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What Triggers Eating Disorders – Appetite

In the attempt to escape appetite, what drives people to eat has been lost in translation. Keep office eating on track by knowing your need-to-eat triggers.

Appetite has been imagined into a role as saboteur out to bedevil best laid weight loss, health and fitness plans. Just look at the wealth of pills and chews promising to silence that annoying sense that you need to eat. This over-simplification has at once reinforced the notion that being motivated to seek food is a bad thing and blotted out many aspects of an exceptionally complex mechanism.


“Appetite has a cast that includes scores of hormones, neuropeptides and neurotransmitters,” says GP and author of Good Health in the 21st Century Dr Carole Hungerford. In fact, while logic suggests that food volume and viscosity would determine food’s impact on satiety, it’s far less influential than chemicals released by ingestion of certain foods.

“There are physical messengers as well. When we are hungry, the sight and smell of food is pleasing. Our gastric juices flow audibly. If we are full, exposure to food is a matter for indifference, or even nausea,” Dr Hungerford says. This information is conveyed to the conscious and unconscious brain in what’s known as the neurohumoral loop.

Appetite-regulating chemical messengers have also been found in other parts of the body. Harvard University endocrinologists detected the chemicals in the mouth, liver, stomach and intestines.

Contrary to the notion that finding a way to flick the switch on one would avert motivation to eat, it’s not so clear cut. The relationship between these chemicals is complex and interdependent.

“Some of these couriers act rapidly, from meal to meal, controlling appetite and satiety for any single dining experience,” says Jennifer Ackerman, author of Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream – A Day in the Life of Your Body. “Others exert their effect over the long term, keeping track of the body’s fat supplies and telling the brain when they’re running low so that it can step up appetite.”

In other words, while you’re high-fiving yourself for losing body fat, your body’s rounding up a task force to get you to restore homeostasis. That’s one reason diets don’t work.

“The long-term signals may spur the production of short-term ‘I’m hungry’ messages or quash them,” Ackerman says. “You’re probably unaware of these chemical fluctuations, but they direct your behaviour, either driving you toward that lunch buffet or letting you get on with your work.”


All about balance

The best way to honour the interdependence of appetite-related neuropeptides is to give your body a bit of everything each time you eat – and to avoid foods known to trigger appetite (cruel irony). Sugar and high-glycaemic-index carbs can increase, not decrease, desire to eat. Sugary carbs stimulate neuropeptide Y because they enable the most efficient delivery of usable energy, glucose. Even though Cocoa Pops with skim milk have around 50 per cent fewer calories than Bircher with yoghurt, the effect on both feelings of needing to eat (hunger) and wanting to eat (appetite) makes the upfront energy saving futile. Fibre and protein act as blood sugar brakes.

Eating breakfast and evenly spacing meals and snacks rather than grabbing food on the go in panic mode can also favour suppression of pro-eating chemicals. Basically, after eating, blood sugar rises. When it returns to baseline or lower, you feel as though you need more food due in part to the knock-on effect of low blood sugar to stimulation of orexigenic hypothalamic neuropeptides. (Orexigenic means pro-feeding.) Your body behaves as though it’s starving. The simplest way to regulate appetite is, according to accredited practising dietitian and Dietitians Association of Australia spokesperson Kate Deppeler, to start the day with a substantial breakfast including
ample fibre and protein.

“To make it a complete breakfast, I recommend wholegrain cereal with low-fat milk or yoghurt and fruit,” says Deppeler.” This contains fibre and protein to slow the delivery of glucose into the bloodstream and will stave off hunger for longer. Whole grains themselves are complex carbohydrates, which have a lower GI than refined grains and guard against sudden hunger and carb cravings as they run out gradually.

In research presented to The Obesity Society, women aged 18 to 55 who ate a high-protein sausage and egg-based breakfast maintained satiety for longer than those who ate a low-protein breakfast or no brekkie at all.

Appetite suppressants decoded

Many popular appetite suppressants target an area above your brain stem, the hypothalamus, that determines feeding behaviour. Ordinarily, the hypothalamus permits the release of neurotransmitters to resolve a need for food signalled by lowered glucose levels.

High volume, low calories

High volume, high water, highly nutritious, low calorie foods – think fruit and vegies – add bulk to your food that are effective at filling your stomach as well as tricking your mind into thinking you’ve just eaten such a huge meal that you must be satisfied. Research conducted by Pennsylvania State University found that when you gave people the licence to eat as much of these high volume, low calorie foods as they could handle, they invariably ate less over the course of a day.


Foods high in water or fibre cause the stomach to stretch and then slowly empty, without bloating and without feeling like you’re on a restrictive diet.

Perfect for the health-conscious person who hates dieting.

