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Monday October  1, 13:50

Switching off hunger

Signals are coming from your brain that are putting you off the idea of eating
Signals are coming from your brain that are putting you off the idea of eating

Hunger is not something we should hate. It is, after all, a rather essential survival tool; its just that these days most of us in Western cultures dont really use it as a mechanism telling us that we should eat. Food is everywhere, it is accessible, tasty, tempting and advertised and promoted to the nth degree.

In the days when food was less abundant and organizing supper meant sending the men-folk off on a hunt while the women scrabbled around collecting berries, nuts and anything else that looked vaguely edible, hunger came in handy. It made the men hunt harder and the women search for longer.

In evolutionary terms its been a very short hop since these times, and our bodies haven't had time to readjust to the contemporary abundance. Controlling hunger to avoid over-eating is the challenge we face, unlike our ancestors who used their hunger in the daily drive for survival.

Scientists looking into the whole area of hunger have revealed some interesting insights that may prove helpful to the would-be dieter. While the business of hunger is enormously complex and no researcher even pretends to have unravelled it, science has at least been able to identify that hunger is dealt with by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. It receives and processes information from all around the body, including the stomach, the level of nutrients in the blood, smells detected by the nose, tastes from the taste buds and visual stimulation transmitted from the eyes.

Its easy to put your hypothalamus to the test and to prove to yourself how powerful its signals can be. Imagine a food that turns your stomach. Maybe something you were force-fed as a child, something you ate that gave you food poisoning and made you sick, something that just the smell of makes you grimace at the thought of having to eat.

Signals are coming from your brain that are putting you off the idea of eating. The thoughts are dulling your hunger. If that food were put in front of you right now, it would kill your hunger stone dead, even if you were really in need of some food.

Now think of something you love digging into. A big bowl of ice cream, a pile of hot buttered toast, a plate of cake. Suddenly that hunger centre is twitching, saliva starts flowing and you could down any of these treats in one.

There are some scientists who believe that, similarly, certain foods are able to help switch on and off the hunger signals which in turn make you want to (or not want to) eat.

The importance of protein

Some researchers propose, for example, that foods rich in protein are the best ones to switch off hunger signals and thus help you to stop eating naturally. Protein foods are the ones found in the table below. It seems that because the body has almost no capacity to store protein, the brain quickly detects when it has had enough and sends signals to tell you to stop eating any more.

Consider this. Imagine sitting down to a dinner of steak or chicken with no accompaniments. After eating one serving, it is unlikely that you would be tempted if someone offered you another portion. The same probably could not be said of chocolate gateaux, of which after one helping you could probably easily find room for another. The desire to keep eating such a treat is really not diminished after one serving, often instead having the opposite effect of making you want more.

By including a good amount of protein in meals and snacks and by eating the protein part of the meal first, it is thought that we can help our brains detect when we have had enough, allowing them to send Tm full; signals out and thus get us to stop eating.

Foods rich in protein

All of the meat, poultry and game in this list should be extra lean and served trimmed of fat and without skin.

  • beef
  • pork
  • lamb
  • chicken
  • turkey
  • game
  • duck
  • eggs
  • milk
  • tofu (bean curd)
  • textured vegetable protein
  • quorn products
  • pulses

How fat wrecks this process

This is all well and good, however meals are made up of a variety of foods, not just protein-rich ones. When it comes to fatty foods our brains seem to have a complete aberration. It appears from research that, unlike with protein, our brains are pretty hopeless at recognizing when we have had enough fat. It is thought this may be because our bodies have an endless capacity to store it for rainy days and lean times. This might have been a useful survival mechanism thousands and thousands of years ago when food was thin on the ground, especially during winter months, but frankly, in this new millennium, were as likely to welcome such a phenomenon as turkeys welcome Christmas.

If the brain cant tell us when to stop eating fat, then its up to us to give it a helping hand. Apparently its a bit of a Catch-22 situation, where we have to consciously take the first step. The more fat we eat, the more we crave it and conversely, the less we eat, the less we want it. This is said to be down, in part, to a hormone called galanin that whizzes around the brain.

The more fatty foods we eat, the more galanin we make. The more galanin we make, the more we crave fat. On the other hand, the less fat we eat the lower our galanin levels and the less we crave it.

Sadly, of course, re-training our brains this way involves a bit of a withdrawal period as we reduce our galanin, but spookily it does seem to work. Ive tried it and frankly, from being a big fried potatoes fiend, if someone puts them in front of me now they seem incredibly rich. Not only that, I dont feel that dreadful battle in my head where I say No, you shouldnt/ yet find my hand just taking over and almost force-feeding me. Genuinely not wanting them by letting your brain take away the strain is truly liberating.

