Sometimes I feel possessed by the Hunger Monster. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve made good decisions all day – or even for several days! – and then the Hunger Monster shows up and all you can think about is giving it what it wants so it will go away. You try to fight the urge and be reasonable about what you feed it, but usually the Hunger Monster possesses you.
When the Hunger Monster takes over, I walk straight to my pantry and start grabbing. Maybe it’s crackers, maybe its health bars, maybe its tortilla chips or rice cakes. Maybe it’s trail mix or a little cheese and fruit. Maybe it’s candy or ice cream. Maybe it’s a little bit of all of it! The point is, the urge to grab food and shove it into my mouth is stronger than my will to stop.
Usually, if the Hunger Monster hits one day and I overindulge, I feel so gross that I’m not even tempted to give in for quite a while. But is this really the healthiest way to control the Hunger Monster? Resist, resist, resist, give in, feel gross, resist, resist, resist. I’m pretty sure it’s not! And why does this happen anyway? Well, I have a couple of theories that go hand-in-hand and I’d like to share them with you.
Theory 1: Dietary Imbalances
There are SO many different opinions on what a healthy diet looks like. Some say high-fat and low-carb, others say high-carb and low-fat. For the average, active person the current recommended guideline is 50-60% carbs, 20-25% protein, and 20-25% fats (give and take a few percentage points based on your source). Just to be clear, that is a high carb diet.
I am a healthy person with healthy habits, or so I like to tell myself. I try to make healthier versions of our favorite foods, I don’t buy or eat pre-packaged or processed foods (bread and cereal excluded), and I reserve dessert for truly special occasions. (That’s right, your morning cup of coffee, your afternoon cup of coffee, and every evening after dinner are NOT special occasions.) I make sure I eat a variety of foods and make a mental note to balance the macronutrients I eat throughout the day. Yet I can still struggle with this. What’s up with that?
Sometimes I truly think it’s my body trying to tell me something. In an attempt to eat the right foods I may not be eating enough food. Cue hunger. Or maybe I’m dealing with some stuff that has me all stressed out. Cue hormones that cue hunger. When I’m hungry I eat, so my challenge then becomes knowing what food is the “right food” to eat.
I have never made a habit of tracking macros or counting calories, so to get a realistic look at how my actual diet balances out, I tracked the macros in everything I ate for two days. Since my days are pretty predictable when it comes to food, I feel this is a fairly accurate representation of my diet over time. Here’s what it looks like:
I am right on the line. Personally, I’m going to take this information to mean that I’m doing “good” as far as these particular guidelines go but I can do better. Now I’m armed with the information I need to make smart changes to my eating habits. I need to cut out some carbs and add some healthy fats and protein. Side note: I actually eat less carbs than many people I know. It’s worth tracking the macronutrients in your food for a couple days to get an idea of what you’re actually eating. Most Americans eat far too many carbs and much too little healthy fat and protein. If you start cutting back on your carbs, expect cravings and be prepared to deal with them.
I think it’s worth mentioning that on Day 2 of tracking my macros, the Hunger Monster showed up in the evening and I went crazy for graham crackers and dessert hummus. This craving may have hit me because I ate less carbs that day (closer to the 50% mark), but I’m not sure. To help prevent this, I’ve started drinking a glass of milk every evening. I drank milk all throughout my pregnancy. After my twins were born, I got out of the habit and I’m trying to get back into it. By drinking it in the evening, I feel fuller and (so far) don’t have issues with craving carbs.
Theory 2: Hormonal Imbalances
I firmly believe that our lifestyle affects our hormones but I’m not a doctor of any sort so I can’t say this is absolute truth. However, there have been many studies done that show the relationship between the food we eat and how our bodies react to it. If you’re not getting the right foods and you live a mostly sedentary life then you probably have or will have some issue with your hormones.
There is an excellent article written by Dr. Brooke Kalanick at Girls Gone Strong that talks about the effects of two hormones, insulin and cortisol, on your body composition. I’ll summarize the main points, but please reference the full article here: How Insulin and Cortisol Affect Your Body Composition.
- Insulin is a storage hormone. It stores sugar, vitamins, and fats. The pancreas releases insulin in response to a rise in blood sugar, whether it’s triggered by eating or stress. It’s released most significantly when eating carbs but it is also released when you eat protein and fat. It is supposed to also send satisfaction signals that help you feel full but because of our lifestyle – too much food, too much sugar, too much alcohol, too much stress – this is often not the case. When your cells do not respond appropriately to insulin’s message you develop insulin resistance. You can eat or stress your way to insulin resistance, it’s not necessarily a “have or don’t have” issue.
- Cortisol is our main stress hormone and is secreted by the adrenal glands. It is vital for life, is necessary for fat burning, and is anti-inflammatory in small doses. In high doses, it can actually lead to an increase in body fat, a slower metabolism (by affecting thyroid hormone levels), inflammation, and cravings. No hormone works alone. All hormones work together, each influencing the other, to create different outcomes depending on the levels at which they’re released.
- The storage and release of fat are both affected by insulin and cortisol. When both hormones are elevated, storing fat is easier and burning fat is harder. If you live a life of constant stress, then your cortisol levels may be chronically elevated, which can lead to loss of muscle and a slower metabolism. (Muscle is your metabolic motor.) If you eat a lot of carbs then your insulin levels may also be chronically elevated. This makes moving fat from your fat stores nearly impossible.
Dr. Brooke recommends managing these hormones by doing the following:
- Eat often but don’t graze.
- Eat to your unique carb tolerance. Don’t eat meals that are both high in fat and high in sugar (carbs). This includes foods like bagels with cream cheese, chips and guacamole, and cheesecake.
- Eat vegetables and protein at every meal.
- Manage emotional stress in whatever way works for you.
- Get enough sleep.
- Manage inflammation.
- Don’t overtrain.
Stop thinking of your hormones as the reason behind insulin resistance, stress, and fat and start managing them to make them part of the solution. If you eat a lot of carbs, then the amount of insulin in your blood is probably elevated. By reducing the amount of carbs you eat, you can start to control the insulin levels and improve your body’s ability to burn fat.
FitTip: For the healthiest and most successful way to fat loss and weight management, learn to listen to your body. Your hormones talk to you all day through your anxiety, tiredness, and cravings. The food you eat and the stressors you deal with can elevate your hormones, which in turn can lead to additional cravings and increased fat storage. But this isn’t a problem. Knowing about it helps you understand what is going on inside your body so you can better control how your body responds to food. Your body is an amazing and complex machine and it needs to be respected like one. Follow Dr. Brooke’s advice on managing hormones and start making food and life choices that will help your body find the balance it needs to work as it’s designed.