Don't beat yourself up over breaking your diet-it turns out eating smart isn't about willpower, but managing hunger hormones that, when overstimulated, can cause the feeling of being a bottomless, insatiable pit. Take these six easy steps to regain balance. By Nicole Yorio Jurick, REDBOOK.
Be a better stresser
The too-much-on-your-plate effect, caused by work deadlines, financial anxiety, or worries about kids, can spike stress levels and keep hunger hormones running high. "Cortisol imbalance is the biggest offender when it comes to unwanted weight gain," says registered dietitian and author of The Sugar Detox Brooke Alpert. "Sustained high cortisol levels can lead to intense cravings and binge eating, and can cause excess fat to accumulate around your belly." To avoid this not-so-fun stuff, work in these proven stress-zappers whenever anxiety is running high:
1. Do 10 minutes of a moderate intensity exercise such as walking or biking
2. Take 10 slow, deep breaths;
3. Call a funny friend-studies show that laughter and positive social connections can reduce cortisol levels.
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Eat the right breakfast
Skipping an a.m. meal causes a nearly eight-hour surge in the hunger hormone ghrelin, which translates to overeating all day and-you guessed it-weight gain. Once you commit to eating in the morning, reaching for the right foods is key. "A high-carb breakfast, such as a muffin, bagel, or cereal, spikes insulin levels so you end up crashing and reaching for even more carbs to compensate," says Scott Issacs, M.D., author of Beat Overeating Now. The better choice: plain old eggs. An egg breakfast dramatically decreased ghrelin levels and boosted anti-hunger hormones for nearly 24 hours, a Netherlands study found.
Don't skip the gym
Forget about the old idea that exercise makes you hungry. In fact, working out improves the functioning of leptin, a hormone that controls appetite, metabolism, and body weight. Plus, moving around helps stimulate the feel-good chemical serotonin, which doubles as an anti-hunger hormone in regulating appetite and carbohydrate cravings, Issacs says. When it comes to the effects of exercise on taming appetite, consistency is the key to keeping hunger hormones at a steady level. Aim for one hour of moderate exercise a day-even walking your dog counts!
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Tame your sweet tooth
Sugar acts like a drug-the more you eat, the more you want, Alpert says. Plus, its effects on your hormones are twofold: Fructose reduces the body's ability to control hunger and feel satisfied, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, while it also makes insulin levels go haywire, causing blood sugar spikes, crashes, and cravings. "Reducing the amount of sugar in your diet will keep cravings at bay and regulate your hormones to make it easier to lose weight," Alpert says. The sweet spot, according to the American Heart Association's recommendations, is less than 100 calories or about 6 teaspoons of excess sugar per day.
Hit the hay
Just one night of poor sleep is enough to trigger hormonal changes that reduce the body's ability to process sugar the next day, causing you to store that sugar as fat, according to a published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. In fact, getting fewer than six hours of sleep can throw ghrelin, leptin, and insulin levels out of whack, according to a new review of research from Pennsylvania State University. Your goal should be to snooze for a minimum of seven hours each night. To get there, cut out late-night TV, shut down your computer before you get sucked into the Facebook time warp, and try to hit the sack 30 minutes earlier.
Related: Yes, You Can Get Over Your Food Addictions
Eat more fat
Cutting fat from your diet in an attempt to shed pounds can seriously backfire. Healthy fats stimulate the production of CKK, a gut hormone that suppresses hunger and makes you stay full, says Dr. Tammy Post, family physician and author of Project Fabulous. Around 5 to 10 grams of fat per meal is enough to trigger CKK and therefore promote fullness without causing weight gain. Healthy fats have the strongest effect on CKK, so reach for sources like 1/2 Tbsp olive oil (7 grams), 2 Tbsp walnuts (9 grams), 1/4 avocado (7 grams), or 3 oz salmon (10 grams).
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