Habit forming: managing hunger

Equinox offers nutrition coaching from certified instructors because it’s not just about what you eat, it’s about how you eat. So, we created Habit Forming, a monthly series devoted to bringing you actionable eating habits to help achieve your nutrition goals. This, the first installment, delves into the theme of hunger, the associated situational challenges, and habit-based techniques to solve them.

Though the physical feeling of hunger is universal, the primal urge to eat is far more nuanced and complicated, from both physiological and mental standpoints. “For many, the sensation of hunger is tied up in a web of confusion, emotions, and control,” says Katzie Guy-Hamilton, Equinox’s New York City–based director of food and beverage.

Our appetite is controlled by both our endocrine and our nervous systems, explains Jonathan Dick, Equinox’s London-based nutrition education lead, Tier X coach, and Equinox Fitness Training Institute master instructor. The gastrointestinal tract is our largest endocrine organ and is involved in processing and producing a multitude of hormones. “Two in particular play a key role: ghrelin (our appetite increaser, which sends hunger signals to the brain) and leptin (our appetite suppressor which informs the brain that the body has adequate energy stores),” Dick says.

To understand the body’s relationship with hunger, it’s not enough to simply explore the physical processes. So, we asked experts about common situational challenges and the habits that can solve them. Just as lifestyle and diet choices vary immensely among people, so do the solutions that work for them. So, mix and match the habits listed, employing the ones that feel actionable and realistic to you.

The Challenge: You Can’t Tell If You’re Hungry

Not only does hunger have a basis in the brain, thanks to hormone signals sent from the gut, it also has deep roots in the psyche. Myriad triggers like stress, exhaustion, addiction, and even boredom can trick your body into thinking it’s hungry, even if, biologically, that’s not the case. “I get intellectual hunger all the time,” says Guy-Hamilton. “Whether I’m working on tackling my email inbox, planning events, attending meetings, and beyond, my brain can get overloaded which makes me very hungry. I am hungry not only to distract myself from being overwhelmed, but also because my brain is exhausted.”

The Solutions

When hunger hits, Bethany Snodgrass, holistic health coach and operations manager at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in New York City, advises asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do I feel hunger in my stomach (rather than simply a desire to eat in my brain)? If so, you probably are hungry and need food.

  • Am I anxious, stressed, or tired? Take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to relax, it’s very possible the hunger will subside if it’s more emotion-based. A brisk five to ten minute walk outside can also provide the energy and respite you might actually be needing.

  • Am I thirsty? Before reaching for food, get some water, as the hunger may be masked thirst.

Dick recommends doing a two to five minute body scan assessment, starting from your toes all the way to the top of your head, making note of the sensations you experience. This will help you ascertain if what you’re feeling is truly hunger. Guy-Hamilton suggests considering when you last ate, what you consumed, and whether your energy level has dipped.

The Challenge: You Ignore Hunger Signals

“A major pitfall of ignoring hunger signals when they arise is overeating,” says Dick. “In today’s fast-paced world, it is all too common for people to go a whole day without eating and then make mindless decisions at dinner time and disregard portion control completely.”

The Solutions

If you’re often pressed for time to eat during the day, Snodgrass recommends keeping a few healthy snacks on hand, preferably in a drawer or refrigerator (as opposed to right on your desk), to avoid mindless eating. Consuming full meals is, of course, preferable, so try to schedule specific times during the day (like you would schedule important meetings and your workouts into your calendar) when you caneat, and give yourself enough time to do so.

The Challenge: You’re a Speed Eater

Eating too quickly is also a frequent problem associated with hunger, and usually results in overeating and stomach discomfort. Be particularly mindful of this after a workout, when your body has exerted itself and burnt many calories.

The Solutions

Snodgrass recommends eating in a calm environment with minimal distractions, choosing high-fiber foods that take more time to chew, and setting a minimum number of chews per bite—this will aid in digestion as well. She also suggests using smaller plates and utensils like chopsticks, which increase the amount of time it takes to eat. Lastly, she says, “find a slow eater and pace yourself to them.” Dick advises spending “at least twenty minutes consuming a meal, to give the body and brain time to process.” If you struggle with this, he says, record how long it actually takes you to eat, and increase the time from there.

The Challenge: You Feel Overly Full After a Meal

As it can be difficult to know when you’re hungry, so too can it be to understand when your body is full. We often eat past the point of actual fullness, resulting in a heavy feeling and unnecessary calories. “Eating until satisfied equates to about 80 percent full,” says Dick. This takes practice, he adds: In the beginning you may undereat or overeat.

The Solutions

After each meal (giving yourself adequate time to digest), write down what you ate and how full you felt, then absorb the information for next time. According to Snodgrass, a good cue for fullness is a feeling of contentment with a twinge of hunger. Once your body fully digests the food, she says, the sensation of hunger will quickly subside into one of satisfaction, without the weightiness that can come from overeating.

Photo: Getty Images

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