The Hunger Games

So how is it when the holidays roll around and you have to put on the sweatpants just to accommodate your fullness factor you’re somehow still able to fit in or desire that one last piece of pie but not an extra serving of broccoli?

Or how the heck is it possible to finish a nice meal out with some friends and still crave a bowl of ice cream but not a carrot?

Or better yet why some foods get you salivating, or how the simple sight, smell, memory, or thought of certain foods can spark your appetite but others seem to do no such thing. And it’s always the foods we know we shouldn’t be eating as often, am I right or what?

I know personally I’ve opened the fridge, freezer, pantry, and cupboards to a host of delicious foods, looked around and said to myself, “damn, there’s nothing good to eat in here.”

So what gives? Why do you get hungry exactly or crave certain foods? It’s not as simple as you would think but I’m about to simplify it for you and help you control our appetite as well as to give you strategies that will actually help you desire foods that are better suited in helping you to reach your health and wellness goals.

Raging hormones and appetite control

A few months ago together we discussed how a calorie is not just a calorie and the significance your hormones play in fat loss, building lean muscle, and controlling appetite. In that article I touched on the basic hormones but below is a detailed outline of all of the major players when it comes to your appetite. Don’t stress, there isn’t going to be a test at the end of this to see if you got it all. The idea is to show you how sophisticated your body is when it comes to dealing with hunger and maintaining homeostasis internally. Chart courtesy of precision nutrition

Hormone Origin and role
  • Released in response to gastrin and changes in serum calcium levels
  • Secreted by cells in the thyroid, GI tract, and pancreas
  • A complementary signal responsible for fine tuning the eating process
  • A partner hormone to insulin, released after meals
  • Secreted by the pancreas
  • It slows the emptying of our stomach and suppresses glucagon (glucagon raises blood sugar)
  • Released when blood glucose levels are above the norm
  • Secreted by cells of the gut in proportion to the amount of energy ingested
  • Stimulates insulin and amylin secretion, may assist in signaling the brain to stop eating
  • Released with low calorie intake and low body fat levels
  • Secreted by fat cells
  • Low leptin means a slower metabolism and drive to increase food consumption. Administering leptin analogs in humans is ineffective for appetite suppression. Leptin exists to prevent starvation, not to lose weight. Only when leptin is provided along with amylin, slight fat loss may occur
  • Released when food enters stomach, protein dense foods are the most  potent stimulator of gastrin
  • Secreted by cells in stomach/small  intestine
  • Initiates the digestion process
  • Released when acids reach small intestine
  • Secreted by cells in small intestine
  • Produces pancreatic fluid, inhibits gastrin release, and enhances effects of cholescystokinin
Cholecystokinin (CCK)
  • Released when protein and fat enter the small intestine
  • Secreted by cells in small intestine
  • Signals pancreas to produce enzymes, inhibits gastrin, stimulates gallbladder contraction, and triggers satiety in the brain
Gastric inhibitory polypeptide (GIP)
  • Released when food enters small intestine
  • Secreted by cells in small intestine
  • Enhances insulin release, inhibits gastric secretions and motility
  • Released when bicarbonate is dumped into the small intestine and between meals/when fasting
  • Secreted by cells in small intestine
  • Promotes muscle contraction of GI tract, and when released between meals, you’ll notice borborygmus (growling stomach)
  • Released between meals to reduce digestive activity
  • Secreted by stomach, intestine and pancreas
  • Slows gastric emptying, reduces GI muscle contractions and blood flow to gut
PYY 3-36
  • Released in the hours following a meal, presumably to suppress appetite
  • Secreted by the small/large intestine
  • Inhibits stomach motility while increasing water and electrolyte absorption in the colon. May also suppress pancreatic enzyme secretion. Obesity seems to be a PYY 3-36 deficient state
  • Released in response to low food intake/fasting
  • Secreted by cells of the stomach, pancreas, placenta, kidney, pituitary and hypothalamus
  • Stimulates release of growth hormone to encourage eating and acts to regulate energy balance long-term


And it doesn’t just end with the nervous system. There are a host of other cell signals, physical signs, emotional signs, mental triggers, and messages from your digestive tract that influence your appetite and hunger. So without making this more complicated than it needs to be the gist of it is that hunger might have more to do with the brain, how you think, and external cues than it does with your tummy telling you it’s time to eat.

