1. Learn to identify your spot on the hunger scale
Do you really know what hunger feels like? Before you can rein it in, you must learn to recognize the physical cues that signal a true need for nourishment. Prior to eating, use hunger scale below to help figure out your true food needs:
An uncomfortable, empty feeling that may be accompanied by light-headedness or jitteriness caused by low blood sugar levels from lack of food. Binge risk: high.
Your next meal is on your mind. If you don’t eat within the hour, you enter dangerous “starving” territory.
Your stomach may be growling, and you’re planning how you’ll put an end to that nagging feeling. This is optimal eating time.
You’re satiated, not full but not hungry either. You’re relaxed and comfortable and can wait to nosh.
If you’re still eating, it’s more out of momentum than actual hunger. Your belly feels slightly bloated, and the food does not taste as good as it did in the first few bites.
You feel uncomfortable and might even have mild heartburn from your stomach acids creeping back up into your esophagus.
2. Refuel every 4 hours
Still can’t tell what true hunger feels like? Set your watch. Moderate to full-fledged hunger is most likely to hit 4 to 5 hours after a balanced meal. Waiting too long to eat can send you on an emergency hunt for energy—and the willpower to make healthful choices plummets. When researchers in the United Kingdom asked workers to choose a snack just after lunch, 70% picked foods like candy bars and potato chips; the percentage shot up to 92% when workers chose snacks in the late afternoon. “Regular eating keeps blood sugar and energy stable, which prevents you from feeling an extreme need for fuel,” says Kate Geagan, RD, a Park City, UT-based registered dietitian.
To slim down: If you’re feeling hungry between meals, a snack of 150 calories should help to hold you over. Here are a few ideas: Munch on whole foods such as fruit and unsalted nuts—they tend to contain more fiber and water, so you fill up on fewer calories. Bonus: They’re loaded with disease-fighting nutrients.
Avoid temptation by packing healthful, portable snacks such as string cheese and dried fruit in your purse, desk drawer, or glove compartment.
3. Eat breakfast without fail
A recent study published in the British Journal of Nutrition tracked the diets of nearly 900 adults and found that when people ate more fat, protein, and carbohydrates in the morning, they stayed satisfied and ate less over the course of the day than those who ate their bigger meals later on. Unfortunately, many Americans start off on an empty stomach: In one recent survey, consumers reported that even when they eat in the morning, the meal is a full breakfast only about one-third of the time.
To slim down: If you’re feeling full-blown hunger before noon, there’s a chance you’re not eating enough in the am. Aim for a minimum of 250 calories and make it a habit:
Prepare breakfast before bed (cut fruit and portion out some yogurt).
Stash single-serving boxes of whole grain cereal or packets of instant oatmeal and shelf-stable fat-free milk or soymilk at work to eat when you arrive.
Eat a late breakfast if you can’t stomach an early one. “Don’t force anything,” says John de Castro, PhD, a behavioral researcher and dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sam Houston State University. “Just wait a while and eat at 9, 10, or even 11 am. It will help you stay in control later in the day.”
4. Build low-cal, high-volume meals
Solid foods that have a high fluid content can help you suppress hunger. “When we eat foods with a high water content like fruits and vegetables, versus low-water content foods like crackers and pretzels, we get bigger portions for less calories,” says Barbara Rolls, PhD, author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan and a professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University. Bottom line: You consume more food but cut calories at the same time. Rolls has found a similar effect in foods with a lot of air. In a recent study, people ate 21% fewer calories of an air-puffed cheese snack, compared with a denser one.
To slim down: Eat fewer calories by eating more food:
Start dinner with a salad, or make it into your meal (be sure to include protein such as lean meat or beans).
Choose fresh fruit over dried. For around the same amount of calories, you can have a whole cup of grapes or a measly 3 tablespoons of raisins.
Boost the volume of a low-cal frozen dinner by adding extra veggies such as steamed broccoli or freshly chopped tomatoes and bagged baby spinach.
5. Munch fiber all day long
Fiber can help you feel full faster and for longer. Because the body processes a fiber-rich meal more slowly, it may help you stay satisfied long after eating. Fiber-packed foods are also higher in volume, which means they can fill you up so you eat fewer calories. One review recently published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association linked a high intake of cereal fiber with lower body mass index—and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
To slim down: Aim to get at least 25 g of fiber a day with these tips:
Include produce such as apples and carrots—naturally high in fiber—in each meal and snack.
Try replacing some or all of your regular bread, pasta, and rice with whole grain versions.
6. Include healthy protein at each meal
When researchers at Purdue University asked 46 dieting women to eat either 30% or 18% of their calories from protein, the high-protein eaters felt more satisfied and less hungry. Plus, over the course of 12 weeks, the women preserved more lean body mass, which includes calorie-burning muscle.
To slim down: Boost your protein intake with these ideas:
Have a serving of lean protein such as egg whites, chunk light tuna, or skinless chicken at each meal. A serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand—not including your fingers.
Build beans into your meals Black beans, chickpeas, and edamame (whole soybeans) are low in fat, high in fiber, and packed with protein.