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Eat only when hungry? Why it may be a big mistake!

By Jill Coleman

Eat on a regular schedule or leave it up to your hunger to dictate when you eat? Ask a group of fitness or nutrition experts and most likely the opinions will be split down the middle. Many insist that getting in tune with your hunger and only eating when hungry is the way to results. A well-intentioned approach, of course, to control overeating–and we agree with the need to be in tune with your body–but here at Metabolic Effect, we feel there are a couple of important holes in this theory.

First, the idea of eating only when hungry is still working off the calorie model and is designed to ultimately try to limit food and calorie intake. However, we know that calories are not the end-all-be-all of fat loss–what about sleep and stress? They have no calories, yet we know intuitively that they affect our fat loss efforts. Of course there is more to getting results than simply using every ounce of will-power to avoid eating for as a long as possible. We also know that in the long run, that approach simply doesn’t work and there is only so much you can do to stop yourself from eating, whether the drive is actual hunger, a craving, boredom, stress, convenience, or whatever. Side note: Remember, a craving is different than being hungry. A craving is for a specific taste like sweet or salty. Cue yourself into your cravings too (mine are chocolate and peanut butter!) and pre-empt cravings the same way, by using an ME cocoa drink, chugging water, indulging in a square of 88% dark chocolate, eating some low sweet fruit, or munching on raw veggies.

Second and more importantly, in general, people cannot just wait for hunger to hit them in order to eat, and in most cases, people don’t know how to recognize hunger. Food is everywhere–at parties, at lunches, at events, at the movies, at the fast food drive thru, so asking someone to not eat unless hungry when they are surrounded by food is ultimately not going to work. Wouldn’t it make more sense for someone to preempt any event where crap food is being served by eating a filling fat loss meal beforehand? Or what about learning how to eat out anywhere using ME’s fat loss eating principles; then you make a choice to eat for fat loss rather than rely on your surroundings to dictate your choice (I do this all the time by bringing a healthy, fat-loss dish to a dinner party).

This goes right along with the next mistake, which is that the idea of eating only when hungry really only works for people who have a healthy metabolism. People with metabolic syndrome, leptin resistance, hypothyroid, overweight/obese, and long duration exercisers are often always hungry. Their metabolism and hormonal situation predisposes them to feel hungry..a lot. Should they be eating constantly? Of course not. A better approach would be to have these individuals preempt hunger with an eating schedule of every 2-3 hours and eating healthy, fat loss meals using protein and fiber to increase satiety. Weight training will also benefit these individuals by helping to resensitize them to their hormones over time, and using high-intensity exercise like intervals will lower the hunger hormone ghrelin, which lowers appetite post-workout.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, by the time you feel hunger, many times it is already too late. Meaning, if you are eating according to hunger, by the time you feel hungry, you are going to want to eat everything in sight and a continuous meal is an inevitability. Not only that, but you are more likely to reach for sweet, salty, fatty items. Instead, eat a clean, fat loss meal before you even get hungry so that you can assure your food choices are going to help with fat loss. For example, eating a smaller meal 5-6 times per day allows for you to eat more frequently and not need as big of a quantity since all the meal has to do is get you through the next 2-3 hours. If I eat lunch at noon and know I am not eating dinner until 7pm, guess what? I will eat that lunch until I am stuffed up to my ears! However, if I plan to have a protein bar at 2pm, I am good with a grilled chicken salad at noon.

The biggest complaint experts have about eating on a schedule rather than according to hunger is that it may lead to unwarranted caloric intake, too much food. We believe the exact opposite–if you wait until you are hungry, you are almost guaranteed to eat too much, and much more likely to make poor choices. Eating on a schedule of every 2-3 hours does not need to mean unwarranted calories at all…in fact, if you are eating the right things more often, like lean proteins, fibrous veggies, and low sweet fruits, you will most likely end up eating LESS calories in the end due to an increase in satiety and reducing the likelihood of binges.