It’s how you’re wired and a few big problems

.Get wired : Get Connected. Ranga Krishna Tipirneni via Compfight

As humans have evolved and the rise of industrialization, big business, and capitalism has developed our food choices and sources have become easier to access, find, and the variety has expanded. What was once hard to find animal protein (meats), tubers, vegetables, and some fruits and nuts has now become super easy to access processed foods that come in a package or wrapper, seem to never expire, and can be picked up in a matter of seconds with no need to forage and scavenger for. Because food use to be so scarce we’re wired to search for and consume food once it is found. Seek and destroy.

The problem now is that food is so easy to locate:  You can literally get off your tush and walk to your fridge, cupboards, or pantries and easily access grub anytime you please. If there is nothing you like, are in the mood for, or to lazy to prepare than in a matter of minutes you can hop in a car and drive a couple of minutes to pick something up.

Hardly and physical exertion is needed to find food: In a world where it was once possible you may have to go days without eating, walk miles, sprint or chase after (and sometimes run from) your food you now only have to walk down an aisle or from the couch to the fridge expanding little to no energy whatsoever. What was once a HUGE calorie expenditure has now become non-existent.

The options you’re left with are far less nutrient dense: A major player in feeling satiated after a meal is the nutrient density of a food. To sum up nutrient density in a nutshell it is the amount of nutrients you receive from a particular food compared to the amount of calories you have to consume. However, nutrient density extends beyond just vitamins and minerals found in a particular food. It also has to do with phytochemicals in the things taht we eat that are essential for proper functioning of the immune system and allow our bodies to detoxify themselves and protect from chronic disease.

Food usually highest in nutrient density are green leafy veggies like kale, collard, and brussels sprouts.

You’re body likes homeostasis: When you start to lose body fat the body launches a counter strike to conserve as much energy as possible. It does this by increasing your appetite and slowing down the rate at which you burn calories. I go into depth about this process here but here is a brief summary.

When your body thinks that your fat stores are too low or the message isn’t being sent to the hypothalamus that everything is a-ok a hormone known as cortisol gets jacked up. Cortisol is a stress hormone in the body that essentially helps to store fat and break-down muscle (with that said it does have some positive affects as well.)

When your cortisol gets all pumped up a hormone in your stomach known as Ghrelin and another in your brain known as NPY increase your appetite and force you to crave high energy foods like carbohydrates and sugar that mess with your blood sugar and promote fat storage.

Sean Croxton of Undergroundwellness has a wonderful passage in his book The Dark Side of Fat Loss simplifying what was just outlined.

The starvation defense system: by the numbers

1. Leptin declines due to reduced fat stores, or is perceived to be low due to leptin resistance.
2. Low leptin inhibits thyroid hormone conversion, thus slowing metabolism.
3. Low leptin increases cortisol, which stores fat and burns muscle.
4. Low leptin increases NPY, which makes you crave carbohydrates (the bad kind).
5. Low leptin increases ghrelin, which makes you hungry.
6. Your slow metabolism makes you want to sit on the couch all day.
7. Your appetite is raging. You lose control and eat everything in the fridge.
8. It’s over! Weight loss program broken.
9. Your body feverishly stores fat to replenish its stores.
10. Your body stores extra fat just in case you ever feel like inducing another famine.
11. At some point you go on another calorie-restricted diet.
12. Back to Step One.

I highly recommend picking up Sean’s book if you are interested in learning more about the science behind fat loss.

We like to project our hunger: Most of us know what to eat and understand what groceries we should buy but some way or another we often find ourselves with ice cream in our shopping carts,  frozen pizza’s in our freezer, and chips in the cabinets.

What gives man?

