Monday, March 15, 2010

The worst dieting advice ever

"Don't eat when you're not hungry"


Despite living in a time of unparalleled abundance, hunger is still a major contributor to our health woes.


Ever go shopping hungry? What happens? I know in my case my cart's a lot fuller on the days I shop hungry than the days I don't, and the choices often differ as well.

Ever stop to think what happens when you sit down to a meal hungry?

You shop.

You shop from your plates, your fridges, your freezers, your cupboards, or worse still, from a menu.

And just like shopping in the supermarket you're going to choose a great deal more and a great deal differently waiting until you're hungry to eat than if you'd sat down not hungry.

I'm also betting that my definition of hunger is likely broader than yours. As far as I'm concerned, hunger doesn't just come from your stomach, it also comes from your brain. Some folks like to call brain hunger, "appetite" and growling in your stomach, "hunger". I don't bother with the distinction. The drive to eat is second only to the drive to breathe in terms of importance to our survival. Consequently our body has many mechanisms and backup mechanisms in place to ensure that we do it. Just as there are a myriad of different physiologic pathways to encourage eating, so too are there a myriad of different sensations, emotions and rationalizations built in to encourage us to seek out food, specifically high calorie food.

So aside from stomach growling, brain growling consists of things such as cravings, compulsions, needs for a "taste" of a certain flavour/tartness/saltiness/sweetness, starting something and having difficulty stopping, and overt losses of dietary control and discretion.

When you're hungry it's easy to eat a full day's calories at a single sitting. The good news is, given the world we live in, hunger is entirely preventable and were you to go out of your way with well planned meals and snacks to ensure the hunger hydra doesn't rear its ugly heads, you can make it through the day in control of your portions, choices and your calories.

While it may feel unnatural to eat when you're not hungry I can assure you, it's the wise way to go and it's very easy to do.

Here's a basic hunger prevention strategy. Try it - you might be surprised at how well it works (note calorie range to represent minimums for women-men):

  • Breakfast within 30 minutes of waking, at least 350-450 calories with at least 15 grams of protein
  • Eating every 2.5 hours with between meal snacks of at least 100-200 calories a piece with at least 8 grams of protein
  • Lunch of at least 350-450 calories with at least 15 grams of protein
  • Dinner of at least 400-600 calories with at least 15 grams of protein
  • For every hour of sustained exercise add an additional 100-150 calories that are primarily carbohydrate based.

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    1. Anonymous8:39 am

      Second worst piece of diet advice:

      "You will never lose weight. You have been too fat for too long, so you cannot lose weight. You will spend your entire life trapped in an obese body."

      Your program will counteract this bad advice.

    2. I'm afraid I have to disagree with you on this one Doc. I have been successfully losing weight (33lbs since Dec 1) by only eating whole foods and only when I'm hungry. I used to snack all the time and the problem with snacking is that most snack foods are crap.

      A couple of times I've even experimented with intermittent fasting, if your readers want to know what hungry really feels like then try not eating for 24 hours. It really does a good job to level setting what hungry really is.

    3. I have to disagree as well. When your body is dependent on a steady stream of glycogen for energy, yes you will get hungry every few hours and need to eat to prevent binging sessions. When your body is adapted to efficiently burning fat as fuel (an ideal state for weight loss and metabolic health as a whole), the nature of hunger becomes completely different. You don't suffer that gnawing in your stomach, "I have to eat NOW!" feeling; it's more subtle and measured and easy to satisfy through good food choices.

      I can't help but see this idea that we have to constantly be grazing throughout the day to stave off hunger and keep your "metabolism going" as much more than a successful attempt by food companies to create as many "eating occasions" as possible so that they can sell us 100 calorie packs and snack wraps. No healthy weight loss plan should require going against your body's natural inclinations in such a fundamental way.

    4. Glad people are commenting and certainly it's fine for us to disagree.

      Leslie, one point to make about your comment. The body's natural inclinations were born out of hundreds of millions of years of evolution in food environments that did not lend themselves to an unending high calorie supply. It is those very inclinations that eating frequently is meant to supercede.

      One of the most powerful ways to combat the environment we now find ourselves in is about eating pre-emptively and certainly studies on frequent meals and snacks support such an approach.

    5. Yoni,

      I'm in your camp. I do believe the saying: Eat Less, Exercise More is wrong. It should be Eat More, Exercise More. I know that I do a lot more of the former (and latter too) and am never hungry.

      One question for you: You mention protein, which I know creates a feeling of satiety, however, you do not mention fiber. I happen to be a fiber fanatic.

      Where does fiber fit into your equation?

      Thanks for all the great information.

      Ken Leebow

    6. Hi Ken,

      Protein certainly is the most satiogenic macronutrient around and so it's a must in my books with all meals and snacks.

      Fibre can play a role in satiety as well, though not to the degree of protein and consequently I don't push it as hard.

      That said, good nutrition naturally boosts fibre. More fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and presto, more fibre.

    7. Yoni,


      What's your opinion about getting protein (not all) from protein bars?

      I happen to like Pure Protein bars ( - 20 grams of protein and almost no sugar.

      Kindest regards,

      Ken Leebow

    8. You make a good point about food scarcity, Dr. Freedhoff, or lack thereof. My only success in appropriately regulating my hunger and losing weight in a food abundant environment has come through a high-fat diet of ~two meals a day. I know many others who have had success with that approach, but don't deny the preemptive eating plan may work for some.

      I've been following your blog for some time, and since you brought up the evolutionary argument yourself, I have to ask: what issue do you take with panu/paleo/primal ways of eating? A quick search on your blog yielded no results for these terms, but I'm sure you have a stance.

    9. It's a heck of a lot easier to get protein from protein bars at snack times.

      They're portable, tasty and come in many shapes and sizes.

      Of course so too do nuts.

      Personally I tend to alternate between protein bars and nuts for snacks.

    10. Hi Leslie,

      I do have a stance. Nothing out there in the medical literature to get excited about regarding specific paleo style diets.

      That said, by definition paleo diets tend towards food with a capital F and not highly refined stuff and so likely is a far healthier way to live than the typical North American diet.

      Only monkey wrench to throw in regarding evolution and paleo dieting being a great plan - for 99.99999999 or more percent of human history people didn't live very long and therefore modelling diets after caveman behaviours may not be inherently wise.

    11. I generally like to steer clear of anthropological reasoning for paleo diets (too many unknown variables), but I think Dr. Kurt Harris does a good job of reviewing current medical literature on his PaNu blog. You may have fun poking around there a bit if you haven't already.

    12. Theresa11:30 am

      If I ate when I was hungry I'd consistently gain weight. Why? Mind/emotional hunger. I've been tracking calories and trying to gain understanding for why I can't seem to lose weight. I went 9 days in a row with similar eating patterns and then on day 10 I was STARVING all day. Why? I attended a friend's funeral. No amount of food can fill that hunger.... yet my brain begs me to try.

    13. I'm always grazing (on healthy stuff) so I don't get to the hungry point. I don't do hungry well.

    14. tmana1:59 pm

      I'm not completely convinced of the caloric level of breakfast. I find that eating more than 200-350 calories for "breakfast" (source notwithstanding) makes me ravenous the rest of the day.

      While the changes are harder to make (especially socially), I find it helpful to avoid eating meals as we know them, but to graze/snack at 150-250 calories (depending on height/weight/activity) every 2-2.5 hours, and to avoid all refined starches (whole grains and legumes are ok), with emphasis on fresh/raw fruits and veggies, followed by lean proteins, followed by legumes and whole grain starches and healthy fats.