Eat solids (in small pieces)

Solids beat fluids every time, particularly when your choice of poison is water-based. The stomach recognises solids as real food and is not easily deceived by liquid meals.So if you’re tossing up between a meal replacement drink or bar, choose the bar every time if you’re looking to please your fickle appetite.

If the solids are chopped into small pieces, even better. In a study at Arizona State University, students presented with a bagel chopped into four ate less of it than when it was presented as a whole. The same appears to be true with items that come in small pieces such as nuts, berries, grapes and seeds. The smaller the pieces, the fewer of them we’re likely to eat.

Pay attention

You’re in front of the telly and before you know it the value bag of popcorn has disappeared. Then a hot chocolate. You feel strangely overfull but distinctly unsatisfied. That’s what happens when you eat while focused on something else, otherwise known as mindless eating.Choosing to eat mindfully not only prevents absent-minded overfeeding but also increases the satisfaction to volume ratio.

“The mindful eating approach is a method that can work to reduce appetite by helping to concentrate on eating slowly and deliberately to enjoy what you’re eating and drinking without distractions,” says dietitian Sonya Stanley, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that eating quickly inhibits the release of hormones that impart a feeling of fullness, which can trigger even more mindless eating.


Against its image as a weight saboteur, fat can be an excellent appetite suppressant.

Researchers at the University of California found that oleic acid in good fats helped to trigger the intestinal production of oleoylethanolamide, a compound that sends an appetite-curbing message via the nerve system to the brain. But you won’t find it in just any old fat – olive oil, avocado and nuts are your best sources.

Regular old fat (not necessarily old, but regular) is good for something: It slows down the emptying of your stomach so you feel fuller for longer.


Still can’t stop eating? Try eating more often.“Eating regularly throughout the day is a good way to manage your appetite,” says Stanley. “Rather than saving up for one giant meal, healthy and balanced eating throughout the day can help you to avoid overeating and better manage your appetite.

“If you enjoy a snack between meals, choose healthy options such as a piece of fruit, vegetable sticks with low-fat dip like hommus, or raw nuts. These are great pick-me-up foods without the extra sugar and saturated fats of some snacks.”



The news gets scrummier. A landmark Dutch study published in the journal Regulatory Peptides found that women who ate or even smelled dark chocolate reported decreased appetites. The subjects, interestingly, also recorded decreased ghrelin levels, a hormone that stimulates hunger.

Milk chocolate, disappointingly, doesn’t have the same effect according to an earlier study by the University of Copenhagen, which found that people who ate 100 grams of milk chocolate ate more pizza 2.5 hours afterwards than those in the dark chocolate group. Now that’s science!


Using aromatic seasoning like mint, cinnamon, oregano and grated ginger may help you eat less. One study found that when people were able to help themselves to their own meal portions, they spooned out five to 10 per cent less of fragrant-smelling dishes than blander alternatives.

Or you could spice up your dish with chilli, which contains capsaicin. According to research published in the journal Chemical Senses, capsaicin has mild appetite-suppressant qualities in addition to naturally slowing eating tempo and acting as a deterrent to excess (courtesy of the burning sensation on your tongue).

Another way to moderate eating speed and therefore give your brain a chance to register satisfaction – it takes about 20 minutes – is cueing a gentler pace with music and soft lighting. When they created a calm dining environment with soft light and slow music, researchers at Cornell University found that study participants ate, on average, 18 per cent less.


Beans are the great all rounder.

Beans keep blood sugar steady, which in turn helps keep hunger at bay. High in fibre – they meet the high-volume, low-calorie rule – they stimulate the appetite-suppressing hormone cholecystokinin, or CCK.

Research at the University of California found that men who ate a meal that featured beans front and centre had CCK levels twice as high as when they ate a low-fibre meal.


Protein is the most filling macronutrient.

Lean meat, fish, poultry, soybeans and eggs all help achieve fullness and curb appetite. Whey protein seems to be particularly satiating.

Research has found that people who down a liquid meal containing whey protein consume considerably fewer calories for their next meal than those given a liquid meal with casein protein. And, like beans, whey protein also helps to stabilise blood sugar and stimulate hormones that increase the fullness sensation.

Snack Satisfaction

Slow Carbs

Low-glycaemic carbs such as oats are slow to digest and keep you fuller for longer than, say, corn flakes. Research shows that a diet high in slow – burning carbs like oats can restrict the influence of the ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin better than a diet high in fat.

If your appetite seems to have a mind of its own and no amount of snacking hits the spot,  consider planning your office menu around the Satiety Index. Comprising 38 foods according to their satisfaction quotient and based on a 1995 study by the University of Sydney, the index prescribes snacks on a scale relative to  a piece of white bread. Over 100, more filling; less than 100, less.

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