After eating a quality breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it can be frustrating to feel hunger pangs just mere hours later—especially if you are trying to be diligent about watching what you eat.
Whether you’re aiming for better portion control, want to prevent overeating, or maintain or lose weight, it can feel like an incredibly difficult task when you’re always hungry: How can you stay focused on the goal while batting a constant stomach growl?
Today’s foodie culture also means temptation is everywhere—in magazines and commercials, even just walking down the street past a food truck—which can lead to rash decisions, like indulging in fast food.
But, there are ways to stay full and satisfied and suppress hunger naturally (without the use of dangerous diet pills). While it’s common to associate light, small meals and snacks, like a salad or a smoothie, as unfilling, that’s actually not always true.
In fact, the size of a meal doesn’t have nearly as much to do with satiation as the content that’s on the plate. It’s possible to feel just as full after a healthy meal, and it starts with understanding the food you put into your body.
Understanding the relationship between hunger and appetite
Nowadays, we have the luxury of living in a society where food is not just whatever’s available; instead, meals can be whatever you want them to be. From chicken parmesan to grilled ahi tuna, green bean casserole to green bean salad, cheeseburger or a veggie burger—you can eat whatever you’re craving. While foodies may rejoice at the abundance of choice and countless opportunity for amazing meals, it can also be easy to forget why we eat in the first place.
The role of food is to provide the essential energy and nutrients bodies need to grow and to maintain overall health. If you think back to the earliest humans, who were primarily hunters and gatherers, the primary goal of meals back then wasn’t to impress someone in a four-star restaurant, but rather to provide nourishment every day. In other words, eating food was a necessity and not something done merely for pleasure.
Of course, there’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy the food you eat, but it’s helpful to remember that the primary goal of food is to provide fuel. And it’s important to fuel up with the right nutrients, including essential vitamins and minerals.
It’s also beneficial to understand exactly how hunger is alleviated with food. Each time you eat, the stomach expands and fills up with the consumed particles, and internal nerve receptors sense the building pressure on the stomach wall. These receptors then send signals to the brain by way of the vagus nerve, and—along with digestive hormones secreted by the gastrointestinal tract—the brain then gets the alert that the stomach is full.
While the size of a meal and the quantity of food consumed certainly impacts a feeling of fullness, there are other factors that come into play—some are merely effects of willpower while others can actually trick the brain.
Simple tricks that help suppress appetite
There are plenty of things you can do regularly to cut down on hunger pangs and eat less. Some suggestions include:
- Drink lots of water. If you fill up on water before a meal, it will work just as well to expand the stomach and apply pressure to the lining of the gut, which can send signals to the brain earlier on as you eat. Water has no calories, of course, and is also important to stay hydrated and keep the body running efficiently.
- Eat slower. The slower you consume a meal, the more time the brain has to receive messages implying fullness. Here are some tips to slow everything down: eat in a calm environment with no distractions, put down your utensils between eat bite, opt for foods that take more time to chew, and set aside time for your meal (even just 30 minutes, but use every minute!).
- Use smaller plates. Doing so provides more portion control and also tricks the brain into thinking the body is consuming more than it actually is.
- Choose colors wisely. According to science, you should also consider using plates with a contrasting color from the food that is being served; for example, putting green beans on a yellow plate. Researchers have found that when the color of a food matches its plate, people actually serve themselves a larger portion, but the opposite is true when using unlike colors. When at all possible, eat in a room with blue walls or accents; experts have found that blue hues make food look less appealing leading people to eat less (this is why you don’t often find the color in many restaurants).
- Take it to go. When eating out, tell your waiter you’d like half the portion on your plate and the other half wrapped up to go. This is forced portion control that helps you monitor how much you are eating from the moment you sit down at the table.
- Turn up the temperature. Heat is also an effective way to lower appetite. Think about summertime—when it’s super hot outside, most people eat less and crave lighter foods like watermelon and salad. There’s an evolutionary reason for this: food is a means of obtaining energy, which also regulates body temperature. The more food we eat, the more energy required to break it down, which increases internal temps. So when you are hotter, the body craves less. With this in mind, it may be helpful to eat meals outside or even turn up the heat inside your home when sitting down for dinner.
Foods that provide a naturally full feeling
While some of these brain tricks are easy solutions, there’s also another way to suppress appetite by eating the right foods. In general, look for options that are high in fiber and/or protein.
Fiber is a natural compound found exclusively in plant material. It’s vital to normalizing bowel movements and contributing to optimal colon health, but aside from its digestive benefits, fiber is also a major player in providing a full and satisfied feeling after a meal.
Two kinds of fiber exist: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber (like that found in nuts and legumes) dissolves in water and forms a gel-like material that accumulates in the gut and slows digestion, which means you feel fuller for longer. Insoluble fiber (such as vegetables and whole grains) works by adding bulk to the stool and cleaning out the tract. It also aids food in passing quicker through the intestines and to the liver where it’s transformed into energy.
If that weren’t enough, fiber also has little caloric value, so you can chow down on fiber-rich foods without worry about excess calories. In fact, it’s recommended to consume about 20-35 grams of it per day, though most people obtain far less in the standard American diet.
Some foods that can add more fiber to the diet include:
- Breakfast cereals. Not all are created equal, so choose a brand that is whole grain or bran-based with five or more grams of fiber per serving.
- Whole grain carbs. Whole grains are just that—the entire grain. This is important because more processed grains have had the outer shell (or hull) removed, which greatly decreases the fiber content. Instead, look for breads that have at least two grams of dietary fiber per serving, and stock up on brown rice, wild rice, barley, whole wheat pasta, and bulgur wheat.
- Fruits and vegetables. Peas, carrots, spinach, broccoli, onions, apples, raspberries, blackberries, pears, guava, banana, and citrus are great options—and you can also enjoy their dried counterparts for similar effect. Just note that removing the skin or peels will reduce the fiber content, so eat it whole when possible.
- Legumes. Beans are actually good for the heart and also loaded with fiber. Try lentils, black beans, kidney beans, or any other type you like. Add them regularly to soups, salads, and sides.
In general, you want all fiber sources to be naturally occurring. While there are many products on store shelves today, like cookies, crackers, drinks, cereals, and even ice cream that have “added fiber” and appear like a healthier option, it’s usually not the case as many are loaded with sugars, additives, and preservatives. Stick with the suggestions above to get high-fiber and low-calorie foods into your system on a regular basis.
Protein is an essential part of the human body, a compound that makes up hair, nails, bones, muscles, cartilage, blood, and skin. When it comes to eating well, protein can help in two ways: By making you feel full after eating (similar to fiber), and by fueling you up with energy.
Protein has incredibly high staying power, meaning that it also more easily contributes to a full feeling. Additionally, because protein provides energy, it helps put the body to work. The high thermic effect of protein means that, as it gets digested, you are actually burning more calories than you would by just consuming fat or carbs.
Excellent protein sources include:
- Fish and meat. Look for lean cuts of pork, beef, lamb, bison, venison, salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, and bass.
- Poultry. Turkey, duck, and chicken are also great options.
- Legumes. Not only will you get a good amount of fiber, but beans have protein, too.
- Eggs. The yolk does contain a high amount of cholesterol, but one or two per day is totally safe and will give you a boost of protein.
- Dairy. Yogurt, milk, and cottage cheese are low-fat options that are high in protein.
- Whey. This milk byproduct is a common ingredient found in protein shakes. If you find that you struggle to get protein into your diet through natural sources, a protein shake can be a convenient replacement. It’s also an effective way for vegetarians and vegans to get more protein.
- Nuts and seeds. Opt for unsalted options that will help keep sodium intake low.