The Nation's Health + [Nutrition]

Appetite stimulants

Ever have days when you just can't seem to get enough to eat, your stomach gnawing just a hour after a meal? We all get them, some more than others. Other days, you can be content with a few simple foods and hunger is subdued, temptation easy to control.

Why such contrasts on different days?

A major part of the reason can be the presence of appetite stimulants , factors that trigger appetite beyond rational control. The list of common appetite stimulants includes:

--Sleep deprivation--A very important factor. Lack of sleep drives tremendous appetite, and often for the wrong foods (processed carbohydrates). I personally have experienced my most shamefully indulgent days when sleep-deprived. The solution is obvious: Sleep. Another factor that is based purely on personal observation is that of waking mid-phase. In other words, waking up while you're still enjoying the deeper phases of sleep (e.g., phase 3,4, or REM). This can oddly disrupt your day and your impulse control. I usually try and time sleep to increments of 90 minutes to coincide with the average duration of the full cycle of sleep. For example, 7 1/2 hours is better than 8 hours, since the extra half hour puts your square into a deeper sleep cycle.

--Excessive caffeine--Caffeine stimulates stomach acid. This triggers the impulse to eat . . . and eat and eat.


Image courtesy Wikipedia

--Aspirin and other anti-inflammatory agents--If you take aspirin (as many of our Track Your Plaquers do), then beware of the gastritis that can develop. Like excessive caffeine, it also triggers the impulse to eat, likely a protective mechanism, since food sops up excess acid. I ask patients to take periodic breaks from aspirin, e.g., a week off every two or three months, to allow the stomach to heal. Alternatively, an occasional dose of acid-suppressing medication is a safe practice, e.g., Pepcid AC 10-20 mg; Prilosec 10-20 mg.

--Wheat-containing foods--Followers of The Heart Scan Blog know my feelings on this. Wheat is a potent appetite stimulant: Eat something containing wheat like a pretzel or whole wheat bagel, and you want more. You may want more immediately, or a little later when your blood sugar plunges after the wheat-driven insulin surge. Solution: Dump the wheat, one of the most unhealthy food groups around.

--Alcohol--Though perhaps not a direct appetite-stimulating effect, the loss of impulse-control with alcoholic drinks can lead to overindulgence, often in the worst foods. Just beware.

--Hanging around with heavy people. Remember peer pressure? It can be subliminal. People with poor eating habits provide the silent message that it's okay to yield to impulse, overeat, overindulge, and choose the wrong foods.

--Stress--Whether through cortisol stimulation or other means, stress triggers appetite in some people. If you experience this and must give in, reach for raw nuts or nuts, rather than wheat snacks or chips. The effect will be minimal, perhaps even beneficial, rather than the bloating, appetite-stimulating, fattening effect of crackers, chips, or pretzels. This may be the same phenomenon as taking prescription steroids like prednisone.

--Short dark days, long nights--In other words, winter. Though just an anecdotal observation, I am convinced that vitamin D supplementation is an effective antidote to this effect. The short, dark days just don't bother you as much, perhaps not at all, and there's no impulse for comfort foods.

How about appetite suppressants ? In this list I would include 1) raw nuts--especially almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios, the sort with a fibrous covering and rich in monounsaturates, 2) other sources of plentiful healthy oils, e.g, use more olive oil in your salad or add it to hummus for your veggie dip, 3) space-occupying fibers such as glucomannan, inulin (such as in Fiber Choice), and psyllium seed products. Counteracting the above appetite stimulants like sleep deprivation is, of course, important.

The coming wheat frenzy, otherwise known as the holidays, is an especially important time to be aware of these effects. Eat, drink, and be merry--but with rational impulse control not driven by subconscious appetite stimulants.