Dr Michael Mosley explains: Why it's good for you to feel hungry

As a nation, we’re hooked on snacks and barely go for a few hours without food. But, in part two of our essential series, Dr Michael Mosley explains: Why it’s good for you to feel hungry

  • UK diabetes figures have doubled to five million in the past 15 years 
  • Dr Michael Mosley shed 19 lb through calorie restriction after his diagnosis
  • He claims the fear of getting hungry leads us to eat far too frequently 
  • Reveals simple tweaks and changes to reverse long-term creeping weight gain  

Like many people, I’m continually battling to keep my weight down. My weakness is sweet and salty snacks; I can easily rip through a whole packet of biscuits or a pack of crisps in one go, even though I know I shouldn’t.

The only way I can resist temptation is to banish treats from the house.

I think this is partly because of the way I’m wired, as my wife, Dr Clare Bailey, is completely different. She rarely eats snacks or treats and is capable of going for hours between meals without the slightest temptation to graze.

There is a clear genetic component to weight gain, with studies showing that genes can influence your appetite, your food cravings and your tendency to use eating as a way to cope with stress. So I suspect Clare has been lucky with her genes and that this helps to explain her annoying ability to remain effortlessly slim.

Dr Michael Mosley who rapidly shed 19 lb after his diabetes diagnosis, shares simple tweaks to reverse long-term creeping weight gain. Pictured: Dr Michael and Dr Clare Bailey

But I’m more typical of the wider population. I love food and I graze, particularly when I’m stressed. That’s why I gradually gained weight during my 30s and 40s and ended up, at the age of 55, weighing nearly 14 stone.

I finally realised I needed to do something about my expanding girth when I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2012.

The recent shocking news that UK diabetes figures have doubled to five million in the past 15 years can be explained largely by the fact that millions of people across the country, like me, have slowly nibbled and snacked their way to ill health.

My diabetes diagnosis was the wake-up call I needed. I lost 19 lb rapidly through calorie restriction and intermittent fasting. My diabetes went into remission and as long as I keep the weight off, I am confident it will stay in abeyance.

It is great to know that Type 2 diabetes can be reversed through rapid weight loss — and the thousands of people who have had success following my Fast800 plan are testament to the effectiveness of this dietary intervention. When you’re looking down the barrel of the diabetes gun, it is certainly worth the effort.

But prevention is better than cure and what really concerns me is not just the five million who have diabetes but the estimated 14 million people in the UK who have prediabetes — where blood sugars are raised but not yet in the diabetic range — as well as the one adult in three who has undiagnosed fatty liver disease, caused by too much fat around the waist.

Those of us who slowly gain weight each year are storing up significant health problems for the near future — which is why, all this week, I want to show you the simple tweaks and small changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle to reverse long-term creeping weight gain.

Establish these new habits now and you can set yourself on an altogether healthier new path for a longer life.

Dr Michael said compared with 30 years ago, we are eating about 180 extra calories a day in snacks and up to 120 calories a day more in meals (file image)

DON’T BE SCARED OF HUNGER

When I was a child, we were actively discouraged from eating between meals — but over the past 40 years, everything has changed. With food available on every street corner 24/7 and a multibillion-pound snack industry continually tempting us, we have all adopted a ‘grazing’ mindset to protect us from a palpable fear of hunger.

We pack our children off to school with snacks. Coffee is no longer ‘black or white’ but a milky, creamy feast packed full of calories which is all too often accompanied by a muffin or a biscuit.

Meanwhile, no fill-up at the petrol station is complete without the purchase of a chocolate bar ‘for the journey’.

WHAT’S YOUR FOOD ADDICTION? 

Try this short quiz to see how addicted you are to a particular food. More than three ‘yes’ answers and you may be in trouble.