In a study conducted by Read and Van Leeuwen it’s been shown that we are god awful at predicting our future needs because our current emotional state clouds our abilities to get a fair assessment. We opt for instant gratification because it is difficult to empathize with our future self or the decision that might benefit us more in the future.

“…So, what is it about the projection bias that means I choose junk food in the supermarket when I’m hungry? Well, what studies have shown is that when we are in a ‘hot’ emotional state – in this case hungry – we tend to start ignoring the long-term in favour of short-term self-gratification. We think that because we are desperate for a quick fix of calories right now, we’ll always be desperate for a quick fix. This means that when I’m hungry I forget my commitment to eat healthily and concentrate on what will give me an immediate rush of calories and pleasure: junk food….” psyblog

Oh my word! Our environment really does shape us. Amongst some other things

Elle est de retour! Francois Meehan via Compfight

Your appetite can be influenced by a variety of factors over the course of a day.

  • Environment: Size of dishes, packages, and various containers
  • Tastes: Sweet, savory, fatty, salty, etc..
  • Textures: Crunchy, creamy, tough, or chewy
  • Sight: Colors, looks appetizing, packaging
  • Emotion/Memory: A particular memory with a meal/food or the way a certain food makes you feel. Stress, anxiety, desire, discomfort, pain, happiness, excitement, etc…
  • Smell: Cinn-a-bon anyone, Mrs Fields, enough said right.
  • Social: Eating with family and friends, cultural traditions, peer pressure.
  • Habits: Eating to fast because you are rushed, drinks on the weekends with friends, a certain breakfast every morning, eating in front of the TV, dessert after dinner.
  • Physical: A growling stomach, irritability if you go to long between eating, headaches.
  • Mental: I need this food, I want this food, I’m suppose to eat this food. Not eating mind-fully and enjoying and actually taking time to savor and enjoy a meal.

So with all this influence happening over the course of any given day what the heck can you do to help control your appetite a bit.

Exercise: I know it seems obvious but regular exercise creates an environment that promotes a more efficient system at burning fat as fuel. If you’re not exercising regularly and using fat efficiently you can experience blood sugar fluctuations as well as appetite and mood swings. Moderate to intense training 20-30 minutes per day is a great place to start. However, if you’re not currently doing any exercising just get started by committing to at least 5 minutes of movement every morning and build upon that.

Eat slower: It takes roughly 20 minutes for your body to send signals to your brain letting it know you are satisfied. The amount of protein, fat, fiber, and the type of food you consume (real versus not so real) also help to contribute to satiety. Chew slowly, put utensils down between bites or use chopsticks, and choose real foods like these in the proper portions like this.

Use smaller plates and make your meal look beautiful: Colors, presentation, and the size of the plates you use can all help with appetite control. Take pride in the meal you create and dress it up a little with a variety of colors and design.

Relax, enjoy, and more mindful: Eat with friends that will help influence you to make better food choices. Enjoy their conversation and the environment of the meal. But be careful not to get to distracted. Numerous studies have shown that we tend to eat much more when we are distracted (1) Pay attention to the tastes, textures, smells, and sight of what you’re eating.

Add more bulk: If you want to help with feeling satisfied consider eating nutrient dense foods like green leafy veggies. How much spinach would you need to eat to add up to 400 calories versus how much of a chocolate bar would you need to eat? Now which one will take up the most room in the stomach?

Catch those moods: Recognize those situations that typically cause you to feel stressed, anxious, depressed, or irritable. Often those emotions can affect our appetites by simulating the signs of hunger in the gut. Try some of these breathing techniques to help you relax or head out for a brisk walk or maybe even throw on a funny video or some good tunes to change your state.

Regulating hunger and appetite can be tricky because there are so many things that can influence it over the course of a day. Pick a strategy or two and try to apply them for a few weeks and see how you feel. The most important thing is to stay consistent with whatever method you try to apply long enough to see if it is effective.

What type of eater are you? Emotional, Physical, Cultural, Social, etc…

Live limitless,


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