We all know what hunger feels like. It’s that sting in the stomach that makes us immediately think about food. We also know that if we do not eat, this feeling intensifies and also can come with side effects like irritability, brain fog, and dizziness.
So what triggers this hunger feeling? There is quite a bit of research going on in this field and the most interesting area right now is a hormone called ghrelin and a receptor called GHSR-1A.
Bear with me for some technical parts here that I will try to simplify. There is an idea that our gut is using hormones to signal the need for food in order to survive. Ghrelin is a hormone that circulates in our bodies and the levels vary depending on our current need for energy. If we are low on energy, Ghrelin will increase make us move around to “hunt” for food. Ghrelin also needs a receptor called GHSR-1A to be able to signal hunger and stimulate food intake.
Ghrelin levels in your body vary with your food intake and how much energy you currently have stored. The Ghrelin level will rise before mealtime and give you a hunger sensation. This will make your brain anticipate food and will further stimulate a feeling of reward. As you eat, the Ghrelin levels start to decrease along your feeling of hunger. This is due to Leptin, a different hormone that reduces hunger. It is secreted by the fat tissue and it is believed that the more fat tissue we have, the more leptin is produced. So how come you can be overweight and hungry you might wonder? It is believed that in overweight people, the receptors in the hypothalamus (a part of your brain) for leptin become defective and the hunger is not suppressed by the leptin anymore.
Insulin is another hormone that has the ability to suppress hunger by stimulating triacylglycerols in fat tissue which then releases leptin.
So how do we achieve a healthy weight when we are in the hands of our hormones?
Our bodies are designed to keep homeostasis which means balance. However, this balance system can be overridden by ‘pleasure signals’. Meaning, we will eat for pleasure instead of the need for energy. This is how we overeat and become overweight.
By adopting healthy eating behavior, what I would like to call Mindful Eating, you can “coach” yourself a healthy eating pattern and still enjoy eating.
We rarely think about the environment we eat in, how fast we eat, what our food looks like, and what the food items on our plate will do for our bodies. Food could be medicine!
One of the first steps would be to ask yourself why you are eating. The answer to this could be different at different times. Many of us eat for many more reasons than being hungry and needing energy. Think about if you eat because of boredom, emotions such as being sad or happy, feeling stressed, or maybe loneliness. Ask yourself, am I really hungry? By eating when you feel sad or stressed but do not need energy you trigger the pleasure signals and they override the sadness or stress for that moment. It is a short term fix that set you up for unnecessary weight gain and health issues.
Eating too fast will also set you up for overeating. When you put food in your mouth you instantly get satisfaction from your taste buds, but your brain does not receive any signaling of being full until the food starts to be digested and absorbed in the stomach. This may take up to 20 minutes. If you eat very fast you can consume many more calories than what your body actually need before you feel full. These calories will be stored in your body and contribute to more weight gain.
Other steps to embrace in Mindful Eating are to sit down in a calm environment, clear distractions and focus on the eating. Turn off the computer and the TV. Put down the cell phone. Talk to your family about the day. Put your fork down between bites and chew thoroughly. This helps your digestion. Take sips of your choice of drink; do not gulp it down, especially if your drink contains calories. Look at the food and appreciate different colors and think about what your meal will do for your health. Take pauses and assess your fullness feeling. You should stop eating before you feel overly full. You should feel comfortable after a meal. Make your food pleasurable for your eyes by incorporating many colors. This will actually help making your meal more nutritious.
Join me for a Living Well: The Joy of Mindful Eating seminar for more information on how you make your food habits healthy and help you achieve a healthy weight on Thursday, May 24 from 12pm to 1pm in the Coliseum Room!
Ulrika is a clinical dietitian and Certified Nutrition Support Clinician providing medical nutrition therapy for both inpatients and outpatients at Touro. She graduated from Nicholls State University and completed her internship at Tulane University. Ulrika is also the President-Elect for the New Orleans Dietetic Association.