Hunger, without doubt, is one of the most primal feelings you've got. If you're hungry, you KNOW it. You may be tired, antsy, frustrated, salivating for no particular reason, and have that "empty" feeling in your midsection. Is is past meal time? Or are you just dying to eat some food, get rid of the discomfort, and get on with your life? Or maybe you're not as confident with your "hunger senses" as you'd like to be, and therefore might be likely to ignore them in favor for a little more weight loss. How can you know if you really need food right then and there? How do you really know if you're hungry?
Well my friends, I like to trust my body, as should you. In the end, the body knows what's best for it, even if we tend to misinterpret it at some point or another. In fact, that's usually the problem with "fake hunger," which is that you've misinterpreted your body's signals as something other than their intended message. It's easy to do, and while the body DOES know what's best for it, there's no doubt it can be a little vague sometimes. I honestly believe that if one could somehow be be presented with real and fake hunger feelings at the same time, and was told to choose the genuine feeling of need for food, it wouldn't be that hard to do. But because we only feel one of these hungers at a time, we sometimes forget, or don't pay attention to, the real stuff versus the fake stuff. And this can be problematic, because there are a few times that your body can fake you out, especially when it comes to hunger:
When you're thirsty: Sometimes your body jumbles up the signals between hunger and thirst. It's a funny thing, but a lot of people actually eat something when they SHOULD just have a glass of water and be on their merry way. Luckily, I believe this is the easiest fake hunger to reveal. Have a glass of water, wait a few minutes, and if you're still hungry, then you most likely really DO need some food. Simple stuff right?
When you're tired: This one's pretty interesting. You've got two major hormones in your body that control hunger, and fullness/satiety. These hormones are called leptin and ghrelin. Ghrelin stimulates appetite, and leptin sends the signal that you're full. When you get tired, your levels of leptin actually decrease, and therefore your brain thinks your body needs fuel, when in reality it just needs sleep. Usually you don't want to mess this one up. At night, it's easy to identify the mix-up, especially if it's past your bedtime. However if it's just a midday crash, you might get unnecessarily hungry. Sure, you could probably use a little food to keep you going, but not as much as you might think. That fatigue is playing a few tricks on you. Have an apple, get up and walk around, and see if that helps. Your hunger may mysteriously vanish.
When you're craving: Now THIS one can be a hard feeling to identify. Ever wanted a particular food so bad that it almost hurt? Did you classify it as hunger and maybe get yourself a bit of whatever it is you wanted (maybe a slice of cake, pizza, etc.)? Well, if you did, you succumbed to a craving. Cravings and hunger are very different beasts, and usually come from different sources. Hunger is physical. It won't go away, and will only get worse and more uncomfortable with time. It's important to feed your body nutritious foods when it really needs them. However, cravings are emotional. If you want a piece of cake really badly, you'll most likely think about it harder than anything else right then, but you won't actually be in physical pain. But...god...wouldn't that cake taste good? Yup, craving.
A good test for a craving is to think about another food. If the feeling of desire is still there, then you're probably hungry. If it has mysteriously vanished, then voila, it's a craving, and it's time to distract yourself. Go for a walk, watch some TV, or my personal favorite, HIT THE GYM! Cravings can intensify with strong emotions (ever eaten a tub of ice cream out of sadness? Guess what -- you weren't hungry.) Keep your emotions in check, your meals balanced, and more than likely your cravings will subside.
There are also a few other ways to quell cravings. If you've recently been trying to "quit" desserts, you'll most likely get sugar cravings like mad. These sugars, as you probably could guess, aren't good for you, and shouldn't be consumed. However if those cravings just won't go away, have a piece of fruit. The natural sugar in fruit is extremely good for you, and while you may initially think they won't do anything for you (I mean come on now, it's fruit, not chocolate cake), you might be surprised to find that after a banana, that cake isn't such a necessity. Your body has gotten the sugar it thinks it needs.
The same things apply to fat. If you're used to fatty foods, and have a craving for something loaded with sour cream or whole milk, have a few cashews, or almonds, and see if that helps. I bet it will.
