Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hunger Triggers Part 4: Can Exercise Make You Hungry? The Gym Effect

This is part #4 of my answers for Allure Magazine's "Hunger Triggers" April, 2010 article.

Scenario #4:
The Exercise or "Gym Effect" or "How exercise can lead to overeating.

Exercise is great for us - it really is a "magic pill." We know that exercise burns calories, keeps our bodies healthy and fit, slows the aging process, and is extremely important during weight loss (to help keep metabolism and muscle mass high) and for weight maintenance (over 90% of people who *keep* weight off long term, exercise almost every day.) So given all these benefits, how could exercise work against us? The simple answer: if we do not plan carefully, exercise can lead to overeating.

How can exercise lead to overeating?
  1. People may give themselves permission to overeat after a gym workout, thinking they've "earned it." They forget that walking on a treadmill only burns about 70 calories a mile (a little more than one Oreo cookie.) Exercise machines at the gym are notorious for reporting that you've burned *more* calories than you actually have - don't believe them! To burn off 500 calories on the treadmill, you'd have to walk about 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 miles! People unfortunately often eat more than they've burned off, and don't realize it. Don't ruin a good workout with a bag of chips afterwards!   
  2. Really intense workouts can lead to increased appetite, if you don't plan ahead. It is important to have a snack (containing protein and carbohydrates) within 1-4 hours *before* a workout, so you are not "starving." A snack will help prevent you from becoming "hypoglycemic" (having low blood sugar) during the workout, so you'll feel better, and have a more effective session.
After an intense workout, it is a good idea to have another small, balanced snack (containing both protein and carbohydrate), for two reasons. First, you need some carbohydrate to "restock" your muscles with glycogen (stored energy in your muscles). You need this so you'll have a good workout tomorrow! It is also important to have some protein, so your muscles can repair the tiny tears that occur during a workout - this is how you build muscle.

Besides the muscle benefits, a balanced snack will also help calm your appetite later. If you skip it, you will feel ravenously hungry. But remember - watch the calories, so you don't eat too much of a good thing!

Hunger Triggers Part 3: The Diet Food Effect

This is part #3 of my answers for Allure Magazine's "Hunger Triggers" April, 2010 article.

Scenario #3
The Diet Food Effect

Studies show that “lite” or “low cal” on the label can lead to people overeating these items, probably because they are fooling themselves into thinking these are “free” foods they can eat in unlimited quantities. I always tell people they HAVE to look at the calories, and very importantly the PORTION SIZE on the nutrition label, which can be deceptively small for many items. People can easily fool themselves into thinking they are eating 50 calories of something, when they may actually be eating a 200 calorie portion size. A few mistakes like this really add up by the end of the day.

People often make the same mistakes with “healthy” restaurant meals such as salads or wraps. Certain salad items, and many “healthy” wraps are very high calorie, sometimes very high in saturated fat, and may be very high in refined carbohydrates. Caesar salad can have 600 calories if it is covered with buttered croutons and high-fat dressing. Make it a Chicken Caesar Salad Wrap, and it could be even worse - 1200 calories, depending on how it’s made.

I advise my patients to check the calories, which they can often do at home ahead of time, by looking up a menu of a particular restaurant online. They can use websites of chain restaurants, or a calorie counting website such as Calorie King, Sparkpeople, Dotti’s Weight Loss Zone (great for restaurants) , or The Daily Plate. I also tell people to plan ahead; if they go often to a certain type of restaurant, say Mexican, Italian, or Indian, use one of the websites to get an idea of the best choices ahead of time, so they go in knowing pretty much what they are going to do. It can give people a sense of control; knowledge is power.

Hunger Triggers Part 2: The Couch Potato Effect: how TV makes us overeat

This is part 2 of 4, of my answers for the April, 2010 Allure Magazine article on "Hunger Triggers."

Scenario #2
The Couch Potato Effect - How TV Makes Us Overeat

It is pretty obvious to most people that the mere sight or smell of food can trigger the desire to eat. But new research shows that SOME people are more prone to “visual cues” to eat, than other people.

There is a great article on this:
This study shows that the sight of food triggers, or activates, a positive memory of the “reward” one feels when eating, and this drives up the appetite. This increased appetite can actually be seen on a type of brain scan called a functional MRI. But the study shows something else: there *is* a difference between how “naturally thin” people respond to the sight of food, compared with people who are prone to becoming overweight. It looks like our "drive to eat" might be wired differently, based partly on our genetics - on our brains! Some people might get "false signals" about when to eat, and when to not eat.

The study looked at forty people, about half naturally slim, and half who were overweight, and used a functional MRI to see how their brains responded to food. They looked at two different scenarios: what happened when each group was “fasted” overnight, and what happened when they were “overfed.” They found some really interesting results. The naturally thin people after an overnight fast actually had a HIGHER food drive compared to the overweight group; the overweight had a somewhat sluggish morning food response.

But when the groups were overfed, with more calories than they needed, the “naturally thin” stopped craving food. The overweight group, on the other hand, even after being fed too many calories, still had a high “food drive” - it’s as if their appetite does not shut off properly.

