How to Cut Calories Without Going Hungry

Cut calories and keep your appetite under control

When you’re trying to drop a few pounds, it’s natural to want to dive in head first. But hold on a minute, tiger. If you slash calories without giving thought to what nutrients you are eating, your appetite may get the best of you.

For maximum results, eat foods that will help you cut back on calories and quash hunger. “There’s exquisite research documenting changes in hormones in relation to appetite when people eat different amounts of protein or other types of foods,” says Wayne Campbell, Ph.D. a professor of nutrition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Ready to dial in your diet foods? This expert-approved game plan will help you get started.

Enlist protein
There are two types of hunger: The kind that makes it hard to put down your fork and the type that makes you want to rip into a bag of chips or attack your next meal. Protein-packed foods can help with both.

“Protein decreases hunger and increases satiety by positively influencing several hormones related to appetite,” says Campbell. Here’s how: As protein travels through your gut it stimulates the release of the appetite-suppressing hormone cholecystokinin (a.k.a. CCK), which sends fullness signals to your brain. But it doesn’t stop there. Protein also reduces ghrelin, a hormone that makes you feel hungry. With less ghrelin on tap, you’re less likely to scrounge for a snack or overeat at your next meal.

For maximum impact, shoot for 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal. That’s the equivalent of a three-ounce piece of lean meat, chicken, or fish, or a peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread with a glass of milk. Get started with these 7 High-Protein Breakfasts to Power Your Morning.

Be strategic with fats
When it comes to weight loss, fat can be your friend. Really. Similar to protein, fat influences several hormones, like CCK, that help you feel full. Trouble is, certain fats, namely saturated fat, aren’t exactly great for your heart. The good news: A small, yet encouraging body of research hints that heart-friendly polyunsaturated fats, found in foods like walnuts, sunflower seeds and flaxseed, may be more effective than unfavorable saturated fat for increasing another satiety hormone, known as peptide YY, and reducing hunger-promoting ghrelin.

Go big
When it comes to what you eat, size matters. In one recent study, researchers asked volunteers to serve themselves the same type of cereal offered in the form of flakes or crushed into tiny pieces. While the crushed-cereal eaters poured less into their bowls, they ended up consuming 25 percent more calories than those who filled their bowls with flakes. The reason? Dense foods, like compact nuggets of cereal, squeeze more food into a smaller volume, piling on hidden calories. To fill your belly for fewer calories, choose big-volume, lighter-weight eats like popcorn, whole grain English muffins, bran flakes, salad, and tubular pasta like penne or rigatoni.

Expand your whole grain horizons
You probably already know that whole-wheat bread and pasta are packed with filling fiber. But other whole grains—like oats, barley, and rye—might be even better bets for quashing hunger. In addition to being loaded with roughage, research shows these grains encourage your gut to grow a cocktail of beneficial bacteria that produce compounds known as short-chain fatty acids, which can help you feel fuller faster and eat less overall. So keep on whipping up whole-wheat pasta and ordering your sandwiches on whole-wheat bread. While you’re at it, add these other healthy grains into your rotation, too.

Eat often, but not too often
How frequently—or infrequently—you eat can make a big difference in your appetite. When you eat a meal, you slowly start to feel full, so you eventually stop eating. A few hours later, after you’ve digested that meal, hunger naturally starts to sneak up on you again and you begin thinking about food. “If you eat only three times a day, you’ll likely have longer intervals between meals, causing fairly large fluctuations in appetite,” says Campbell. “But if you eat four or five times a day, those intervals will be shorter, and your appetite will stay more consistent.” The challenge, he says, is eating often enough without eating too much. Three portion-controlled meals and one or two small snacks can keep your appetite on an even keel sans gratuitous calories.

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