Foods rich in fat

  • butter
  • margarine
  • oils
  • cream
  • cheeses
  • sausages
  • burgers
  • pies
  • chips/french fries
  • crisps/potato chips
  • ready meals
  • cakes
  • biscuits/cookies
  • chocolate

One of the good reasons for getting fat intakes under control is that it means the calorie density of your diet tends to go down automatically. Fats supply twice the calories of protein-rich foods and twice the amount found in carbohydrate foods like bread, pasta and potatoes.

It also means that the fats you do eat can come from sources that are useful to the body because they supply essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs are found in oily fish like salmon and mackerel, in seeds and nuts and plant oils. It is crucial that we get some of these in our diets. They help keep insulin, a hormone involved in fat storage which well talk about in just a moment, working properly. Not only that, they help to keep the brain healthy, the skin in good condition and blood flowing freely, which reduces the risk of blocked arteries and thus heart disease and possibly also impotence.

Foods supplying essential fats

  • oily fish like mackerel, sardines, salmon, tuna and herrings
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • flaxseed oil
  • evening primrose and fish oils

Carbo cravings

With all the talk of very low-fat diets over the last 10 years, there has been a tendency to think Great, Ill pig out on carbs. Sadly this isnt the answer for losing weight. Sure, carbohydrate-rich foods such as bread, potatoes, rice and pasta have half the calories gram for gram of fatty foods. Thats marvellous. Well, its marvellous if you dont get it into your head that this is a licence to gorge on them.

Eating excessive amounts of carbs means gaining weight, as youve probably discovered. The sad fact is we cant create or destroy energy or calories. They just keep circulating in this big old world of ours, and if you eat more than you need - whether its protein, fat or carbohydrates - the end result is an increase in weight.

Although carbohydrate-rich foods do tend to switch off hunger centres more effectively than fatty foods, it is quite easy to go on munching them, especially the more appetizing ones that get broken down rapidly by the digestive system and lead to I instant sugar highs in the bloodstream. Eating lots I of these carbohydrates can turn your body into a fatstoring machine.

Insulin - the great fat storer

The reason why certain quick-releasing carbohydrates are said to lead to increased fat storage seems to be down to the hormone insulin. Insulin is vital to our existence because it keeps levels of sugar in our blood constant.

When levels of blood sugar rise after eating, insulin rushes into the blood to take excess sugar away, thus rapidly bringing levels back to normal. The more quickly digested the carbohydrate eaten, the more insulin is released to deal with it.

As well as keeping blood sugar levels steady, insulin also plays a vital role in determining when and how we store fat. The more insulin that is around in response to quick-releasing carbohydrates, the more likely it seems that this insulin will turn the excess calories into fat and dump this in your fat cells.

Another good reason for keeping insulin levels down is that when its levels are high you appear to crave more carbohydrates. Another dietary Catch-22.

The key to keeping insulin levels down is to eat the types of carbohydrates that do not get broken down quickly but take a while before they gently trickle into the bloodstream.

To make things easy, scientists have tested lots of different carbohydrate foods to discover how they effect insulin release and have then given them a number. They call it the glycaemic index or GI number, which can be between 1 and 100. Those that lead to low levels of insulin release have a GI number of less than 55. These are the good guys and the ones we should be eating.

Foods with a figure of between 55 and 70 are considered to be medium GI foods, stimulating a medium amount of insulin. These should be eaten in moderation.

Foods with a GI number above 70 raise blood sugar and insulin levels rapidly, and need to be kept to a minimum when following our 15-day plan.

Low GI foods

  • muesli
  • porridge
  • sultana (raisin) bran cereal
  • Special К cereal
  • buckwheat
  • bulgur
  • pasta
  • mixed grain breads
  • rye bread
  • baked beans
  • butter beans
  • chick peas
  • haricot beans
  • kidney beans
  • lentils
  • soya beans
  • peas
  • sweet potatoes
  • green leafy vegetables
  • carrots
  • apples
  • apricots
  • bananas
  • cherries
  • grapefruit
  • grapes
  • kiwifruit
  • oranges
  • peaches
  • pears
  • plums
  • skimmed milk
  • yoghurt
  • lentil soup
  • tomato soup

Medium Gl foods

  • puffed wheat cereal
  • basmati rice
  • taco shells
  • bagels
  • croissants
  • crumpets
  • pitta bread
  • white bread
  • ryvita (crispbreads)
  • oatmeal biscuits/cookies
  • fat-free popcorn
  • beetroot
  • new potatoes
  • sweet corn
  • yams
  • mangoes
  • pawpaw
  • pineapple
  • raisins
  • sultanas
  • orange juice
  • honey
  • sugar

High Gl foods

  • sugar-coated cereals
  • chocolate-coated cereals
  • rice
  • sweet biscuits
  • sweet drinks
  • jellybeans
  • glucose

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