You’re driving along on your way to work, to the gym, or to pick up the kids and—bam—it hits you—that overwhelming gnawing hunger. The next thing you know, you’re pulling into a drive through and ordering up a storm.
Isn’t it fascinating (and frustrating) how the “I have to eat now!” feeling can hit even if you’ve been making good nutrition a top priority? Experts are discovering that when you eat, what your food tastes like, and even how much you drink can have a major impact on how often hunger pangs strike.
We asked leading nutritionists to share with us the five most common reasons you’re frequently famished, as well as their top tips for maximizing satisfaction and keeping hunger at bay.
1. You eat the right foods at the wrong times.
Eating at different times every day can make it difficult for you to tune in to your body’s hunger signals, says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, director of Nutrition Therapy at the Cleveland Clinic. Haphazard eating can hurt your metabolism as well. When British researchers asked women to eat meals at either the same time or at different times each day, those who followed a predictable pattern ate less and burned more calories than those who ate at a different time every day.
The Fix: Plan ahead.
Reviewing your Tracker helps you zero in on when you’re most likely to fall prey to eating at erratic times. (If you haven’t been tracking your food consistently, try doing so for a few days.) Then, says Moore, create a schedule that focuses on eating within 2 hours of waking up and every 3 to 5 hours after that for the rest of the day. If you tend to lose track of time, set your watch or digital organizer to beep when you should eat.
2. You eat breakfast, just not the right kind.
Although any breakfast is better than none, the foods you choose can have a major impact on how satisfied you feel for the rest of the day. Take that convenient cereal bar: It might appear to be a healthy choice when you don’t have time for a sit-down meal, but its mega-dose of simple sugars may have you rummaging through the fridge well before lunch.
The Fix: Build a better mix of nutrients.
The key to making your breakfast hold your appetite at bay until lunch is building a morning meal that contains both protein and carbs. “It’s important to combine some protein along with some complex carbohydrates to provide sustained energy throughout the morning,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, a Long Island–based dietitian in private practice. Opt for no-fuss choices like a slice of cheese on whole-wheat bread, egg whites on toast, whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk, even half a turkey sandwich .
3. Your diet is flawless but flavorless.
If grilled chicken and steamed veggies are staples on your dinner plate, you could be headed for trouble. “If you don't switch up your menu, you’re going to get bored and eventually have difficulty sticking with your weight-loss plan,” says Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
The Fix: Spice it up.
Getting creative in the kitchen will give your stand-by recipes new life—and keep you more satisfied in the long run. “Experiment with fresh, flavorful herbs, like basil, gingerroot, oregano, and mint,” suggests Moore. Also, adding acidity (a dash of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar) and sweetness (a teaspoon of honey or brown sugar) can make your staple dishes more complex in taste—and more satisfying. Texture is also key: Aim for combinations of creamy, crunchy, and chewy. Try tossing chopped nuts on your greens or mixing granola into your yogurt.
4. You stockpile your calories.
Do you often eat so sparingly during the day that by the time dinner rolls around you’re famished? That strategy can backfire, leading to uncontrollable overeating in the evening. “When you skip meals it’s harder to think straight, so you’re less concerned with the implications of what you eat,” says Taub-Dix.
The Fix: Frontload those calories.
Eating earlier in the day is a must to head off disaster later on. Limit the size of your evening meal so that you wake up eager for breakfast. Even if you’re not hungry, be sure to eat something—even a small bite. “Treat yourself the way you’d treat your kids—you wouldn’t let them skip meals,” says Taub-Dix.
5. You drink your meals.
With the ever-increasing popularity of lattes for breakfast and smoothies for lunch, many of us are drinking our calories away. But drinking too many caloric beverages can ultimately leave you feeling unsatisfied. When researchers at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, gave study participants 450 extra calories daily in the form of either fluid or solid food, those who ate the extra solids ate less later in the day whereas those who drank the extra fluids did not. The reasoning: Chewing causes the release of hormones that signal fullness, and solid food is digested more slowly than liquids.
The Fix: Rethink convenience.
Slurping down a meal might seem fast and easy, but in the time it takes to drive to the coffee shop, stand on line, and pay for that latte, you could have had something just as quick—and far more satisfying. “Try a slice of toast with peanut butter or a cup of yogurt with some fruit,” says Lona Sandon. If it’s the comfort of a hot drink you crave, go ahead and have that latte—just order it with skim milk. And instead of sipping it solo, enjoy it with a few whole-grain crackers or a banana. In other words, focus on food combinations that will get you through to your next meal—no starving required.