THE SNACK FACTOR DIET
What’s Your HQ?
Using the Hunger Quotient to Time Your Meals and Snacks
In our first session together, I always ask new clients, “How hungry are you when you eat?” Some people say they are never hungry. “How could I be? I’m always eating,” they’ll joke. Or they’ll say, “Famished! I make myself wait to eat until I am starving, but I’m usually stuffed when I am done with a meal!” As basic as it is, many people—especially superbusy people—have a pretty feeble grasp of their Hunger Quotient. Maybe they just eat constantly, without thinking about it. Or they eat in such a spartan way—as if their virtue is measured by how few calories they consume—that they’re never really satisfied. So when hunger does catch up with them, the pangs are powerful enough to knock them right into the nearest Taco Bell.
Years of not-so-great eating habits have made us tone-deaf to our body’s hunger messages. Sure, we can listen to our body when it tells us we’re tired, that we’re coming down with a cold, or we’ve worked out too hard at the gym. But it’s difficult for many of my clients—even the ones who know the exchange rate for the Japanese yen or the exact floor plan of Neiman Marcus—to answer this simple question: “Right now, how hungry am I?”
That’s because most of us eat whether we are hungry or not. We eat because we think it’s time to eat, or because the food tastes good, or maybe just because it’s in front of us. the Snack Factor Diet will boost your HQ so that hunger—and only hunger—dictates your eating behavior.
Your hunger will tell you when it’s time to eat your meals and snacks. You don’t need to plan them around my schedule, or one devised by nutrition researchers in a lab somewhere. The whole point of the Snack Factor Diet is to help you find a regular eating pattern that suits your body, your metabolism, your goals, and your lifestyle. No matter what anyone tells you, there is no ideal time between meals. Everyone is unique and needs to know his or her HQ before picking up a fork.
Some people need to eat every few hours, while others should wait closer to four hours before eating between meals and snacks. I’ve got clients who are breakfast-snack-lunch-snack-dinner people, and I admit that’s the style of eating that suits me best, too. But I’ve also got breakfast-lunch-snack-snack-dinner clients, and even a few breakfast- lunch-snack-snack-snack people! In fact, just by jotting down their HQ levels, my clients usually figure out their style in a few days.
The Exception to the Rule
There is one exception to my let-your-hunger-be-your-guide rule, and that’s breakfast. People are hungry at breakfast, even if they don’t know it. Your body has probably gone ten to twelve hours with no nourishment at all, so it’s running on empty. And the start of your workday—especially if it involves getting kids ready for school, fighting morning traffic, or diving into a less-than-scintillating sales report—often demands serious mental energy. In a perfect world, we would all wake up craving nutritious breakfasts that complemented our busy days.
The bad news is that many of my clients come to me with the reverse metabolic scenario: they skip breakfast, or if they eat at all, it’s usually nothing but empty carbs. Then, in an effort to be “good,” they don’t snack and maybe even eat a bare-bones salad at lunch. But all that noneating doesn’t help them lose weight; in fact, it has the opposite effect because it slows their metabolism down. But now it’s dinnertime and they’re ravenous, so they’re likely to consume far too many calories just as their metabolism has switched to its lowest gear. They overeat calories when their metabolism is at its weakest. What IS your metabolism?
Now that I’ve thrown it around a few times, it’s worth taking a minute to talk about what the word metabolism means. I think it may be one of the most abused words in the dieting industry. Lots of “experts” use it in a smoke-and-mirrors way that makes weight loss sound far more complicated than it is.
Our metabolism—the way we convert chemicals in our body into energy—is, to some degree, something we’re stuck with, thanks to genetics. But we can—and must, if we want to lose weight—raise our metabolic rate. Two proven ways to boost it are exercise (especially weight-bearing exercise, which we’ll talk more about in Chapter 8) and eating smaller, more frequent meals—in other words, snacking!