1. When I start eating this food, I can’t stop and end up eating much more than I’d intended.

2. I keep on eating this food even when I’m no longer hungry.

More than three ‘yes’ answers on this quiz and you may be in trouble (file image)

3. I eat to the point where I feel physically ill.

4. I find myself craving this food when I’m stressed.

5. If it isn’t in the house, I will get in the car and drive to the nearest shop that sells it.

6. I use this food to make myself feel better.

7. I hide this food so even those close to me don’t know how much of it I eat.

8. Eating it causes me anxiety and generates feelings of self-loathing and guilt.

9. Although I no longer get much pleasure from eating it, I keep doing so.

10. I have tried to give this food up in the past but failed.

Surrounded by temptation, we are continually adding extra calories to our daily total in the form of sticky, sweet, fatty and salty processed foods. And this calorie creep is clearly contributing to the expansion of the national waistline.

We talk about being ‘hangry’ (an emotional hybrid that blends hungry and angry), and fill our pockets with portable processed food as a buffer against the possibility of having to wait too long for the next meal.

The fear of getting hungry leads us to eat far too frequently.

Research in the U.S. which compared the eating habits of 28,000 children and 36,000 adults over the past 30 years has confirmed that the amount of time people spend between ‘eating episodes’ has fallen dramatically (from four and a half hours to three and a half hours for adults; and four hours to three hours for children).

We also eat too much at one sitting (ignoring fullness signals) and are drawn to the wrong sort of foods (highly portable, quick-reward snacks that are incredibly moreish).

It’s not just the food industry encouraging this. We have been told by ‘health experts’ not only to eat three meals a day but to fit in a couple of daily snacks as well, just in case we get hungry.

But doing so means we simply end up eating more: compared with 30 years ago, we are eating about 180 extra calories a day in snacks and up to 120 calories a day more in meals.

WE ARE DESIGNED FOR MINI FASTS

There really is no reason to be alarmed by occasional short-term hunger. If you are reasonably fit and healthy, you will survive without eating every few hours.

Our ancestors would go for longish periods of time without having anything to eat at all. Our bodies and our genes were forged in an environment of scarcity, punctuated by the occasional blow-out.

But the human brain has become adept at persuading us we are hungry in almost all situations: when we are faced with feelings of deprivation or disappointment; when we’re angry, sad, happy or neutral; when we are subjected to advertising, social imperatives, sensory stimulation, reward, habit, the smell of fresh coffee or bacon being fried in a cafe up the road.

We eat when we’re bored, when we’re thirsty, when we’re around food (when aren’t we?), when we’re in company or simply when the clock tells us it’s time for a meal. Most of us eat, too, just because it feels good. This is known as ‘hedonic hunger’.

Dr Michael said your body can get on with the rest and repair that protects you against disease, if it isn’t continually focusing on digestion (file image)

The truth is, if you are still processing your last meal, it’s highly unlikely you are experiencing true hunger (the ‘total transit time’ for food to pass through your system can be up to two days, depending on your gender, metabolism and what you’ve eaten).

And while hunger pangs can be disagreeable, they are more fluid and controllable than you might think. A pang will pass. A tummy rumble is simply a sign that the food you’ve recently eaten is being propelled through your small intestine by a series of muscle contractions called peristalsis. It is all part of the digestive process.

POWER OF PROTEIN 

Ensure your meals contain a good quantity of protein (meat, fish, eggs or cheese and pulses) and some healthy fats (olive oil, full-fat dairy, avocado, nuts or seeds), as well as plenty of veg. These foods will keep you feeling full for longer (and less tempted to snack).

Dr Michael said foods rich in protein can keep you feeling full for longer

  • Choose small packets and decant snacks into small containers. Don’t kid yourself that you’ll stop halfway through a family-sized bag of crisps. Psychologist Brian Wansink found that people ate 45 per cent more popcorn when they were eating out of a large bucket.
  • I have a small handful of unsalted nuts if I am feeling ravenous. Carrots, celery and cucumber are also good snacks if you feel you really need something. Put them at the top of the fridge, where you will see them when you open the fridge door.
  • Stay hydrated. I always keep a bottle of cold water in the fridge (tap water is fine) and add a squirt of lemon juice for flavour. Herbal teas are another lifesaver when you feel peckish.

