I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m going on a healthy journey, a path that I call “The Journey to Genkijima.”
I drew a map that showed a path to this mythical, but still very important island, the island of my own good health. “Genki” is a Japanese word meaning, among other things, “energetic good health.” “Jima” means island, similar to “Shima.” It’s not just about being healthy, but being vigorous, positive. You can see the map I drew here. I placed gold and silver star stickers for every pound I lost. I’ve set up different landmarks on the map and the destination, in my mind, looks a lot like the Fall Forest in Horse Isle 3.
At this point I’ve gotten past the lighthouse at One-Derland, and am crossing Bravery Bay. I had to put more spots on the map to make a longer path because I realized that I should really end up at a hundred and forty pounds, not a hundred and fifty.
That’s been going pretty well actually, even after quarantine, and I’m sixty pounds lighter than when I started. I still have forty-five or so to go but I already feel so much better. My blood pressure is way down and my resting heart rate is sixty!
In any case, now that I’ve seen some real success over the long term, I’m going to start sharing some of the strategies that have worked for me.
So today’s topic is appetite.
Big topic! But it can really help if you learn to manage it. Since everybody knows the standard tips about using caffeine or drinking lots of water or eating lots of fiber, I want to go beyond that. As far as I’ve been able to find, appetite has three major causes.
Actual need for fuel/nutrients
Gut biota, number and types
Emotional and mental habits
I’ll take these one by one and show how I have been able to manage my appetite by keeping these things in mind. I have had no uncontrolled binges for about six months now and honestly… I haven’t gone that long without an uncontrolled eating session since I was maybe seven or eight years old, when I wasn’t in charge of how much I ate. I freakin’ love food. Always have. Especially sugar and carbs. So how did I manage half a year without any binges, and without going off the rails after a holiday meal?
Need for fuel/nutrients
A person will have massive cravings if they aren’t eating enough or if the food they are eating doesn’t give them the nutrients they need. If you are missing major nutrients that your body needs, you’ll run into problems, so I try to get a good range of foods to make sure that I am getting the right kinds of fuel. Also I’m eating more and more whole foods because they are likely to have nice little added bonus vitamins and trace minerals that other foods may not.
Increasing amounts of research is saying that the gut bacteria that helps us digest our food has a massive impact on what we crave or even want to eat. The good news is, you can change the population in your gut by persistently eating more and more of the foods that are better for you. Within a week or so, you can see some pretty big changes. For example, now lentils seem really good to me. I’ve also noticed that eating some fiber and prebiotics (the food that survives to the intestines and feeds the bacteria) can make me crave other foods. For example, I started off by cutting way back on sugar and eating more apples and veggies I liked, such as carrots, broccoli, that sort of thing. Before long I was really loving the idea of eating lentils, spinach, red cabbage, whole wheat, and more. Healthier foods actually tasted better to me because of this population change. Also my sugar cravings backed off so they weren’t so insane.
Example of an effect of this change: I thought I’d stashed some gourmet jellybeans for my birthday. My birthday was a “holiday” so I could eat sugar if I wanted to. These were some wicked nice jellybeans, bought at Trader Joe’s, made in Ireland. Yet, because I wasn’t craving sugar nearly as much, I was able to realize that they were left at work, where I couldn’t get to them, and I was able to go “it’s okay, I won’t have them” and continue on with my day. Previously I would have obsessed about it.
Our emotions can have a huge impact on our success. Most of us know that. For example, if there is a lot of self sabotage lurking behind the scenes, we might put ourselves in situations that could hamper our success. Habits are a huge part of this too. For every old habit we have, we need to replace it with a new habit. Habits can definitely cause us to be hungry at certain times of the day, and emotions can cause false hunger as well. So we might really need to do some work on ourselves to get to the point where we are ready to gain that health we so richly deserve, and convince ourselves that the effort is really worth it.
Being in touch with what is going on inside us can help us think “I’m not hungry, I’m just bored” or “why don’t I go have a cuddle instead of that bag of chips? That’s what I really want.” Doing that can help you realize that our bodies actually do crave what’s good for them, but sometimes those cravings are harder to hear at first.
With that in mind, I found it really helpful to plan my meals around when I am least and most hungry, and plan the type of meal accordingly as well. For example, I am not all that hungry in the morning – unless I eat a carb-rich breakfast with little protein. At lunch I know hat I’m not usually that hungry either, when I’m busy with work. When I’m not, I get bored more easily and also want more food. I usually have a mid afternoon slump, around teatime, where I really need something to get me through. My spouse and I both like a big dinner, and sometimes I snack in the evenings.
