat your next meal. Do not eat when you simply feel like eating and do not have symptoms of belly hunger. Continue doing this for two full days.
The purpose of this test is to learn the difference between belly hunger and head hunger and get used to resisting head hunger and eating only when belly hunger is present. On Monday go back to your normal eating schedule, but try to adjust the amounts you eat so that you experience symptoms of belly hunger before it’s time to eat again (but not more than an hour before it’s time to eat again). If you find this difficult, you’ll probably have to change your habitual eating schedule (although changing the content of your meals may also do the trick in some circumstances).
For example, suppose you normally eat a snack at 3:00 in the afternoon, but after beginning to practice this method of appetite management, you discover that you cannot eat this snack and still experience belly hunger before your normal 6:00 dinner. In this case you’ll need to eliminate that snack or perhaps push your dinner back to 7:00. When I changed my diet in this way, I made no major changes to my eating schedule, but I started eating 10 to 20 percent less in most meals because that’s what it took to ensure I was hungry again before my next meal. But like all dietary “rules,” this one should not be absolute. It’s OK once in a while to eat a treat spontaneously when you’re not truly hungry.
2. Clean Out Your Kitchen
Go through your refrigerator and pantry and remove most or all of the low-quality temptations you find. You will be much less likely to eat low-quality indulgences if doing so is inconvenient, requiring a trip to the store.
Fortunately, people’s laziness is even more powerful than their desire for high-calorie foods. In another of Brian Wansink’s studies, secretaries were given a free dish of chocolates that was “magically” refilled at the end of every workday. One week the dish was positioned on a corner of their desk. Another week it was placed inside one of their desk drawers. A third week the dish was placed six feet away from their desks. On average the secretaries ate nine chocolates a day when the chocolates were most conveniently located, six a day when they were out of sight but close by, and only four a day when the treats were least conveniently located (Painter, Wansink, and Hieggelke 2002).
Keeping a “clean kitchen” exploits our laziness in order to make appetite management easy. Once your kitchen is clean, keep it clean by no longer buying low-quality treats at the supermarket to take home. If you’re like me, you’ll find that it’s a lot easier to resist treats that you would not eat immediately even if you did buy them than it is to resist those same treats once they’re already in your home.
3. Use Smaller Dishes
As portion sizes have increased over the past several decades, so has the size of the plates and bowls we eat from at home. If you ever see a 100-year-old dinner plate, you’ll probably think it’s a salad plate. Research has shown that people naturally eat smaller portions when they eat from smaller dishes. What’s more, they don’t feel less satisfied, because it’s still possible to eat enough to cover belly hunger from antique-size dishes, whereas today’s dishes encourage overeating.
Donate your dishes to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, and shop for an attractive new set of smaller sizes. Once you have them, you will automatically pour and eat smaller bowls of breakfast cereal and serve and eat smaller helpings of lasagna.
4. Spoil Your Appetite
You may find it easier to avoid overeating at meals if you start each meal by filling some space in your stomach with a food or liquid that has low calorie density. You can make this method as simple as drinking a large glass of whatever before you sit down to eat. A study led by Brenda Davy at Virginia Tech University reported that subjects ate 75 to 90 fewer calories in meals that were preceded by the swallowing of 16 ounces of water (Dennis et al. 2010). Earlier research by Barbara Rolls determined that broth-based soup had a similar effect when consumed before solid food (Flood and Rolls 2007). If you’re having a salad instead of soup with your meal, try eating the entire salad before you eat anything else. Like water and soup, a salad appetizer will put you well on the way toward satiety without a lot of calories.
5. Keep Healthy Foods Handy
In addition to making it less convenient to eat low-quality foods at home, make it more convenient to eat high-quality foods away from home. If you keep healthy foods with low calorie density close at hand, you will be less likely to overeat unhealthy foods with high calorie density when belly hunger sneaks up on you at the office, on the road, and elsewhere.
Stash fresh or dried fruit, nuts, or jerky in your desk at the office. Keep a few real-food snack bars in your car and your airplane carry-on bag. Remember, people are lazy. If healthy snacks are always within reach, you will use them to lower your appetite instead of going for the usual conveniences of vending machines and fast-food drive-thru windows.
6. Plan for Temptation
Many opportunities to eat for head hunger take us by surprise. Recently I went to the local farmers market to buy some fresh organic fruits and vegetables with my wife. As we strolled along, a man who was handing out free kettle corn to attract customers to his kettle corn booth approached me, and before I knew it my hands were full of the stuff, which I dutifully ate.
Psychologists recommend the use of a technique called “implementation intention” to handle such situations. This is the practice of making specific plans for dealing with temptations before they arise. For example, I might have created an intention to politely request “just a taste” of the next free treat I was offered by surprise in public. With such a plan in place, I would have been less likely to eat the two handfuls of kettle corn I ate at the farmer’s market.
Implementation intentions can be specific to situations. For example, “If Aunt Margie offers me brownies when I visit, as she usually does, I will tell her I just ate and ask if I can take a few home. On the way home, I will give them to that hungry-looking guy I always see on the corner of Elm and 4th.” Implementation intentions can also be framed broadly so that they cover some of the least expected temptations. For example, “Anytime I am tempted to have a second drink—be it wine, beer, or spirits, at home or away from home, alone or in the company of others—I will have a breath mint instead.”
One of the most common causes of head hunger eating (and drinking) is what I call the “just this once” delusion. When a surprise chance to indulge comes about, we tell ourselves that we will give in to the temptation just this once and then resist all future temptations. The problem is that when the next opportunity comes, we’ve already forgotten about the last indulgence, and we’re able to tell ourselves “just this once” again. Implementation intentions pull the rug out from under this delusion.
7. Avoid Distracted Eating
Much of the eating we do today is distracted eating—eating in front of television and computer screens and behind steering wheels. Research has shown that people tend to eat more when distracted because they are even less attuned to their body signals than normal. Listening to music during meals and even eating with other people increase food intake (Stroebele and Castro 2004). Totally distraction-free eating is not realistic or desirable for most of us. Who wants to eat every meal alone in silence? But if distracted eating is a major source of head hunger eating in your life, you may need to eliminate certain distractions. Even establishing a single rule that forbids you from eating while watching television could make a difference.
8. Limit Variety
We automatically eat more when we have more flavors, textures, and even colors to sample in a meal. Followers of diets such as the Paleo Diet often believe that the key to their effectiveness is the elimination of “bad” foods. Many experts believe that these diets actually yield results because they reduce dietary variety.
If you have a lunch comprising a sandwich, soup, and a salad, you will probably eat more than you would if you ate only a sandwich and salad, even if you intended to eat smaller amounts of the meal with more variety. Reducing the variety of foods in meals can be an effective way to eat less for those who tend to take a buffet-style approach to their meals. Naturally, you don’t want to eliminate so much variety that your diet quality suffers. But you can have it both ways by making meals of single foods that incorporate nutritional variety, such as a chicken and vegetable stir-fry over brown rice, which your brain will interpret as a single food because every bite is more or less the same.
Adapted from Racing Weight, 2nd edition, by Matt Fitzgerald with permission of VeloPress.