Remember that (now empty) bag of potato chips? How about the third helping of green bean casserole? Let’s face it: Sometimes, we’re guilty of eating when we’re not actually hungry Relationships between human thirst, hunger, drinking, and feeding. McKiernan, F, Houchins, J.A., Mattes, R.D. Purdue University, W. Lafayette, IN. Physiology & Behavior, 2008 Aug 6;94(5):700-8. Epub 2008 Apr 13.. And since hunger is typically harder to decipher than thirst, we may start munching for the wrong reasons Thirst-drinking, hunger-eating; tight coupling? McKiernan, F, Hollis, J.H., McCabe, G.P., et al. Department of Foods and Nutrition, Purdue University, 700 W State St, West Lafayette, IN. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009 Mar;109(3):486-90..

Artificial Appetite? — The Need-to-Know

When glucose levels are low, the liver sends signals to the hypothalamus, triggering that “I need a sandwich NOW” feeling Neural control of hunger, appetite, and satiety. Brobeck, J.R.,The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 1957 Jun;29(6):565-74.. And while we usually dash to the fridge at the first sign of a tummy grumble (which is simply a stomach contraction), we’re not always listening carefully enough. In one study, participants consumed more calories when food was presented on ceramic plates with folded napkins (signaling “meal time”) than when eaten from paper plates and plastic cups typically associated with smaller snacks When snacks become meals: How hunger and environmental cues bias food intake. Shimizu, M, Payne C.R., Wansink, B. Department of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, 110 Warren Hall, Ithaca, NY. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 2010 Aug 25;7:63.. Researchers are also finding that the larger the plate, the more we may chow down, regardless of appetite Bottomless bowls: why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Wansink, B., Painter, J.E., North, J. Applied Economics and Marketing. January 2005; 13(1): 93-100..

What’s all the confusion? Aside from situational factors, the hippocampus, an area of the brain connected to learning and memory, also helps out with feeling hungry A role for hippocampus in the utilization of hunger signals. Davidson, T.L, Jarrard, L.E. Department of Psychological Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. Behavioral and Neural Biology, 1993 Mar;59(2):167-71.. But too many second-helpings can interfere with hippocampal function, making true hunger even harder to decipher. (Since when did eating become one big detective game?!) A potential role for the hippocampus in energy intake and body weight regulation. Davidson, T.L, Kanoski, S.E., Schier, L.A. et al. Department of Psychological Sciences, Ingestive Behavior Research Center, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. The Current Opinion in Pharmacology, 2007 Dec;7(6):613-6. Epub 2007 Nov 26..

The Hunger Games — Your Action Plan

Eating when not actually hungry isn’t all that and a bag of chips. In fact, those extra calories can seriously hurt our health and could even lead to obesity Relationships between human thirst, hunger, drinking, and feeding. McKiernan, F, Houchins, J.A., Mattes, R.D. Purdue University, W. Lafayette, IN. Physiology & Behavior, 2008 Aug 6;94(5):700-8. Epub 2008 Apr 13.. Whether we’re being tricked by false hunger cues or are simply craving a bag of M&M’s, here are some simple tips to steer clear of false hunger:

  • Drink water first. A good hunger test is to drink a glass of water and wait 15 minutes before cruising down the drive-through. If the hunger pangs are still knocking, go ahead and eat.
  • An apple a day…can keep hunger at bay? Picture chomping down on a Red Delicious. If not hungry enough to eat an apple, then it’s probably not really dinnertime.
  • Catch enough zzz’s. Lack of sleep increases appetite, hunger, and food intake Role of sleep duration in the regulation of glucose metabolism and appetite. Morselli, L., Leproult, R., Balbo, M. Department of Medicine, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Best Practice & Research, Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2010 Oct; 24(5):687-702.. Grab those seven to nine hours of sleep to avoid overeating.
  • De-stress. Stress may lead to reaching for the cookie jar when we’re not actually hungry, so look for other ways to calm the mind to prevent using food for comfort.
  • Slow down. It takes time to actually feel full after a meal, so before reaching for dessert directly after supper, allow up to twenty minutes to see if the stomach can really fit more food.
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