How to Conquer Physical Hunger and Feel Full

How to Conquer Physical Hunger and Feel Full

What is Physical Hunger?

Ever go on a short hike with just water, get lost, and make it back to your car hours later – RAVENOUS? That’s true physical hunger.

Graham crackers and old carrots-a great find when physically hungry True physical hunger focuses the mind on finding food. An old box of graham crackers or some limp carrots can taste wonderful when you’re in its grip.

Physical hunger adds deliciousness to food. It’s the hunger with no specific food cravings. Filling foods are desired rather than high sugar, salt and fat treats.

There’s a downside to physical hunger: it stays active for 20-30 minutes after you start eating. Ghrelin, the hunger hormone, is responsible for this effect. Physical hunger develops as the level of ghrelin rises and it doesn’t go away until the hormone level drops. That takes 20 to 30 minutes after food hits your stomach.  Unfortunately we finish most meals in less than 30 minutes. This makes it easy to overeat.

Can you recall the last time you were so hungry you would have eaten old graham crackers or limp carrots just to tide you over? If not, you’re not alone. Our bodies don’t like to get so hungry. They set an alarm: an empty feeling that develops at our usual mealtimes.

If you get engrossed in an activity and are not paying attention to time you may miss that reminder. You won’t miss the later feeling of true hunger!

Sadly, mealtime reminder hungers have the same time delay as true hunger. It takes a good half hour for them to go away.

Why Did Overeating Become a Problem?

The US Government fought hunger in the 20th century by increasing the food supply. This is best exemplified by the 1928 “A chicken in every pot” slogan. It was very successful—by 1970 food production had boomed and food was easily available and cheap. The market needed to increase consumption for this extra supply so food was prepared and packaged to entice us. This marketing strategy worked too well and our waistlines have suffered.

Look at pictures of cities in the 1950s and 1960s. You’ll see few restaurants and the grocery stores had few prepared foods for sale. Food was eaten only at scheduled meals and treats had to be specially baked. Meat was expensive and for many, chicken was reserved for Sunday dinner. Today the per pound price of chicken is less than for apples.

How Markets Distort Eating

In the effort to sell more, not only has food been made more enticing but portions have grown significantly. Today we consider current huge portions as normal. You may remember that Thrifty ice cream was once 5⊄ a scoop, but not that the cones and scoops were much smaller. The old triple scoop was as large as a current single scoop!

Supersizing became common, not only with ice cream but candy bars, cookies, chips, soda, sandwiches, steaks, etc. It was great marketing and helped to justify price hikes. Unfortunately our minds accept the bigger portion as the new normal and remember the old prices with nostalgia. Here is a study showing how portion sizes have increased since the 70s.

As portions have become supersized, so has clothing. No one wants to buy larger garb so brands put smaller numbers on larger clothes. Vintage clothing can be 10 sizes smaller than what you find in the store now (see how pant size changed )! 

Historic Strategies to Prevent Overeating

We can look to history for help with our problem with overeating. People developed strategies to husband precious resources because food was expensive. Today we need to re-launch those schemes to help with the waistline!

Slow the Eating Pace

Yes that old adage. The purpose of eating slowly is to give your body time to lower the level of hunger hormone or to silence the mealtime alarm. This prevents unneeded second helpings.

The cereal makers Kellogg and Graham pushed this idea to extremes. They asked that each mouthful be chewed 30 times before swallowing. That’s crazy! Still, taking a small mouthful – chewing – swallowing – and only then picking up the next mouthful is a healthy way to eat.

If you have trouble slowing down try eating with your non-dominant hand, or using a small spoon or chop sticks. Or better yet make eating a social occasion. When you eat with friends, you talk, listen and naturally slow your eating pace.

Eat until 80% Full

This strategy has to do with accepting that our hunger signal is on a delay cycle. It requires an awareness that feeling 80% full will change to feeling comfortably full in the next hour.

It’s a difficult concept to internalize. It needs to be practiced, preferably at home, near food. Stop eating before you finish your usual portion, wait half an hour, and then decide if you’re still hungry. Give it a try—it’s amazing but it really works, the hunger will be totally gone and you won’t get hungry again sooner.

Add an Appetizer

The word appetizer sounds like it’s intended to wet the appetite but in fact it serves as an appetite dampener. The soup, salad, pasta or bread served at the beginning of the meal starts calming the physical appetite (and lowering the hunger hormone). In olden days this allowed the cook to serve cheap food (clams and shrimp used to be cheap) and get away with serving less (expensive) meat. If you serve a low calorie appetizer and then a smaller entrée it can be more filling. If you use vegetables in the appetizer, it also improves the nutritional quality of the diet.

Try serving a salad, clear soup, raw vegetables, or bean dip before you serve the rest of the meal. Then serve less for the meal.

Smaller Plates

small plate compared to large

Paper plate on an 11″ plate

Before the 1970s a dinner plate measured less than 9″ in diameter. About the size of the thin paper plate in the photo on the right. That’s 2″ smaller than today’s 11″ plate and 4″ smaller than the 13″ plates used by some restaurants. The 11″ plate on the right has almost a quarter more surface area than the 9″ plate.

Hunger signals don’t go away as a result of eating an adequate amount of food. It’s far more complicated. Hunger goes away because our minds perceive that we ate an adequate meal. That perception is done by the part of the brain that monitors our breathing, heartbeat and other bodily functions. It works in the background and we’re unaware of its actions.

Unfortunately this part of the brain does no math. It judges an adequate portion size on just two criteria:

  1. Is the plate, bowl or cup well filled?
  2. Is the serving as large as the others around it?

If a meal or snack meets these criteria our brains perceive that we have had enough food and can feel satiated.

Look at the plates below. The portions on both plates are the same. But doesn’t the plate on the right look under filled ? All the empty plate surface leads the mind to think it didn’t get a full meal.

It’s surprising that we judge portion size in this way but good scientific studies have repeatedly shown that it is so. Even smart, knowledgeable nutrition professors judge their food portions this way—when given a larger bowl they dish out and eat a lot more ice cream (see this mindless eating video).

It’s Not Inadequate Willpower

Overeating is not a personal failing, it’s the result of a deliberate marketing plan that targets and manipulates our feelings of hunger to encourage us to eat more.

To control overeating we need to change the environment, not increase willpower. Here are simple strategies to change your nutrition environment, help you to overcome the allure of the marketers, and improve your eating habits.

  • Slow your eating speed
  • Eat until you are 80% full
  • Add an appetizer to your meal
  • Buy smaller dishes

Try one of these techniques and see how it works for you. Let me know your results in the comment section.