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  • Denise Scott

Does Appetite Control Food Intake or Food Control Appetite???

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

(The Chicken or the Egg?)

The “Please Don"t Eat” sign on this refrigerator is less important than what is inside.

It has long been thought that internal signals control our appetite and satiety. Eating was stimulated and inhibited by internal cues based on our energy needs to maintain equilibrium.

We now know that our environment and external cues also stimulate appetite and are contributing factors to the development of obesity. Even writing about food makes me hungry!

Additional factors, including physical activity and sugar or sweetness, also control appetite.

Let’s look at these control mechanisms to be aware of how food and the environment can control us and learn what we can do to maintain control. (Personally, I like being in charge!)

Food is our energy source. Food is necessary for health, growth, and simply living. Previously, we believed that we ate to maintain energy balance. We are hungry because we need energy, so we eat. We have found it isn’t that simple. Hunger and fullness are driven by a complicated interplay of multiple hormones. Some are in the gastrointestinal tract, and some are in the brain. These hormones increase or decrease in response to eating. Some trigger hunger, others fullness.

The rise in obesity over the past 2-3 decades has exposed the role the external environment plays in stimulating appetite. Knowledge about the pleasure centers of the brain has led to a better understanding of how the environment can affect appetite and obesity development.

When energy (food) intake exceeds energy expenditure (physical activity) we gain weight.

An interesting observation is that those with higher physical activity levels tend to regulate their appetite better than those with low activity levels or who are sedentary. Those with high activity levels better match their energy intake with energy expended. In other words, being inactive does not tend to down-regulate or decrease energy (food) intake. Appetite regulation seems to improve with regular physical activity. Exercise also tends to improve insulin sensitivity. High insulin levels, which occur with insulin resistance, increase appetite. On the other hand, decreasing physical activity does not automatically reduce food intake.

High-fat, high-sugar, processed foods that can stimulate cravings for more of these unhealthy foods.

Several studies show that certain types of food, primarily high fat or high sugar foods (energy-dense) trigger pleasure centers in the brain. These foods decrease the usual satiety signals that nutrient-dense foods trigger. Taste sense seems to be different with these foods; the sensation of fullness doesn’t occur as it should. Food intake increases when the reward system in the brain is triggered, causing these types of food to be consumed in greater amounts and for longer periods. Unfortunately, these are unhealthy foods that lead to weight gain.

Most of us are attracted to sweet-tasting foods - it seems to be part of our genetic makeup. Food manufacturers know this and purposely sweeten foods with sugars or other sweeteners to increase their palatability. Increasing the sweetness of foods encourages consumption. Sweetness triggers pleasure sensations in the brain, reinforcing its consumption by being rewarding. Sweet foods do not suppress the appetite as much as non-sweet foods. High fat/high sugar foods (in other words, ultra-processed foods) are potent stimulants for eating. Minimizing these types of food can help to avoid overconsumption. Diets high in processed foods lead to desiring and consuming more of these unhealthy foods.

Sweet girl eyeing sweet treats!

What can we do to control our appetite rather than our appetite control us?

  1. High-water, high-fiber foods help curb hunger. Foods high in water and fiber - fruits and vegetables - add bulk to your meals and fill you up more quickly, causing the stomach to stretch and empty more slowly. Add shredded or chopped vegetables to pasta and egg dishes, salads, and pizzas.

  2. Eat lean protein with your meals - lean meat, fish, poultry, beans, and eggs - these cause you to feel fuller and keep your appetite suppressed after a meal; it only takes a few ounces. Top salads with lean meats, poultry, eggs, tofu, beans, nuts, or fish.

  3. Serve fruit for its sweetness from natural sugars - you will also benefit from the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that fruit offers. Eat whole fruits instead of fruit juices.

  4. Minimize your child's intake of sugar and processed foods. The best rule is not to buy it or have it in your or your child’s environment so you won’t be tempted.

  5. Fill your and your child's diet with whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and legumes - these foods are nutrient-dense and help curb your appetite.

  6. Choose brown rice over white rice.

  7. Choose whole-grain or whole-wheat cereal, crackers, bread, and pasta.

  8. Add beans to stews, soups, egg dishes, and casseroles.

  9. Decrease sugar-sweetened beverages.

  10. Read food labels and avoid those with sugars listed in the first few ingredients or high levels of added sugar.

Following these guidelines can allow us to stay in charge of our appetite and prevent food from controlling us!

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