Hunger and cravings are not welcome sensations to a dieter. Here at Metabolic Effect we use these sensations to guide us towards finding our own fat loss formula, but we still need to have ways to control them. Whether you realize it or not these are “hormonal sensations”. Remember, hormones are simply signaling molecules that send messages to your cells about how to respond to what is going on in the outside world. When it comes to hunger and cravings you should understand a little about what hormones (they are not all technically hormones, but we call them that for simplicity sake) impact these sensations and why. Knowing this allows you to know the 3 secret weapons that give our clients the ability to control and conquer these sensations.
Use them as biofeedback clues
To master the fat loss lifestyle, you need to become a detective. Your metabolism may have overlapping tendencies with every other human on the planet, but you also have to honor your unique metabolic expression, psychological sensitivities, and personal preferences. By monitoring hunger and cravings between meals and day to day, you have a window of observation into your own hormonal balance.
What’s the difference
Hunger is a feeling felt in the gut. It is a gnawing empty feeling. Cravings are felt in the head. A craving is more subconscious and under the radar. Have you ever eaten your fill of vegetables and protein and said to yourself “I’m stuffed”, but still ordered dessert out of the desire for “something else”? That is a craving. Hunger is a need to fill the emptiness in your gut. Craving is the need to fill the emptiness in your head. Of course they often come on at the same time, but they are not the same.
A crash course in hunger and craving hormones
The hormones of hunger include: Ghrelin (even the sound of it sounds like a stomach growling). Ghrelin stimulates hunger and is produced in the stomach. Its production is blocked when the stomach stretches which turns off hunger. CCK (cholecystokinin) is released in the upper intestine and turns off hunger. Fat and protein stimulate the release of CCK. Glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide (GIP) and glucagon like peptide (GLP) are released from the L cells in the upper intestine (GIP) and the K cells in the upper, middle and lower intestines (GLP). Both GIP & GLP respond to carbs, fat, and protein. It seems GIP MAY be impacted mostly by carb, then fat then protein and fiber, while GLP is stimulated mostly by protein and fiber, then carb and fat (the exact relationship is still being worked out in research). GIP and GLP both turn off hunger in the brain. There are other hunger hormones like leptin released from fat and PYY (peptide YY) released from the lower intestines.
The hormones of craving are less obvious. Ghrelin seems to impact cravings directly which makes it interesting since it is also a hunger hormone. Cortisol is also implicated in cravings which makes sense given the known impact stress has on the desire for salt, sweet, and fatty foods. Also, the brain hormones (AKA neurotransmitters) seem to play a role here as well. We did a blog on this awhile back called Is Your Brain Making You Fat. To summarize quickly, it appears dopamine may make us crave stimulants, chocolate and sweets. Serotonin may be implicated in cravings for starch and salt (i.e chips and popcorn). Low acetycholine has been suggested to result in cravings for fat. GABA, the major relaxing neurotransmitter seems to also have starch related cravings, but low GABA seems to just make people want to eat more, period. Low GABA people are the ones who worry about serving size more than anything else.
For a great lay person’s read on the brain chemicals, check out The Edge Effect. A great book by Dr. Eric Braverman.
The 3 Secret Weapons
Now that you have a general outline of what we are talking about, let us share with you our three secret weapons against hunger and cravings.
1) Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA):
If you are a bodybuilder you are probably thinking “yeah, I use those to build muscle and recover from exercise”. That is another great effect of these amino acids, but not why they are so effective here. BCAA supplements have several overlapping mechanisms that help them combat both hunger AND cravings.
BCAAs, specifically leucine, activates the brain signaling molecules (mTOR and AMPK) that regulate hunger in the brain. Ironically, they also impact these molecules in muscle resulting in muscle maintenance and growth. They also decrease both hunger and cravings due to their ability to balance blood sugar. BCAAs have both gluconeogenic (meaning they convert to glucose easily) and ketogenic (they convert to ketones easily) activity. Glucose and ketones are the only two fuels used by the brain. Given the fact that fat loss often involves lower carb intake, BCAAs become a fat loss seekers best friend in terms of regulating hunger, energy and cravings by supplying the brain with the energy it needs..
BCAAs also lower cortisol and stimulate GLP. This again has an overlapping ability to suppress stress induced cravings and blunt hunger. BCAAs also have the ability to help the brain balance its chemistry because they are precursors to both the brains number one stimulating brain chemical (glutamate) and its number one relaxing chemical (GABA). This again helps with cravings.
So, BCAAs are not just for muscle building and performance enhancement. We use them around exercise like everyone else, but we also give them to our clients as snacks, before bed and during times of increased stress or low carb dieting. These supplements have literally worked miracles for some of our clients who can’t sustain any eating change due to insatiable hunger and cravings.
In the past, we completed a review of the science of BCAAs for those who need the scientific references.
2) Soluble Viscous Fiber
Most people hear fiber and think regularity. Soluble fibers, especially the most viscous ones are our go to when hunger is getting the best of someone. Viscosity refers to the “heaviness”, “thickness”, or “stickiness” of a liquid. When viscous fibers contact water they form a gel. When eaten, this gel coats the digestive tract and communicates with sensing cells lining the gut. The presence of this thick coating on the cells does several beneficial things:
1) The coating itself signals to the sensing cells there is something to digest and therefore digestion is slowed. It also causes the release of GIP and GLP which signal fullness more quickly in the brain.
2) The coating causes a barrier between the absorbing cells of the digestive tract and any food particles. This slows absorption. One popular idea behind this is the slowing of sugar absorption and lowering of the glycemic index. This leads to a more steady rise in nutrients and prevents blood sugar rises and crashes reducing the need for cortisol later.
3) The coating causes increased time of exposure between the gut sensing cells and the nutrients in the lumen of the gut. It also causes the food to be absorbed lower down in the digestive tract. This triggers what is called the illeal break, a large rise in GLP and PYY which makes us stay full for many hours after a meal.
Our favorite fiber sources to get these effects are a new patented fiber compound called Trisynex (found in several new products including Physioburn by GNC), Polyglycoplex (PGX fiber), and a new ME product called Metabolic Fiber. These fiber compounds are quickly becoming one of the most impressive things we have seen from a group of supplements clinically in years. A recent study on active ingredient, Trisynex, is exactly what we are finding with the use of Trisynex, PGX, and glucomannan (Metabolic Fiber) in our clinic..
3) Cocoa Powder
Cocoa powder is rich in bioflavanoids especially catechins. The bioflavanoids are “bioactive” meaning they have direct biological activity in the body. You can almost think of these as compounds that act as “food based hormones”. Some of the active compounds in cocoa powder include penylethylamine (PEA), anandamide, serotonin and other brain chemicals and activators. Cocoa serves to raise the levels of both dopamine and serotonin. This is huge given these are the most frequent cravings individuals have. Serotonin especially is closely related to eating behavior. PEA is a dopamine mimicker. Anandamide had been called “chemical bliss” given its ability to bind to receptors in the brain that stimulate euphoria. A more complete review on the science of cocoa was written by our ME team members Dr. Keoni Teta & Dr. Jillian Sarno Teta.
Because of its ability to impact the brain in several overlapping mechanisms, cocoa is one of the most clinically effective substances we have found to combat cravings. We make our craving control cocoa drink by mixing 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder in hot water (pour water on top of cocoa slowly while stirring to avoid clumping). You can also add any non-calorie sweetener (our favorites are stevia, xylitol, and erythritol) as well as cinnamon, cayenne and/or other spices to taste. To get the best benefit of cocoa it should be taken alone and not mixed into foods, protein powders, or milk.