The Hungry Woman’s Guide to Eating. Part 1

Discover the surprising reasons why you want to chow down-and the best ways to keep your appetite in control

You’re at your desk, working away, when suddenly hunger hits. Your stomach growls, your concentration flies out the window and there’s only one fix: food. But what causes this overwhelming sensation-and how can you keep it from taking over your life? For answers to these and other gnawing questions, SELF turned to top eating experts (naturally, right before lunch).

Why do I feel hungry?
It’s really pretty simple. When your body needs food, it has to get your attention so you’ll feed it. It accomplishes this by sending out those telltale hunger signals. “Getting enough energy is so crucial to survival that our bodies have evolved all sorts of mechanisms to tell us when it’s time to eat,” says Richard Mattes, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Most people think that the stomach sounds the alarm, but it’s the brain that’s really in charge-specifically, an area called the hypothalamus. One of the ways your body gets energy is by converting certain foods into glucose, also known as blood sugar. Your blood sugar drops at regular intervals throughout the day, setting off all kinds of hormonal dips and surges. Recognizing an impending energy crisis, the hypothalamus, a little walnut-shaped gland, uses the nervous system to send out “feed me” messages. One piece of this interbody e-mail gets your stomach growling. Another initiates food-seeking behavior, which includes selecting what you’ll eat and actually tucking in to it. But physical circumstances aren’t the only things that can trigger the desire to eat. (That’s one reason some people end up taking in more calories than they actually need.) Psychological cues, including the thought, sight, taste and smell of food, can be as powerful as physical hunger. “We are conditioned by past experiences to recall the pleasure of eating,” says John Foreyt, Ph.D., a director of behavioral medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “If you’re used to having a big tub of popcorn every time you go to the movies, you’ll feel hungry for one as soon as you buy your ticket, even if you’ve just had dinner,” he explains. “You’re not hungry in the sense that you need energy but because you’re in a particular setting where you’re accustomed to eating.”

So how can I tell true hunger from psychological hunger?
It helps to know which particular signals your body uses to get your attention. Try this SELF-test: Skip a meal, then pay attention to what happens in your body over the next hour or two. You may observe a variety of symptoms-not just the familiar stomach rumble. “Your stomach may feel empty; you may become weak, distracted or preoccupied by the thought of eating,” says Foreyt. Some people also get a slight headache or feel a little nauseated. Once you’re familiar with your body’s physical hunger profile, you can more easily distinguish it from psychological hunger and curb your intake of extra (often nutritionally empty) calories. When movie-theater-popcorn hunger strikes, for instance, you’ll know whether it’s just a learned response (that you can choose to ignore) or a reminder that you missed dinner. “Many people we see in our weight loss programs have never really learned to identify true hunger,” Foreyt says. “Once they do, it’s easier to set up a diet plan that satisfies them.”

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