How understanding your appetite will help you control it

It’s likely you’ve experienced when your appetite is all over the place—maybe you are eating everything in sight or maybe just the thought of food disgusts you. And it can change from hour to hour or day to day. This fluctuation can be really frustrating for people trying to put on or lose weight. And to add to the frustration, your appetite is really complex, and triggered or suppressed by many factors. Let’s dive into what exactly controls your appetite and what control you have in either suppressing it, stimulating it, or changing your cravings. The more you learn about how it all works, the more you can make your appetite work for you, and not the other way around.

How your appetite works

In a nutshell, you become hungry or full because hormones signal to the brain that you feel one way or another. But let’s focus on each sensation. When you’re hungry, your hormones signal to your brain that you feel that way. This can sometimes cause a grumbling or even pain in your stomach. Then when you eat, the food goes into your stomach, which slowly stretches your stomach. This stretching activates nerves in the lining of your stomach to talk to a nerve that travels to the brain. Specifically, to the hypothalamus in your brain.

So this all sounds pretty simple actually, where does the complexity come in?

Although on the surface, it is a simple relationship—hormones talk to your brain and your brain says to eat or stop eating—which hormones talk and when is what makes the appetite mechanism more complex. As mentioned above, when the stomach lining stretches, hormones fire signals to the brain. However, when these hormones get triggered, they are smarter than just responding to any stretching. They know to “listen” for certain nutrients. This is why you won’t feel full for long if you simply have water. However, fat, minerals, and carbohydrates are all recognizable to these hormones and can signal to your brain to stay satisfied for longer.

The main hormones

Scientists are constantly learning more about the way appetite works, but as of now, they know over 20 different hormones play some type of role in your appetite. However, there are a few main hormones that do a lot of the communication heavy lifting.

Ghrelin ­– This is often deemed the “hunger hormone.” It’s created and released mostly in the stomach, and it sends signals to your body that its time to eat. Naturally this hormone fluctuates about every four hours—rising before meals and dropping after meals.

Insulin – Most frequently, people associate insulin with diabetes, but everyone’s body relies on insulin as part of the appetite mechanism. Insulin is released, travels to the hypothalamus where it binds to receptors that block your brain from receiving signals that you’re hungry. When you pay attention to your body, it’s easier to pick up on when this is firing and when you should stop eating.

Leptin – Leptin plays a similar role to insulin, but is produced by your body’s fat cells. It works on its own to signal satiety but it also increases sensitivity to insulin. This means that leptin works on its own and with insulin to make you feel full. Having two hard working hormones to indicate that you’re full is a way to keep us from overeating—as long as we pay attention to it!

Genes vs. environment

Since hormones regulate your appetite, you might guess that some of your ability to control your appetite is genetic. And research agrees with this guess. It turns out, based on your genes, you may have an overactive hormone that either suppresses or stimulates hunger. However, it’s also believed that your environment is a more powerful influence. Meaning the environment around you dictates how well you do with not chowing down. And that’s a good thing! It means that any genetic factors you have working against you, you can combat by controlling your environment to make it the most successful for you.

Suppressing your appetite

Often, when people are trying to lose weight, the inability to suppress their appetite comes up. If they could just stop themselves from being hungry all the time, weight loss would be a lot easier. Fortunately, there are things you can do to quiet an over-active appetite. Use any of these tips that work for you if you’re trying to lose weight, or even if you just want to avoid snacking in between meals.

  1. Eat slowly – Since your appetite really is all about recognition from your brain, give it a chance to recognize that your stomach is stretching.
  2. Eat mindfully – This may sound the same as slowing down, and they often go hand-in-hand, but eating mindfully means you focus on the act of eating and pay attention to your food. It means meal time is just that—meal time—and not tv and meal time.
  3. Choose nutrient-dense foods – As we already mentioned, hormones not only send signals based on the stomach stretching but how often they send signals also depends on which nutrients they are detecting. Ghrelin (remember this is the hunger hormone) will be released less quickly between meals if the food that you’re putting in your body is dense in nutrients. Both for meals and snacks, choose foods that have more protein and fiber.
  4. Get enough sleep (usually seven to nine hours) – When you don’t sleep enough, even if you get just two hours less than your optimal number, ghrelin levels will be higher the next day.
  5. Get regular exercise – Physical activity takes your mind off of eating, burns calories, but can also increase levels of certain satiety hormones.

Your appetite can be one of your greatest strengths or greatest weaknesses when it comes to maintaining, losing, or gaining weight. The appetite is complex but luckily with more awareness and knowledge for how it works, you can make sure that it’s working for you and not against you.

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