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How to Outsmart Your Hunger Hormones

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We tend to think of weight as a matter of simple math: Eat fewer calories than your body burns in a day, and the scale will slide lower. But hunger can make that math more complicated. 

Much of the drive to dig in comes from hormones in our bodies — some of which are directly involved in hunger and satiety (or feeling satisfied) and some of which act in more oblique ways, says Stephen Devries, MD, a preventive cardiologist and executive director of the nonprofit Gaples Institute.

Here’s a look at how to keep a handle on the hormones that are making you hungry.

Eat more slowly

There are receptors in your stomach that tell your brain it’s filling up with food, but that’s not  necessarily going to make you feel full enough to stop eating. As the food gets digested and passes through your intestines, a series of hormonal signals are sent out. Some respond to partially digested foods, triggering the release of enzymes that help break them down further. Leptin, an important satiety hormone secreted by fat cells, communicates to your brain that you’re getting full. 

This game of hormonal telephone takes a while, says Devries. If you’re eating too quickly, by the time your brain gets the message that you’ve had enough, you could have eaten more than your body actually needs. Slow down to give your digestive system and brain time to get on the same page. Some easy ways to do this include chewing more, putting your fork down between bites, and pausing to sip a glass of water (which, bonus, also makes your stomach fuller).

Go easy on fats and sugary snacks

This might sound like standard weight loss advice (and, sure, it is), but limiting your intake of fats and simple carbohydrates does more than control calorie count. It can also affect how your hormones do their jobs. A review of research found that diets full of high-fat foods, fried snacks, cookies, and candy “compromise the satiating effects of gut hormones.” In other words, the hormones in your stomach don’t work as well to tell your brain that you’re satisfied — which can lead to overeating.

Try to manage your stress

Stress eating is real, and you might not even realize you’re doing it. The stress hormone cortisol increases your appetite, explains Maxine Yeung, a registered dietitian and owner of The Wellness Whisk. “When stress persists, cortisol levels might stay elevated, too, leading you to eat more foods high in fat and sugar than you might need or want,” Yeung says. 

Add that to the list of reasons it’s important to take your mental health seriously. Yeung recommends participating in calming activities that you enjoy, whether that’s taking a post-dinner walk, rolling out the yoga mat, or playing cards with friends. If you get vacation days at work, use them! And if you’re struggling to cope with stress on your own, consider reaching out to a therapist. Many therapists now offer virtual visits, which can make squeezing an appointment into your schedule that much easier.

Get more sleep

Sleep is also correlated with cortisol. When you’re sleep deprived, cortisol increases. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night to make sure you’re well rested, which will help keep cortisol levels where they ought to be. Getting enough sleep also helps you control snacking. Going to bed at a reasonable time can help put the kibosh on late-night nibbles, says Yeung. Plus, when you’re not tired the next day, you’ll be less likely to reach for sugary snacks or a large afternoon latte just to make it through an energy slump.

Exercise — even just a little

Moving your body helps keep your hormones in balance. You don’t have to be a gym rat to make a difference. For instance, taking a brisk 30-minute walk five days a week can help prevent insulin resistance. That is when your body fails to respond properly to the hormone insulin, which is involved in breaking down sugar in the blood and storing extra as fat. Insulin resistance can lead to Type 2 diabetes. Exercise may also help control levels of leptin and its counterpart, ghrelin, which is secreted from cells in your gastrointestinal tract and signals your body to eat. 

For women: Track your menstrual cycle

If you get periods, you probably already know that hormones can affect everything from your mood and sleep to, yes, your appetite. “Progesterone raises after ovulation and that's when we might feel more hungry and have cravings right before our periods,” Yeung explains. 

Rather than try to deny those cravings entirely, she recommends stocking up on healthier snacks, so you’re better prepared. If chocolate cravings are your kryptonite, that might mean having handy pre-portioned packets of dark chocolate-dipped almonds, for instance. Or if you can’t seem to get enough ice cream, you could try keeping low-calorie frozen yogurt in the freezer.