When you've eaten the wrong food: There's a reason you're hungry an hour later after that burger and fries. Sure, you've temporarily put food in your belly, but guess what -- it's not anything close to resembling what your body actually needs as far as nutrients go. And after your body figures that out (which it does rather quickly), it says to you "Wrong-o bud! You messed up. Try again." This obviously can be a bit of a problem, especially if you're trying to keep a cap on your calories. But it's not an impossible situation to fix. I would suggest having a small portion of lean meat, and a little unsaturated healthy fat. Both of these foods are extremely satiating, and will probably end your hunger pangs for a longer duration. Try some chicken and almonds, or tuna and a bit of natural peanut butter (not together of course!) A hard boiled egg is also a GREAT snack. The key is to keep the calories low and the macro-nutrient level high.
When you're bored: It's pretty easy to eat when you've got nothing else to do. EXTREMELY easy actually. I bet you've done it many times. I know I have. There isn't much to avoiding this one, just keep yourself occupied 'til mealtime, and you'll be just fine. You can also space your meals out so they hit more frequently, and you'll have a smaller amount of downtime between eating.
Now that's all well and good, and to know when your body isn't actually hungry is obviously a very useful tool. But there are times when you ARE hungry that shouldn't ever be ignored, as they can be crucial opportunities to build your body into the magnificent sculpture you always wanted. It is just as important to know when to eat as it is to know when not to. Become the master of your hunger, and you'll become the master of your body in the process.
Eat Small, Frequent Meals: I eat between 5-6 meals a day, the equivalent of about 500 calories a piece. This is actually about a maintenence level for me, as it is with most males. That 2000 calorie limit you hear so much about is really just an average put forth by the FDA, and may have no application to you whatsoever. In general, most males should eat between 2200-2800 (and many can eat over 3k with no problem), and females are usually within 1200-1900 (and SHOULDN'T eat fewer than 1200 unless they want their metabolism to drop like a rock and put on fat.) To keep your metabolism going strong and your body using nutrients effectively, eating more often is better. Try 5 meals to start with:
-Dinner/Snack (These last two are interchangeable based on the timing between your meals.)
Get these meals timed right, and get the right amount of macro-nutrients, and you'll keep your hunger very well contained, and your body consistently and effectively fed. It may take a few tries to get it right, but once you do, it's a really nice equilibrium.
Refuel after a workout: Whether you've been cranking hard in the gym, or back from a long run, your body needs nourishment. Generally right after a workout, your appetite will be supressed, but will return with fury in about an hour. This hunger is VERY REAL, and should NOT be ignored. You should never feel guilty about fulfilling this hunger (as long as you're doing so with healthy, nutrient dense foods), as your body needs these nutrients desperately to rebuild what you've broken down during the course of your workout. You can rest assured too, because if you get this post-workout meal just right you can virtually guarantee that your body will only use this food for what it really needs, and won't be likely to store any as fat. It's still possible to overreat here of course, but listen to your body, and when you're full, you should be good.
Again though, HEALTHY FOODS: Lean protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats.
If you workout regularly, I would suggest a post-workout meal IMMEDIATELY after your workout ends. This is usually in shake form for me (as for thousands of others,) but it doesn't have to be. Get some protein in your body, as well as some carbs to refuel your glycogen stores.
Also, workouts can have lasting effects on hunger. If I take a day off from the gym (hah!), I'm actually hungrier than my lifting days. Sounds surprising right? Well your body rebuilds when it rests, and it needs material to rebuild, so being very hungry on a rest day is not at all uncommon. Embrace the hunger, eat to satisfy, and keep the foods healthy. If you keep an eye on calories, nutrients, and frequency of meals, it's hard to go wrong.
So that's hunger for you. Tricky, yet also brutally honest. Don't fall for the tricks, but don't ignore its basic function, to tell you when you need food. Hopefully this article has given you a few things to consider when it comes to eating, and if you've got any comments, personal experiences with hunger trends, or just feel compelled to share your life stories, by all means PLEASE COMMENT!
Eat healthy, learn to listen to your body, and as always, good luck!