Conventional dictates that to lose weight we need to eat less and/or exercise more. Traditionally, this leads people to cutting back on what they eat and perhaps upping their exercise too. Studies show that exercise, however, is not particularly effective for the purposes of weight. See here for a recent blog post about this. And just one unwanted side effect of cutting back on food is hunger, which can make dietary change quite unsustainable. Besides, plenty of studies and the experiences of countless individuals bear testament to the fact that taking a calorie-based approach to weight management simply does not work in the long term.
For successful, sustained weight los it is critical, in my opinion, to keep appetite nicely under control. This one tactic will generally allow people to eat healthily and lose excess fat quite readily. So important is appetite control, that I devoted a whole chapter of my last book Waist Disposal to it.
In this chapter, I suggest avoiding foodstuffs or additives that can enhance appetite (such as MSG and artificial sweeteners). In terms of what to eat, I emphasise the value of protein, as several lines of evidence show that higher protein diets satisfy the appetite quite naturally, which can then put a brake on food intake without hunger.
I was interested to read a recently-published study in overweight and obese men fed them, on separate occasions, energy-restricted diets which differed in terms of protein content . One diet provided 14 per cent of calories as protein, while the other higher protein diet was 25 per cent protein.
When eating the higher protein diet, men felt fuller during the day, had less desire to eat late in the evening, and were less likely to be preoccupied with thoughts about food. This is what we would expect from previous studies which show that compared to carbohydrate and fat, protein has superior appetite-sating powers.
However, there was another element to this study. It tested the effect of each diet fed either as 3 larger or 6 smaller meals each day. In the lower protein eating phase, there was no difference in terms of hunger or fullness between the two patterns of eating (3 or 6 meals).
However, in the higher-protein eating phase, eating 3 times a day produced superior results in terms of feelings of fullness in the evening and late at night. This authors of this study conclude: “…these data support the consumption of HP [high protein] intake, but not greater eating frequency, for improved appetite control and satiety in overweight/obese men during energy restriction-induced weight loss.”
Obviously I agree with the bit about high protein eating, but I’m not so comfortable with the idea that greater eating frequency does not have benefits. The reason is simple: in the real World, many people get too hungry before meals and as a result will tend to overeat non-so-healthy food (such as a load of starchy carbs). And one of the reasons people can get too hungry before a meal is that too long a period of time has been allowed to elapse between food stops.
In the study discussed here, the 3 meal a day strategy separated meals by 5 hours. Most individuals, in my experience, will be able to go 5 hours without spinning out of control, as long as they are eating proper, satisfying food when they do eat. Now, it’s not uncommon in the real World for 5 hours or perhaps a little longer to elapse between breakfast and lunch. However, for many people, it’s a whole different story between lunch and dinner.
I regularly meet or am consulted by individuals who typically eat lunch at 12.30 pm, but (usually because of work) sit down to dinner at 7.30 or later. And here’s the truth about this: for the vast majority of people this is just too long to go without food without the appetite ramping up to a degree that can make eating moderate amounts of healthy food nigh on impossible. Even if individuals do manage to restrain themselves, it’s often difficult for them to do this (and there’s no need for life to be difficult).
In practice, I find that people can generally last quite happily from breakfast to lunch, without the need for more food. This is rarely the case between lunch and dinner. So, I suggest a snack in the late afternoon or early evening to quell the appetite and make healthy eating in the evening an easy, enjoyable and sustainable endeavour.
As to what to eat, I’d opt for nuts (assuming no allergy issues). Nuts generally do a very good job of sating the appetite. Fruit (another favoured snack food), generally, does not. For more advice on how to snack in a way that reduces the risk of overeating, see this recent post here.
1. Leidy HJ, et al. The Effects of Consuming Frequent, Higher Protein Meals on Appetite and Satiety During Weight Loss in Overweight/Obese Men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Sep 16. [Epub ahead of print]