Monday 18 February 2013

Week 8 Nutrition Habit: Psychological vs. Physiological Hunger

This wee 52 Weeks to Better Nutrition and a New You is about hunger. We have all felt it from time to time - especially if you have had fat loss as a goal. Is hunger a good guide for your eating? How do you know if you are really physiologically hungry or if you are just bored? Let's take a look...

Psychological vs. Physiological Hunger
Hunger is a natural feeling that the body uses to let you know it needs some food. This can be a great thing to help get you the nutrients you need to survive. However, many of you reading this live where there is an abundance of food and food marketing. In prosperous countries, food is no longer just something to provide essential nutrients to the body. It is our fun, our enjoyment, our pleasure, our entertainment and food is big business! Food manufacturers work hard to create combinations of food that maximally stimulate your taste-buds and in some cases, create a drug-like chemical response in your body and cause food addictions.  Then they bombard you with advertisements so food is always on your mind. As a result, your basic hunger mechanism and natural desires for certain foods are often warped.

Here is a wonderful tip I learned from Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition. When you feel hungry, ask yourself what you want to eat. If the answer is something healthy (e.g. raw veggies and hummus) then it is likely physiological hunger. If the answer is some specific type of junk food, then it is likely psychological hunger.
If this looks good, it is time to eat

Eating for fat loss
If your goal is fat loss, you will often have to say "no" to foods you want to eat and may feel hungry at times. This is not a pleasant thing, but a reality of pursing this goal. Your body sees fat as an emergency fuel source and does not want to lose it.

Eating for muscle gain and high performance
If gaining muscle is your goal or you are training for high performance, you will likely need to be more of a planned eater. In these contexts, you are not going for a happy state of homeostasis in your body, but rather trying to push your body to build lean muscle or perform at a higher level - neither of which the body wants to do and neither of which is comfortable. As a result you may often have to eat when you are not hungry and eat more than you want. It may also mean depriving yourself of treats in order to give your body what it needs to properly fuel itself while staying lean.

For muscle gain, I have often found that when I'm training properly for muscle gain, I'm more hungry. This is a good thing. It means my body is asking for what it needs to build the muscle I'm asking it to. If you are trying to build muscle and you feel hungry - eat something ASAP!

If you are training really hard and you don't have much of an appetite then this can be a good indicator you may be over-doing your training. A loss of appetite can be a symptom of overtraining and you would be wise to back down a bit and take a deload week or a few days off.

In the performance nutrition context, being in tune with your body can help. If you are craving salty foods, it could mean that you need more salt. (Note: while the average sedentary individual who never sweats and eats a highly processed diet needs less salt, a hard training athlete or fitness enthusiast who eats clean may need more dietary salt to replace sodium lost through heavy sweating.) If you have just exercised and you want carbs, that is a natural desire to replenish low blood sugar and glycogen levels which are depleted from the heavy training. If you seem to want more of a particular natural food, it may very well be your body's way of asking for a nutrient it needs more of. Pay attention and look for clues.

What about intuitive eating and listening to your body?
Intuitive eating is a form of eating where you follow some simple rules: eat when you are hungry, eat what your body wants and stop when you are satisfied. To those eating for optimal performance or body composition, this sounds like nutritional heresy. Personally it is concerning to me because of the influence of non-natural foods and food marketing (as mentioned previously). However, this form of eating can be helpful for some people in certain contexts. For example, Lauren Bersaglio founder of Libero Network a website devoted to helping individuals with issues such as eating disorders and body image issues, has found intuitive eating to be a very helpful and important part of helping people who have suffered with eating disorders re-learn how to eat. In this context intuitive eating can be what helps someone struggling with eating disorders get and stay healthy.

The application
This week, note your hunger feelings. When you feel hungry, stop and think about what you are feeling hungry for. If you would like some healthy food, then you are probably truly physiologically hungry and should eat. However, if all you want is candy or other junk food, then you should recognize this as psychological hunger. In the case of psychological boredom, find something else to do instead (e.g. go for a walk, read a good book, phone a friend, listen to music, etc). Look at directing this boredom to something occupy yourself with other than food and breaking the cycle of eating for boredom.

Here are the links to the previous 2013 weekly habits in case you missed them:
Week 1: Kitchen Cleanout (at the end of the introduction to this series)

Berardi, J., Andrews, R. The essentials of sport and exercise nutrition: Precision Nutrition certification manual, 2nd ed. Precision Nutrition, 2012.

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