You’re Not Hungry: Your Appetite is Making You Eat
By Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, and Nina Frusztajer Marquis, MD
Authors of Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain
Like millions of others, you may question why you eat too much or what you can do about it. The obvious answers are not solutions to decreasing the ever-increasing weight gain in this country. Too large portion sizes, too much snacking, too much fat in the food, too little exercise — all these reasons can be recited by heart.
None of these reasons get at the core of why you eat too much.
After all, if a portion served by a restaurant is too large, it does not have to be eaten. It can be left on the plate; your mother is not going to lecture you about starving children if you don’t eat the food yourself. Or you can take leftovers home and make another meal out of it.
Nor it is that difficult to make wiser meal and snack choices given the descriptions on food labels. Also, the proliferation of reduced fat, no sugar, and reduced calorie foods make it just as easy to drink zero-calorie flavored water as a large bottle of soda or a large fat and sugar-filled blended coffee.
So why don’t you? It is assumed you eat wrongly because you are eating out of hunger and need these vast quantities of food or calories to fill you up. Consequently, most if not all of the popular diet plans are based on giving people foods to make them less hungry.
The problem is, this is wrong. If people ate only when they are hungry and stopped eating when they were full, everyone would all be thin.
The reason you eat the way you do is that most of the time you are eating out of appetite, not hunger. (This is true of pet dogs as well. My dachshund that can hear the refrigerator door open from 2 miles away. If chicken is being taken out, he will stand on his hind legs with a look on his face that says, “Is that for me?” This occurs regardless of how much dog food he has already eaten.)
Appetite is a good thing because it is probably responsible for the large variety of foods humans are willing to consume. (If you ate only out of hunger, you might eat only the first foods you could put our hands on and never vary your diet.) Appetite has caused us to seek out a variety of foods and thus provided the many nutrients the body needs. Additionally, satisfying the appetite led to the creation of an immense variety of recipes inherited from centuries of cooks aiming to please the appetites of their patrons.
But appetite can also be bad for your health. It is appetite — not hunger — that is constantly getting you to put food in your mouth when you are not hungry.
Have you ever ordered dessert after proclaiming you were too stuffed to eat anymore? Have you ever been busy working with no thought of food when you were told to leave your desk for a birthday party? Five minutes later you were eating cake even though you had absolutely no hunger at the moment. Does the smell of fried dough at a fair or sausages and onions frying on a street vendor’s cart make your mouth water even though you just ate? Can you get through a ball game without eating a hot dog even though you had dinner before leaving home? The examples are endless. (For an excellent example of how appetite works, check out the book Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic. Her descriptions of multiple course meals that extended for hours was a dramatic example of how tantalizing foods provoke eating far beyond lack of hunger.)
Sometimes the forces that drive appetite are so strong it seems almost impossible not to give in and eat. This is because the drive to eat is coming from your brain, from a specific change in your brain chemistry.
Appetite is turned on and off by a particular brain neurotransmitter, serotonin. Serotonin is better known for its effect on regulating mood. However, it plays another significant role. When serotonin is activated, it turns off the desire to eat. You feel satisfied with no yearning to put food in your mouth. It is similar to how you feel when you drink enough water after being thirsty or get enough sleep when you feel tired.
But sometimes serotonin is involved in appetite being turned on. We discovered this years ago during research being done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We found people who routinely snacked on sweet or starchy snacks in the afternoon or in the evening. They never snacked on fruits or vegetables, or protein foods like cheese or cold cuts. We called these people carbohydrate cravers.
Our research showed that their appetite for carbs was linked to a change in mood. These people felt restless, impatient and grumpy. They had difficulty focusing and felt tired even though they had not done any physical activity. The brain was signaling, via this carbohydrate appetite, that new serotonin had to be made in order to adjust their moods.
Why the appetite for carbohydrates?
Because carbohydrates, with the exception of those in fruit, set in motion events leading to an increased synthesis of serotonin in the brain. When this happens, serotonin is able to improve mood, boost energy and bring back a sense of well-being.
The appetite for carbohydrates is a natural way of making yourself feel better — but it can lead to overeating and weight gain. Unfortunately, carbohydrate appetite does not tell you which carbohydrates to eat, much less which ones contain the least amounts of fat and calories.
The decisions are up to you. It is possible to satisfy your appetite by eating low calorie, low-fat carbs such as popcorn or pretzels or low- fat breakfast cereal. Or you can eat chocolate candy bars, fat-laden potato chips or rich ice cream. It is like thirst. Both beer and water will satisfy the need for liquids but one will cost you more calories.
When the right carbohydrates are eaten in the right amount, appetite is satisfied, mood is improved, energy levels goes up (maybe enough to exercise!), and a sense of well being is experienced. Your kitchen and the supermarket are filled with carbohydrates that will quickly and easily shut off your appetite and turn on your good mood.
The cereal aisle is a good place to start: any cereal that contains less than 1.5 grams of fat per serving will do. Don’t worry if the cereal contains some sugar or comes in strange colors. Look at the label and pick a cereal which will give you about 25-30 grams of carbohydrates (usually about a cup or cup and a quarter) for about 130 calories. Eat it as if you were eating a snack; that is without milk. If you have a handy microwave, cook a small white or sweet potato and eat that as an appetite stopper, especially in the afternoon. An English muffin with a teaspoon of jam or a thin half of a cinnamon raisin bagel will keep your appetite under control if eaten before lunch or dinner. Bread sticks, very low fat biscotti, fat free meringue cookies, very low fat soy or rice crackers, or a packet of instant oatmeal, any flavor will put the breaks on your appetite so that you will eat only out of hunger and stop eating when the hunger is satisfied.
Boost Serotonin to switch off your appetite and turn on a good mood.
©2009 Judith J. Wurtman, PhD and Nina T. Frusztajer, MD, authors of The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain
Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain, has discovered the connection between carbohydrate craving, serotonin, and emotional well-being in her MIT clinical studies. She received her PhD from George Washington University, is the founder of a Harvard University hospital weight-loss facility and counsels private weight management clients. She has written five books, including The Serotonin Solution, and more than 40 peer-reviewed articles for professional publications. She lives in Miami Beach, Florida.
Nina T. Frusztajer, MD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs — Nature’s Own Appetite Suppressant — to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain, counsels private weight management clients and is a practicing physician and certified professional life coach. She received her master’s degree in Nutrition from Columbia University and her medical degree from George Washington University. She lives in Boston, MA.
For more information, please visit www.SerotoninPowerDiet.com.