In fact, your body will thank you for forgoing snacks and extending the stretches of time between meals. If they are not continually focusing on digestion, the various systems in your body can get on with the rest and repair that protects you against disease. This is particularly important at night, so it’s good to avoid eating late in the evening and to shun that pre-bed snack.

I am a big fan of a form of intermittent fasting called Time Restricted Eating, where you aim to eat most of your calories within an eight to 12-hour window.

When I began experimenting with intermittent fasting, I discovered that I often eat when I don’t need to. I would eat because the food was there, because I was afraid I’d get hungry later, or simply from habit.

I assumed that when you get hungry the feeling builds and builds until it becomes intolerable and so you bury your face in a vat of ice cream.

But what I have found is that hunger passes — and once you have been really hungry, you no longer fear it.

I thought fasting would make me easily distracted and unable to concentrate. What I’ve discovered is that, in fact, it sharpens my senses and my brain.

I also feared it would be incredibly hard to do. But it isn’t.

TACKLE MINDLESS GRAZING HABIT

Bad snacking habits include that end-of-day ‘reward’ glass of wine with a bowl of peanuts in front of the TV, and the bucket of popcorn at the cinema. When you are distracted by a screen, it is easy to go on eating without noticing what you’re doing.

I made a documentary a few years ago in which we asked a group of volunteers to watch a film on TV, then discuss it afterwards. We put bowls of crisps and chocolates on the table in front of them, as the real purpose of the experiment was to see how much they would eat without noticing. One man chomped through more than 1,000 calories in less than 40 minutes and was astonished when we pointed that out to him.

Dr Michael said eating in front of a screen is a sure way to put on weight, as revealed by a 2011 study involving stale popcorn eaten at the cinema (file image)

In a 2011 study (published in the Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin), volunteers were divided into two groups: those who routinely ate popcorn at the cinema and those who didn’t.

The researchers gave both groups either fresh or stale popcorn. They found that regular movie popcorn-eaters happily chomped away on the stale stuff, while those not in the popcorn habit were more discerning. Eating in front of a screen is a sure way to put on weight.

I can only keep my weight down by banning tempting foods from the house. Willpower is hugely overrated and relying on it is the chief reason so many diets fail.

There is a lot of truth behind the saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It’s just too hard to resist treat food if it’s right in front of you.

If you can’t clear them out of the house, ask your partner to keep treats in a locked cupboard to which you have no key. Crazy, but when you’re desperate you will go looking. Trust me, I’ve been there.

BEWARE OF FOODS THAT HIT THE BLISS POINT  

One reason why we find certain foods so tempting — and so difficult to stop eating once we have started — is because they are cleverly formulated by food manufacturers to be that way.

In 2015, researchers from the University of Michigan asked 120 students to rank 35 foods in the order of how addictive they found them. Top of the list was chocolate, followed by ice cream, chips, pizza, biscuits, crisps, cake, buttered popcorn and cheeseburgers. At the bottom were salmon, brown rice, cucumber and broccoli.

It’s no surprise that the most addictive foods are also highly processed foods, designed to be absorbed rapidly and hence to give your brain an almost immediate rush of dopamine (the reward hormone). In addition, they are the sort of foods that are heavily advertised, particularly to children.

Dr Michael said high insulin levels keep us hungry, which makes us snack more (file image)

But the thing which really sets them apart is that they are a mixture of fats and carbs: roughly 1g fat to 2g carbs. It is a ratio we seem to find particularly irresistible, possibly because it mimics the ratio of breast milk — 100ml of human breast milk contains about 4g fat and 8g carbs, making it surprisingly sweet. Take milk chocolate, which commonly has 30g fat and 58g carbs per 100g. And there is a reason why ice cream is so comforting — it has 12g fat to 24g carbs. But you also find the 2:1 ratio in savouries. Pepperoni pizza, for example, has 10g fat to 30g carbs per 100g, while a cheeseburger has 14g fat to 30g carbs.

Eating lots of refined, sugary foods will keep your pancreas pumping out insulin — and high insulin levels keep us hungry, which makes us snack more.

Knowing this may not change your food compulsions but at least it will help you understand why you go on craving food that is bad for you — and may help you fight back.

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