Appetite is essential to our survival. I learned this firsthand many years ago when I lost my appetite for months. Not only did I stop feeling hunger. I also lost any memory or sensation of the human appetite. My body wasn't repulsed by food. It had a total disregard for food. I didn't know it at the time, but my problem was due to a side effect of a prescription medication.
It was a frightening experience because I realized I could die if my appetite didn't return. I knew that I had to force myself to eat. Luckily, my problem was resolved fairly quickly. After two weeks, the time it took for the medication to leave my system, my life-enhancing appetite began to return. I knew I was out of the woods when I again had the desire to eat my favorite food: bread. I was ecstatic. Since this life-threatening episode, I have a greater appreciation for my appetite.
But in a culture with as much abundance as ours, it is difficult for most people to think of their appetite in a positive way. Instead, many people tend to be fearful of their appetite and feel as if they are constantly battling with it. In fact, Americans focus more on how to curb their appetite than how to celebrate it.
Because our appetite for food is hardwired and we need to eat to stay alive, we have a preprogrammed appetite. However, when there's too much food around, our appetite can cause us to eat when we're not hungry, sometimes resulting in overeating. This makes appetite control tricky.
Many people rely on willpower for appetite control, but that's often a losing battle because willpower doesn't really exist. It's not about just wanting something badly enough. Vowing to avoid eating the brownies at the party doesn't automatically mean it will happen. The truth is that many people want something badly and still have trouble following through with their good intentions.
However, if you stop believing that willpower is what you need to control your appetite and that the problem is that you don't have any, you can learn to reprogram your appetite to your advantage. Here are things you can control:
Environment: Just as your dog's or cat's appetite is piqued when smelling or seeing treats, so is yours. Keeping your environment (house, car, office) free of food images and smells helps rein in your appetite. Also, be aware that if you always eat while doing certain activities, you end up pairing the two. That means whenever you're engaging in these activities, your appetite will be turned on, signaling you to eat again even if you don't need to.
Hunger level: If you don't let yourself get ravenous you'll be better able to control your appetite. Eating smaller, more frequent meals will help. So will having a balance of protein-rich foods and complex carbs at each meal.
Nutrition: The more you feed your body nutritious, colorful foods, the less it will bother you with cravings to overeat and to consume foods you'd rather avoid. A nutritionally balanced body is a satisfied body.
Portions: Smart portion control means reducing portions gradually rather than trying to force your mind to accept drastic changes. As you reduce portions a small step at a time, your appetite will follow, helping you feel sated by less.
Sugar and salt intake: The reason fast food, restaurant food and processed food are high in salt and sugar is because salt and sugar affect appetite dramatically. If your appetite is increased because you're eating something high in salt or sugar, you'll want to eat more of it. That's a bonanza for the food manufacturer or restaurant owner. Reduce your consumption of sugar and salt and you'll reduce your desire to eat more of these foods.
Speed of eating: Savoring food slows down eating and allows you to get more pleasure from what you've eaten, therefore reaching satisfaction sooner. Feeling satisfied after eating turns off your appetite.
Alcohol intake: Having alcohol with your meal is a quick way to increase your appetite. Because alcohol is a drug that can cause disinhibition, it can make you do things you wouldn't do if you were not under its influence, including eating more.
It's important to remember to appreciate your appetite. After all, it's one of the reasons you're alive, and it adds pleasure to living. Just don't forget that there are positive steps you can take to help curb your appetite when you need to.
Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at email@example.com.