With all that in mind, it works best for me if I do something like this:
Small breakfast, invariably including protein, and caffeine when I want it. No sugar in the caffeine, and carbs must be complex. Example: eggs, a protein bar, a whole wheat flatbread with lentils, or oatmeal with a scoop of PBfit and a couple ounces of blueberries, or pizza if that’s what we had the day before.
Lunch needs protein in it too, so I’ll do something like a protein bar (my go-to if I don’t know what else to have), eggs and veggies, avocado with toast or flatbread, green soup and flatbread, leftover chicken from the dinner before, one of my breakfast options, or something random like roasted chickpeas, or an apple, PBfit, and a beef stick. Once I get back to work I’ll start eating more salads, or maybe sooner provided I can keep them good long enough to finish the leafy greens.
Afternoon snack is handled nicely with a protein shake or an apple with PBfit.
Dinner can be any number of things. It might be pizza, hommade sushi, a cup of rice with chicken on top, soup, chili, whatever. I usually save enough calories from before that I can have a bit more for dinner. I try to add vegetables when I can, and when we have something like udon or other noodles I weigh them carefully and pick a better option like buckwheat soba or brown rice vermicelli. Or we might have rice and baked salmon or a burger and grilled corn. I allow more in the way of carbs at dinner, but still weigh carefully.
Snack might be a square of dark chocolate or maybe some wasabi peas, nothing big. I might have nuts or something like that but I weigh those carefully too. I have a secret weapon if I wake up hungry in the middle of the night or need something right before bed – nonfat cottage chese.
I think this illustrates how appetite tracking works. If I know when I am likely to be hungry, and when I am likely to be not hungry, I can plan ahead and balance things so I get what I need when I need it. I can also plan ahead so if I am unexpectedly hungry I can do something about it – like have a cup of hot tea, or a protein shake, or some cottage cheese for example. I try to make my supplemental snacks either calorie free, or high in protein. Though I eat a lot of low fat foods, I do have fat in my diet, usually in the form of avocado or salmon or nuts or something like that, not usually in condiments. Besides, I would rather spend my calories on protein or good carbs, given a choice.
Other tips that have helped me:
Aside from the above strategy, sometimes it helps for me to have some warm miso soup (about 40 calories) or some tea, whether herbal or caffeinated. The warmth in my stomach gives me that full, warm sensation I’m looking for as well as hydration. This is good for when I know I’ve had enough to eat but I still want a bit of a snack.
Find the healthiest version possible of your favorite foods and work them into your diet.
For example, I LOVE pizza, so I figured out how to make my own, which is not only tastier, but when I make it I can keep it to about 600 calories for two generously sized slices. That’s not only better than any other pizza you can buy at a pizzaria, it’s real pizza, not pita pizza or cauliflower pizza or anything like that. If you made those you could probably do way better than me on the calories. My pizza is a handmade crust where I weigh the flour so I know how much is going into each quarter pizza, with turkey pepperoni, reduced fat mozzarella, black olives, boneless skinless chicken breast, mushrooms, and tomato sauce. The reduced fat cheese and the turkey pepperoni help shave off fat but don’t really affect the taste all that much.
Another example is chocolate. Love the stuff. So I found squares that fit into my calorie counts and I eat them slowly. Dove Promises work pretty well for this and Ghiradelli squares all have the calories on the individually wrapped square.
PBFit has been nice for my peanut butter fix, I make an apple dip by mixing it with cinnamon and water. I also have a favorite brand of protein shake that is lower in calorie and includes some added vitamins.
Weighing food has helped train my eye so that I can more accurately estimate what a proper portion is. It’s a learning tool as much as it is a tool to help me know exactly what’s going into me.
Along with understanding appetite and what causes cravings, thinking of my food as a “budget” helps me out a lot. When I want a huge bowl of noodles I think “is this actually going to satisfy me or is this going to make me want more, when I’ve already reached my limit? What could I do to this so I still get my noodles but I’m better satisfied?” So I’ll cut my noodle portion in half and add veggies. Or I’ll think “this looks delicious but if I start eating it, is the normal portion really going to be worth it, when I’ll just want more and this other thing will be better for me?”
Understanding not only when we are hungry, but why, really helps when we’re trying to retrain ourselves. It can be the difference between steady success and yo-yo dieting. It can also make our journey a whole lot more comfortable!