What Makes You Eat?

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on February 28, 2006 · 0 comments

The simple answer should be hunger. If we all ate to eliminate hunger and stopped eating when we were full, nobody would be overweight. In reality, few of us ever feel real hunger and most of us don’t stop eating when we’re full. The result is a population where more than 60% of adults are overweight.

We refer to appetites as big, healthy, bird-like or poor. So, is it your appetite that makes you eat too little, too much, or the right amount? In part, yes. But an individual’s appetite is a very complex response to forces inside and outside your body.

Appetite is defined as the desire to eat. That desire can be influenced by time of day, smell, taste, temperature, or social setting. For most people, noon signals lunch. The smell of baking bread or a taste of hot fudge is hard to resist. We eat ice cream to cool us down in summer and drink hot cocoa to warm up in the winter. Some of us eat more with company; others eat more when they are alone. Your appetite is also driven by hunger – if it has been too long since your last meal, your body sends signals that it needs to be refueled.

OK, you’ve decided to eat. What stops you from overeating? Your body receives two different signals that make you stop eating. One lets you know you’ve eaten enough. The second signal keeps you feeling satisfied after eating, creating the space between meals. The type of foods you eat triggers both these signals.

If you eat a variety of foods at a meal, you are more likely to eat too much. If you eat only one food at a meal, you are less likely to overeat because you get tired to the same taste over and over again. Soda and foods with a lot of sugar lead to overeating and shorten the time between meals. Starting your meal with a food that has a lot of volume, like soup or salad, cuts down on the total calories you’ll eat during the meal. Foods high in fiber or fat make you feel fuller longer, increasing the time between meals. Despite the popularity of high-protein diets, protein shows little effect on signaling the end of a meal or adding to the time between meals. Add alcohol to a meal and you stimulate your desire to eat, making it more likely you’ll overeat.

To Prevent Overeating:

  • Go easy on sweetened drinks and soda
  • Eat fewer sweet foods
  • Eat more fiber – popcorn, whole wheat, oatmeal
  • Start your meal with soup or salad
  • Enjoy a little fat in your meals
  • Watch out for buffets and holiday spreads, all those choices tempt you to overeat
  • Go easy on alcohol

Check out the feature Are You Hungry? Or Are You Full? to measure your own hunger-satisfaction scale.

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