Why is it that just an hour after eating a perfectly satisfactory meal we often fancy one more thing to eat? That extra piece of toast after breakfast, a chocolate biscuit after lunch – or anything we can find in the fridge after dinner. The urge to snack when we don’t need to eat can be controlled, says emerging research – and the answer lies in our choice of foods at main meals and tweaking our behaviour whenever we’re around food.
My six ways to beat between-meal munchies will help you retrain your brain to think about food in a healthier way.
Reset your fat-chatting hormones
Your stomach ‘talks’ to your brain to tell you when you’re full – one way it does this is via the hormone leptin. Known as the satiety hormone, this regulates appetite and calorie burn.
But your fat tissue also uses leptin to talk to your brain and, if you’re overweight, the fat tissue produces too much of it, eventually making you more leptin resistant. Then the appetite-suppressing signals don’t get through to the brain. Result? You feel hungry even if you’re full.
So how to keep your leptin levels – and therefore your appetite – in check? ‘Your diet can influence how much leptin it produces,’ says Frank Hu MD PhD, professor of nutrition at Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health.
Over 13 years, his team observed 800 women with an average age of 45 and discovered those whose diets were higher in vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, nuts, legumes and polyunsaturated fats, and lower in sugar-sweetened drinks, red and processed meat and salt (with moderate intakes of alcohol), had lower levels of hormones, including leptin.
Frank Hu’s team found the more the women improved their diet over time, the less their leptin levels increased – a 13% versus 42% increase, potentially helping delay leptin resistance that worsens with age.
Help ensure your leptin levels work for, rather than against, you over time by following and sticking with meals and snacks in our regular diet planner.
Don’t go too low, calorie-wise
At HFG, we reject extremely low-calorie diets in favour of moderate calorie reduction for permanent weight loss. Eating a well balanced diet is the healthiest and most sustainable approach – and recent research proves this way of eating also helps regulate your appetite during the day in other ways than simply controlling leptin.
Drastic calorie reduction simply fuels your desire to snack, explains Susan B Roberts PhD, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Energy Metabolism Laboratory. ‘If you cut too many calories, there’s nothing you can do to control the hunger – it’s just too big an energy deficit,’ she says. ‘If you’re hungry, you will crave high-calorie foods. When you give in and eat them, that in turn has the consequence of encouraging future cravings.’
Getting into new habits is all about planning. If you need to get your eating into a regular pattern, this is another way our diet planner can help, by mapping your entire day’s meals and snacks.
Ride the crave wave
When seeing or smelling ‘naughty’ foods makes them seem irresistible, remember this response is short-lived. Just being aware of what’s happening and knowing it won’t last (and you can override it) can help you remain in control of your overall healthy eating plan. Quickly divert your attention elsewhere and the moment will pass.
Pump up the volume
Managing between-meal hunger is easier when meals are based on a healthy nutritional template, says Susan. She and her team have shown that breakfasts, lunches and dinners keep you feeling fuller for longer when they’re high in fibre and contain a balance of nutrients, including protein, and, crucially, provide a good volume of food.
The importance of the quantity of food is interesting because it goes beyond physical satiation and taps into our feelings about satisfaction, explains Barbara Rolls, chair of nutritional sciences at The Pennsylvania State University in the US and author of The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet (William Morrow, £12.99).
‘When you fill your plate with low-calorie but high-volume foods, such as vegetables or fruit, you eat with your eyes,’ she says. ‘You’ll feel more satiated than if you ate the same calories in a high-calorie, low-volume choice such as a couple of biscuits.’
Be savvy with snacks
Dark chocolate may sound like a disaster, but two squares may be just what you need to satisfy an emotional need for a treat, while physiologically helping to keep blood sugar levels stable (chocolate is digested slowly because of the fat it contains).
A skinny latte is a good choice of snack as the protein in the milk forms a colloidal gel in your stomach, making it more satisfying than a coffee with just a splash of milk. Or have a handful of nuts and seeds: you’ll get a potent hunger-taming combo of good fats, protein and fibre.
Know your food triggers
Thinking about your favourite food can provoke a physiological response. Susan explains, ‘To say you’re not hungry isn’t quite accurate. When you think about a food you love, saliva production can double and stomach secretions increase for digestion – which, in effect, makes you then physically feel that you want it.
Stomach muscles relax, creating space for food, and stomach contractions speed up, ready to move food through the gut.’
Cravings also lead to surges in the hormone insulin, which lowers blood sugar, increasing the feeling of hunger further still, and making you feel you want the food even though you don’t need it.
Having strategies to curb desire to snack in the first place is an important part of your plan. Don’t go into the coffee shop for a cappuccino if you know just the sight and smell of croissants will have you drooling.
Get up and move away when you see the ‘office cake’ doing the rounds. Or put a ‘closed’ sign on your kitchen door after dinner to remind you that it’s a no-go zone and further nibbles aren’t available.