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The Hunger Game

When calories are low, these four things can help you win the fight against your appetite

Fat loss is the brass ring when it comes to developing a great physique and is the universal goal of the overwhelming majority of Americans. In fact, fat loss is probably the one goal that bodybuilders and physique competitors share with the average individual. In the fitness world, dropping body fat is the name of the game. However, caloric restriction can be a difficult journey for many because so many complex processes are involved. Hunger and appetite—two distinct concepts that are often used interchangeably—are influenced by everything from your taste receptors to a variety of chemicals and hormones that trigger appetite regulation, satiety, and desire for food.

A number of foods and supplements can help you swing the energy balance into your favor. Just remember that all of your training and nutrition factors must be in sync in order to achieve optimal fat loss. Once these pillars are properly set and are consistently attained, only then should you investigate the various dietary supplements that further accelerate the fat-loss process.

Before we discuss some strategies to help combat the effects of diet-induced hunger, we need to understand basic hunger hormones. The two main hormones responsible for appetite regulation are leptin and ghrelin. Essentially, leptin is secreted from fat cells, and while it regulates many functions, including appetite, hunger, and satiety, it also serves a role in the regulation of fat-cell size. Once leptin is released from fat cells, scientists believe it signals the brain that the body has received adequate food. Previous findings support the fact that since fat cells secrete leptin, a lower body-fat percentage leads to less production and secretion of this appetite-suppressing hormone. Science also supports the notion that individuals with higher body-fat percentages have elevated leptin concentrations, ultimately resulting in leptin resistance, in which the brain becomes insensitive to the hormone, drastically reducing its effects on hunger and satiety. While high levels of leptin makes dieting less unpleasant, staying sensitive to leptin is more advantageous in the long run.

Although it’s unclear how long it may take for leptin levels to become clinically suppressed, it’s likely that leaner individuals consuming reduced-calorie diets (specifically low-carbohydrate diets) quickly experience some notable decreases in leptin concentrations. On the other hand, fasting is thought to initiate many survival mechanisms responsible for reducing leptin concentrations and increasing the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin.

Levels of ghrelin are primarily regulated by food intake. Ghrelin levels in the blood increase just before eating. When fasting, the timing of these rises can be affected by our normal meal routine. Surprisingly, gherkin levels increase after dieting, which may explain why diet-induced weight loss can be difficult to maintain for so many people.

Now that we know a little more about how the main appetite hormones work, it’s time to figure out what you can do to manipulate hunger hormones for your own goals.

Whey Protein

According to a study published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, increasing the amount of whey protein in your diet can help promote a feeling of fullness. In other words, increasing your protein intake above the recommended dietary allowance for protein (RDA of .8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight) may help blunt your appetite. This report also states that protein is more effective at promoting satiety compared to carbohydrates and fats. Further, a study conducted by researchers at the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the University of Missouri found that when subjects increased whey protein intake to 25 percent of total calories, it resulted in release of the satiety hormone peptide YY, which decreases the release of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin.

Fish Oil

Fish oil supplements contain the omega-3 fatty acids consisting of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—the two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil—and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in some vegetable oils, flaxseed, and walnuts. They are important for cognitive function and normal growth and development. Studies show that omega-3 fatty acids also reduce inflammation and may help lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.

Omega-3 fatty acids can help suppress appetite because of their effect on leptin levels. When omega-3 fatty acid consumption is increased in obese subjects, leptin decreases, according to a study published in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism. Further, omega-3 fatty acids may increase feelings of fullness, and there is some other preliminary evidence fish oil increases leptin sensitivity.

According to a study published in the journal Appetite, a group of subjects followed a balanced diet with low or high doses of omega-3 fatty acids for eight weeks. After the eight weeks, subjects consumed a test meal. In the report, the high omega-3 group experienced less hunger and more fullness after the test meal compared to the low-dose omega-3 group. Further research is needed to determine if the appetite-regulating effects of omega-3 fatty acids lead to long-term weight loss.

Fish oil doses vary depending on the goal. For example, if the goal is to reduce soreness from training, six grams spread over the course of a day is effective. In relation to hunger sensations, and according to the previously mentioned study, the group that consumed more than 1,300 milligrams of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids a day reported lower hunger sensations than the group that got less than 260 milligrams a day of omega-3 fatty acids. Although there is no currently recommend dose of fish oils for lowering hunger hormones, most studies on fish oils utilize anywhere from three to six grams a day.

Dark Chocolate

One rather surprising diet aid is dark chocolate. A published study from the journal Regulatory Peptides explored the relationship between appetite and levels of gastrointestinal hormones after smelling chocolate and after ingesting 30 grams of very dark chocolate (one ounce of 85 percent cocoa). Twelve female subjects participated in two 60-minute study sessions. In the first session, all 12 women ate chocolate; for the second session, they were randomized either to smell chocolate or to serve as a control (no eating or smelling). Researchers found that healthy women who ate or smelled dark chocolate reported decreased appetites. Additionally, the women displayed reduced ghrelin levels. Further, a group of researchers from the University of Copenhagen reported that study participants who ate 100 grams of either milk or dark chocolate ate 15 percent less of the pizza they were later offered.

Vitamin D

The research is very preliminary, but it appears that not getting enough vitamin D in your diet may make you hungry. Vitamin D is a hormone that is linked to appetite control and is involved in 40 different tissues, including the heart, pancreas, muscles, immune-system cells, and brain. When you have adequate vitamin D levels, your system releases more leptin and alerts your brain to stop sending your body to the buffet line. Conversely, a deficiency in vitamin D means less leptin and stronger feelings of hunger.

There can be too much of a good thing, though. Those with low levels of body fat usually have higher levels of vitamin D, as studies have shown vitamin D and body fat to be inversely proportional. Since you don’t want to overdo your intake of vitamin D and risk losing your leptin sensitivity, keep your daily supplementation to 1,000 to 2,000 IU a day. If you have a proven deficiency—many Americans do not get enough of this valuable nutrient—you can supplement with 5,000 IU a day for several days to bridge the gap and then shift to a daily maintenance dose of 1,000 to 2,000 IU a day. IM


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