And what is the best way to slow our metabolism down, so that it conserves energy and burns fewer calories, and so that it holds on to the weight we want to lose in our stomach and tush? Eating too little or eating too infrequently. Missing a single meal is enough to signal to our bodies that we might be on the verge of a famine, and our metabolism slows to compensate.
People spend a lot of time complaining about this trait, but it’s actually a good thing—or at least it was 10,000 years or so ago. Genetic researchers believe that human beings developed this tendency—which they call the “thrifty gene”—back when we were hunters and gatherers. (Actually, our eating is influenced by about two hundred genes, which work together to control eating behavior and weight regulation, though probably only five to fifteen genes play key roles, researchers say. These genes control the production of important digestive hormones like ghrelin, which tells us when we’re hungry, and leptin, which signals when we’re full.) So hours-long stretches without eating tilt us into “thrifty” mode, anticipating a drastic cut in our daily ration of nuts, roots, and whatever else the cave people may have noshed on.
In some genetic groups, such as the Pima Indians in the Southwest, this ability to store fat efficiently is quite pronounced. While it probably worked well when food was gathered traditionally, it’s not the best evolutionary adaptation in modern times when high-calorie foods are available around the clock, 365 days a year. It has caused terrible health problems for the Pima: roughly 50 percent of them are diabetic, and in 95 percent of those cases, they are also overweight.
While they are an extreme example, the lesson applies to all of us. We’re genetically programmed to live in a feast-or-famine world, but are lucky enough to live in a country with the safest, most affordable and abundant food supply in the history of man. That’s great news for keeping the nation chugging along, but not so great for those of us who don’t need to store fat in our butts in case of famine. Snacking is the solution.
Hunger versus Appetite
Part of the problem is that so many of us confuse hunger with appetite, when they’re really very different. Nutrition researchers have found that there are three main components to appetite that control how much, how often, and the kinds of food we eat:
1. Hunger—when our body is truly saying, “Feed me now—I’m running on empty!”
2. Fullness—literally, how full our stomachs feel, which is why foods like popcorn (high in fiber) and chicken (high in protein) leave us with a different sense of satiety than pretzels or bagels (which are nonnutrient dense).
3. Desire to eat—this one confuses people, who sometimes think, “But it tastes so good to me. It must mean I’m hungry for it.” This is very dangerous territory. If crème brûlée is your thing, for instance, it will taste good to you 24/7, whether you’re truly hungry or not. (Of course, there are times when you just want to eat—we’ll discuss that in Chapter 6, and I promise you’ll get your indulgences!)
Getting in Touch with Your Inner Hunger
My advice to clients who are having a hard time getting back in touch with their HQ is to think like a kid again. For parents, this is easy. If you don’t have kids, spend a little time watching someone else’s four-year-old, and you’ll notice a wonderful pattern. Most kids only eat when they’re hun- gry. (Of course, that doesn’t include the kids who have been allowed to eat junk all day!) Stick a plate of pasta in front of a child who’s not ready to eat yet—even if it’s his favorite food in the whole wide world—and he may build a mountain, make tunnels, or feed it to the dog. But he won’t eat a bite.
Even when they are hungry, kids eat differently than adults. Most won’t take an extra serving of potatoes just because the bowl is on the table. On some days, they may push their broccoli away; other days, they may eat twice as much as usual.
It works the other way, too. If the parents’ errand schedule has deprived a child of food for too long, everyone within earshot knows it. Hungry children quickly get crabby (and younger ones may even pitch world-class tantrums) until Mom or Dad wises up and produces the requisite bag full of Cheerios. The same thing happens to hungry adults—we just don’t admit it. We blame our bad moods on delayed flights or long lines instead of realizing that the only thing wrong with our day is that we haven’t eaten enough.
But we need to reconnect with those hunger cues because it’s how those naturally thin people stay that way—like children, they listen to their bodies. Have you ever wondered about those lucky people who can, and often do, order a slice of pizza and then stop at just one slice? They don’t act out some drama dance inside their head—“I should have pizza; no, I shouldn’t have pizza!” “I had a slice—may as well just devour t...