Weight Q&A: Tame Your Appetite

Featured Article, News and Advice, Weight Loss
on May 4, 2011
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Spry editor Lisa Delaney is one of the rare souls who know what it’s like to be an “after.” This journalist and author of Secrets of a Former Fat Girlshed 70 pounds—and six dress sizes–and has kept it off for 20 years. She answers your questions here each week.

QUESTION: I have been exercising (swimming laps, jogging/walking, Pilates, elliptical machine) 5 to 6 days a week for 5 weeks now. I’m feeling pretty good about myself because I recently recovered from an injury that kept me from exercising for a year. Unfortunately, though, I have gained five pounds since starting this program! I haven’t changed my diet, but with so much exercise, I thought for sure I would have lost a couple of pounds. How do I switch off my appetite so I can start losing? Food is so irresistible. If I could eat what I wanted and just exercise every day, I would do it in a heartbeat. —Shannon


DEAR SHANNON: I hate to tell you, but the cruel truth is that exercise can increase your appetite. Whether it’s a physical or a mental need for more calories, no one really knows. But we do know this: People often unconsciously eat more after beginning an exercise routine, possibly because they think they’ve earned it. Some research also suggests that we overestimate the number of calories we burn by exercise, and underestimate the number of calories we eat. That, my friend Shannon, is a recipe for disaster if I’ve ever heard of one.

I agree—you should have lost weight going from zero to 5-6 days of exercise a week. But that’s only if you continued to eat the same number of calories, or fewer. I would start by keeping a food journal for a good week. Log every bite that goes in your mouth, and total up the number of calories you’re taking in. For most women, 1500 calories per day combined with regular moderate exercise should produce weight loss over time. A food log, though, won’t flip that appetite switch. A few things that will help:

Go cold turkey—for a while. I’m sure you don’t find ALL foods irresistible. What really gets your mouth watering? For me, it’s breads, pasta and sugar. When I began to transform my diet, I really limited those items—even though they were OK in small quantities, I knew that once I started, I couldn’t stop. It was easier for me, in a weird way, to say no completely, at least for a while. Oh, I did eat bread, but no pasta and no desserts of any kind for a good long time. When I allowed myself to indulge again, I tended to be happy with less. These things are still “once-in-a-while” foods, instead of “anytime” foods—that’s how I’ve kept my weight where it is for 20 years now.

Focus on what you CAN eat rather than what you CAN’T. There’s a whole harvest of interesting fruits, vegetables and other whole foods out there. Focus on getting more of these healthy foods into your diet rather than mourning the loss of your beloved favorites. Make it a goal to try one new veggie a week—go to your farmer’s market and explore. Take on the challenge of cooking with uber-healthy grains like quinoa (a high-protein grain from South America with a growing foodie fan base). Turn your kitchen into a laboratory, experimenting with lightening favorite recipes by using lower fat products, healthier cooking methods (like roasting and baking) and swapping out fatty meats for leaner ones. Make it your goal to get all your servings of healthy foods every day, and you’ll have less room in your tummy (and your brain) for the junk.

Slow down.I come from a family of speed-eaters. It used to be embarrassing to eat with normal people—I’d be on to seconds before my fellow diners picked up their forks. When you gobble your food, you can get full before you know it. You’re so busy shoveling it in that you don’t pick up the signals from your stomach that it’s reached its capacity. Try putting your fork down after each bite; take a sip of water before you pick it up again. Use chopsticks (the worse you are at it, the better!). Make it a rule that you have to sit while eating, that you’re not allowed to eat in the car and that you’re not to eat snacks by the handful (even if it is movie popcorn)—only piece by piece.

Make up a mantra. Use words to silence the food-focused conversation in your head. My favorite is “It’s Not an Option,” as in “It’s not an option to eat bread and butter before dinner.” Or “It’s not an option to grab a handful of M&Ms out of the candy dish.” (I used that one last weekend at my parents’). Words can be a powerful weapon in the battle against your cravings. Try out a few mantras to see which one works best for you (or maybe you need a couple for different situations).

Keep working out. Don’t let the fact that you’re not suddenly slim discourage you so much that you take up residence on the couch. Regardless of whether you’re losing or not, the exercise you’re getting is making you healthier—you just can’t see it on the scale. Yet.