So what do we do with this information? If people are struggling with their weight, it is important for them to understand that their bodies and minds might be giving them “false signals” about when to eat, and when to stop eating. They may have to "force" themselves to eat breakfast, even if they don't feel like it. Studies show that people who eat breakfast tend to weigh less, and are less likely to overeat later in the day. If people do not feel like eating breakfast, they should probably try to do so anyway, since this may help them reset their “appetite thermostat” to proper levels over time.

They also should be aware that their bodies and minds may not tell them when it is time to stop eating. This is REALLY important, because a lot of weight loss gurus tell people to just “stop when you feel full.” If you wait for your brain to tell you, and your brain is giving false signals, you will OVEREAT if you try to rely on your body’s signals.

In order to take control, you have to let you intellect take over; you have to be consciously aware of portion size and calories. Naturally thin people who counsel overweight people may not be aware of this problem, and can unfortunately give useless advice to “just listen to your body.” If your body is telling you to overeat, you’ll have to use your brain to override the abnormally high “eat” signals. It takes some work, but with planning and practice, it gets much easier over time.

It is also important to be aware of “visual cues” to eat, like the sight of food on tv, or on the counter, in the fridge, etc. I suggest that people remove as many “visual cues” as possible (hide the tempting food on the top shelf, double-bag the ice cream in the freezer so you can’t see it, walk away from the tv when food commercials come on, and take a different route so you don’t drive past your favorite donut shop.)

If you DO see tempting food, and feel it’s pull, quickly grab a sugar-free drink, some gum, Listerine breath strips, or sugar-free cough lozenges to keep your mouth busy, (and the food doesn’t taste as good after the Listerine or lozenges!)

For more information on "Hunger Triggers", go on to Part 3...

Allure Magazine: Hunger Triggers, Part I: Eating with Friends

Health writer Rory Evans contributes to many magazines, and frequently consults multiple experts for advice for her articles. I’ve helped Rory with health and nutrition stories over the years, and had a chance to contribute to her latest article, “Hunger Triggers” in the April 2010 Allure Magazine.

Her article is available now in stores; her version used several different experts. When Rory first emailed me questions for this story, I answered with my version. I addressed four different scenarios that can trigger overeating, based on various studies and research Here is the first part of my version, below:

Scenario #1:
Eating with Thin Friends, and Eating with large groups.

People who struggle with their weight sometimes are angry that their “naturally thin” friends “get to eat anything they want.” It is understandable that this can be annoying, because it seems unfair. In reality, it *is* unfair!

But there are different ways to respond to this reality.
You can be in denial, and pretend that you can eat just as many calories.
You can be angry, and overeat in a “shoot yourself in the foot” kind of way.
Or you can accept that people have very different metabolisms, for many reasons, and move forward to take charge of your life.

The reality is that people have different genetics, different lifestyles, different activity levels during the day, different amounts of formal exercise, different medical issues and medications, and different stress levels. All of these can affect how many calories a person needs in a day. Some people really DO burn more calories than others.

But it doesn’t matter what your friend is doing, you have to do what is right for you. And besides, you don’t know what your friend is doing the rest of the time; she might be eating a lot less than you think at her other meals. Studies show that most slender people DO in fact monitor their food intake - even if they deny it, or don’t realize they are doing it.

It is also important to recognize that certain situations can lead to eating extra calories. For example, this can happen when you are distracted and not really paying attention to what you are eating. For example, when you are eating in a dark room, and can’t see your food very well, or when you are in a large group, socializing, and not listening to your body’s signals.

Studies show that friends can influence each other’s eating behavior. You have to be aware that some friends may push you toward unhealthy behavior, while other friends may support a healthy lifestyle. If you have a friend who consistently pushes you toward unhealthy behavior, and you cannot control yourself, you are going to have to confront that friend, and ask for help. If your friend refuses to help you, and keeps sabotaging you, of course you’re going to have to ask yourself what kind of a friend she really is. On the other hand, some friends will support you in your efforts to have a healthy lifestyle. They will work out with you, eat healthy meals with you, go to farmers' markets with you, and enjoy a variety of healthy activities with you! Try to spend time with friends who have the same positive goals you have.

When it comes to eating out with a large group, or with that thin friend, there are a couple of tricks to help you stay in control. Before you go out, the simple act of "pre-snacking" on a little bit of protein (such as a low fat mozarella stick), can really help you control you portion size and calories. Once you are at a party or restaurant, try to start with some healthy low sodium vegetable soup, a green salad, or choose a veggie plate. Getting your appetite under control this way will allow you to slow down and enjoy your meal and a bit of dessert.

The goal is to avoid feeing ravenous, eating too quickly, too much, and feeling out of control. It is awful to feel bloated and sorry after overeating, and to find that you've eaten so quickly that you didn't enjoy anything. A little pre-planning can help you enjoy your time with your friends, and feel great afterwards!

To learn how to handle other "Hunger Triggers" read on to my next blog entries...