It's a common complaint: how can you lose weight if you're hungry all the time? The solution may be easier than you think. Many acts of overeating, in fact, may have less to do with appetite than the sheer amount of food we have on our plate, says Dr. Barbara Rolls, a nutrition expert at Penn State University and author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan.
If we "super-size" our meals, it only stands to reason we would want to get our money's worth by cleaning our plates. But this is not how our bodies are meant to work. "Big meals override the cues that tell us we are full and should stop eating," says Rolls, who has seen this time and time again in various studies. "It's quite strange."
Food packaging and commercials may suggest cravings that are not really there; plus there's depression, anxiety and other outside influences that cause us to eat when we're not really hungry. Of course, a healthy appetite can make it hard to lose weight, especially if your stomach is grumbling because you've cut back on calories to shed a few pounds.
So rather than just eating less, Rolls and others say, there are ways to feel full without giving up all that much. For hunger pains that don't go away—real or imagined—here's what the latest studies suggest:
Super-size filling foods
Fruits and vegetables contain a lot of water and fiber, which can quickly fill you up. Better yet, they are low in calories. Ross suggests super-sizing these foods much like you would fast food. "Rather than cutting back, just eat more fruits and vegetables instead," she says.
Try a variety to a keep your diet interesting. Corn or strawberries may prove more appealing than Brussels sprouts or grapefruit for some, so don't give up on all of these foods if you don't care for a few.
Eat your protein
A high-protein, low-carb diet is believed to be unhealthy over the long term, but the latest diet craze has helped reveal a little-appreciated detail: protein-rich foods are possibly more filling. In a recent study, Dr. David Weigle of the University of Washington School of Medicine followed 19 people who kept to a 2,000-calorie diet for several months.
At first, they got 15 percent of calories from protein. Then they upped their protein to 30 percent. The men and women ate the same percentage of carbohydrates throughout, while cutting back on fats. Compared to the weeks they ate less protein, volunteers reported feeling more full when they ate 30 percent of their calories from protein. They also lost more weight.
No one has studied whether a juicy steak is more filling than fruits and vegetables, at least calorie by calorie, says Rolls. But as long as the protein is lean, she says that including such foods in your diet may help you eat less and lose weight.
Limit fatty foods, can the soda
Cakes and other fatty foods pack a lot of calories without adding much substance. A recent study on mice found that high-fat diets seem to override a hormone that tells the body when it's full. Foods laden with sugar and fat may taste good, but they do little to fill you up.
Indeed, researchers at Tufts University found that nearly two-thirds of adults got more calories from soft drinks than any other specific food. As a whole, they were also more obese than those who stuck to fruit juice and low-fat milk.
A little snacking may not only keep your hunger in-check between meals, but may also leave you less tempted to overeat at dinner. Indeed, some research suggests that snacking throughout the day instead of sitting down for regular meals may lead to greater weight loss.
Keep in mind that this does not apply to what we think of as traditional snacks, such as cookies or chips. Nibbling on nuts or cheese, which are high in protein, may leave you fuller than snacking on foods that are high in carbohydrates or calories. To make sure snacking doesn't become just another big meal, try picking out different foods that are low in calories and keep them handy for when hunger strikes.
Eat until you're hara hachi bu
Translated from Japanese, this literally means "eat until you're 80 percent full." Residents of the Japanese island of Okinawa, who are among the oldest and healthiest people on the planet, have perfected this practice over the years.
In general, Okinawans eat 10 percent to 40 percent fewer calories than Americans. Try eating until you feel mostly full, then wait 20 minutes. Research suggests that many people are satisfied after following the 80 percent rule, even though they eat less.