5 Hunger Questions Help Beat Food Cravings
by Alexa Fleckenstein, MD
Use these questions to crush your cravings for good!
Adapted From The Diabetes Cure
#1. Are you really hungry, or are you just a creature of habit?
When the clock strikes noon, what's your first thought? Odds are, you begin thinking about lunch. But what if you had a late breakfast and aren't hungry? Do you listen to your body, or do you eat another meal simply because it's "lunchtime?"
We often associate specific times of day or events with food. Think about birthday parties, social business gatherings, and Sundays after church: All of these scenarios typically include food—but we're missing the point of these gatherings. It took me a while to believe that I am not a bad hostess at my writers' group meetings if I don't offer something to eat.
I used to put nuts and dried fruit on the table until we decided that tea was sufficient. After all, we don't need to munch while we're working. And when we celebrate, we should focus on people, not food. Don't eat just because it is time to eat, or because you have nothing else to do.
How to Deal: Unnecessary eating can hinder your progress as you try to fight the inflammation in your body, so try to find new ways to spend your time. Instead of focusing on food, take up a new fun hobby, or maybe even spend some time as a volunteer. By learning good habits, you won't have time to miss that extra food you were eating.
#2. Are you really hungry, or are you devouring one mammoth after the other?
This is the paradox: The more you eat, the more weight you gain—and the more famished you feel! In olden times, when food was scarce, this was a survival instrument: If a whole mammoth had to be devoured before it spoiled, people needed to be able to gorge themselves beyond the point of feeling full. This allowed them to put on fat for leaner times.
And those leaner times always came. These days, that's just not the case. Yet we still feel the need to eat as much as we can. Contrary to what seems obvious (namely that an overweight person would seem to be blissfully satisfied and easily able to cut down on calorie intake), many who are overweight never feel satisfied.
An ancient survival tool makes them feel extremely hungry and forces them to eat even more. As a rule of thumb, the slimmer you are, the less hunger you feel. The larger you are, the more ravenous you become. People who are overweight tend to suffer from incredible hunger pangs, which are largely not acknowledged by the medical community or are chalked up to "a lack of willpower."
How to Deal: You can identify this hunger by paying special attention to your cravings: Does your hunger strike at the sight of food? If so, odds are that this "mammoth" hunger is what you're experiencing.
#3. Are you really hungry, or do you have an underactive thyroid?
A sluggish thyroid makes you gain weight in two ways: You feel constant hunger, and you are too lethargic to move much. If you are overweight, have your thyroid levels tested; an underactive thyroid could be the underlying cause. In addition to weight gain and fatigue, other signs of a sluggish thyroid include constipation, a slow heartbeat, excessive sleepiness, feeling cold all the time, thinning hair, and dry skin.
How to Deal: If your doctor determines that you have an underactive thyroid, have her test your tolerance for gluten, as well. Hypothyroidism and gluten intolerance are often linked: Gluten creates inflammation, and this inflammation hits the thyroid and burns it out.
#4. Are you really hungry, or are you imprinted by what your mother ate during pregnancy?
Did you know that babies in utero swallow and taste? If mothers eat foods like garlic and carrots during pregnancy, the food flavors show up in the amniotic fluid around the growing baby, giving the baby a taste of what the mother eats. And the baby later forms preferences for food that he or she already "knows."
Research also links part of the obesity epidemic in children (and grown-ups) to mothers who were overweight and diabetic. But studies on children of survivors of the famine during World War II in Europe have shown that underfed mothers can also breed obese, diabetic children. What these two divergent situations teach us is that any deviation from an ideal weight can lead to weight complications in the next generation. Fathers have an impact, too: Studies show that what a man eats during sperm production influences the weight and health of his future offspring. Sperm are produced constantly, so the time for men to think about healthy eating is before they are ready to become fathers.
How to Deal: If both of your parents are overweight, you have three factors contributing to your insatiable appetite: genes from your mother, genes from your father, and, in all likelihood, an environment that furthers mindless eating. But you can break this cycle by choosing to eat a well-rounded anti-inflammatory diet now so you can pass along healthier genes to future generations.
#5. Are you really hungry, or are you sleep deprived and stressed?
Have you ever searched through your house for something to eat—opening and closing the fridge door or rummaging through the pantry—while still trying to be "good" and stay on your diet? Have you ever considered that you might not be hungry but tired? (These top sleep mistakes could be leading to your weight gain, too.)
Studies tie your hunger to the ghrelin hormone, levels of which rise when you are sleep deprived. I call ghrelin the "growling and prowling hormone" because it makes you cranky, voracious, clumsy, and ineffective. Sleep deprivation and stress both elevate your ghrelin levels, making you ravenous. And the foods you crave are typically high in sugar, bad fats, and calories—all of which increase inflammation and make you more prone to developing diabetes.
When we sleep, we fast because our bodies stop sending hunger signals, which would disturb our sleep. So, if you don't give in to your urge to eat late or in the middle of the night and you sleep, instead, your system returns your ghrelin levels back to normal—and your hunger disappears!
How to Deal: Studies have shown that your circadian rhythm (your internal clock) is linked to your genes. Some people are night owls and some are morning people, while most fall somewhere in the middle. Interestingly, the night owls in the study got less sleep, had higher ghrelin levels, and tended to be overweight. So, while you may be stuck with your night-owl genes, you can choose to change your habits. Try to go to bed earlier at night, and keep track of any changes in your hunger levels. You will likely find that your late-night snacking habits are no longer a problem.