Read an Excerpt
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 the whole pie!” These naturally thin people know how to keep food choices simple. They say, “I love pizza! And that hit the spot—it was just what I needed.” Yes, I promise you, people like that do exist, and you can be one of them.
It just means being open-minded enough to rethink the timing of your meals. Later in the book we will talk about backing away from black-and-white eating (“I had a bag of M&Ms, so I might as well have ice cream, too; the whole day is shot anyway”). First, I’d like you to think about black- and-white timing. Suppose you’re at work, and all around you people are sending out for skimpy salads, but you feel hungry enough for a bigger meal—maybe even a “dinner” type of meal, such as a pork chop. Have it! A piece of protein (with fat trimmed, don’t forget . . . ) with vegetables is likely to pack on fewer calories than a salad loaded with high-calorie toppings! Later in the day, when you used to grab something from the vending machine, listen to your body: it’s not just craving calories. Those hunger pangs are a cry for help, not Swedish Fish! Eat a yogurt and a small handful of nuts, and see how much better you feel. And when it’s dinnertime, your spouse may want to sit down to an 800-calorie meal. But chances are, you’ll be more than happy with a chicken breast, a salad, and steamed vegetables. In fact, this is the way Europeans have been eating for centuries, and it’s one of the main reasons they are so much less likely to be overweight than Americans.
If you are like many of my clients, this is the point when you fold your arms across your chest and shake your head. “As if,” you’re thinking. “I cannot imagine how a meal that includes salad and steamed vegetables will ever make me happy.”
“Maybe,” I’ll say. But then I ask them to make just one change in their behavior in the week ahead: on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being “stuffed” and 10 being “famished,” I ask them to try to keep their HQ between a 4 and a 6 at all times. I tell them I don’t even care what they eat; I just want them to become aware of their fluctuating HQ.
What’s your HQ?
1.Stuffed (to the point I’m never eating again! of not feeling well)
2.Extremely fullI couldn’t eat another bite!
3.SatisfiedCould have skipped those last few bites!
4.Slightly satisfiedI feel satisfied with not one bit of fullness.
5.NeutralI’m not hungry or full.
6.Slightly hungryI guess I am about ready to eat, or I could have a few more bites.
7.HungryI’m really ready for another meal.
8.Very hungryI’m definitely ready for a big meal!
9.Extremely hungryI can’t do one more thing until I eat!
10.Famished (ready Don’t talk to me until I eat— to pass out)I could eat my shirt!
What’s all this I keep hearing about leptin?
Leptin is a hormone manufactured in fat cells. It sends a signal to the brain that we’ve received enough nourishment and that it’s time to stop eating. When it was first discovered about a decade ago, researchers thought it might be a huge breakthrough in treating obesity. But after millions of dollars in development, efforts to use leptin as a diet drug have been a major disappointment. In fact, it turns out that overweight people may already have more leptin, but that somehow, the “time to stop eating” message just doesn’t make it to the brain as effectively as it does in thinner people. Experts still think drugs with leptin may turn out to help dieters—eventually. Recently, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh learned that C-reactive protein, an indicator of inflammation in the body that is elevated in overweight people, binds to leptin and interferes with its ability to control our eating. Stay tuned!
What’s Your Body REALLY Saying?
Within a day or so, my clients report that it’s easier to come up with an accurate HQ number, and they realize they’ve been misreading many of their body’s hunger signals. It can take a while to figure out. Lots of times, they’ll see that they aren’t hungry at all, but are really thirsty. A glass of water—with a squirt of fresh lemon juice for flavor is often all your body really needs.
More often, they’re bored. Most of us rely on our eating habits to break up the monotony of a long day or a boring task at work. Sometimes, what seems like hunger is just our body’s way of asking for a break from nonstop stress. I’ve had clients tell me that a quick walk around the block is what they really needed, just long enough to grab some fresh air and a little reprieve from the daily office drama.
The HQ scale also helps people get in touch with whether or not they’re engaging in emotional eating. Researchers have been studying this behavior—in people who eat to help them manage feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety, or depression—for years in conjunction with eating disorders. But you don’t need to have an eating disorder to eat this way. In fact, it’s probably been a coping mechanism since childhood, and in its mildest form, there’s nothing wrong with it—if the occasional ice cream cone helps a normal-weight person shake off the blues, what’s the harm? But for people who routinely use food as a way to deal with their feelings, it’s a strategy that quickly turns into unwanted pounds as the “occasional” ice cream cone evolves into an everyday routine. Studies have shown that people in this category—particularly women, for reasons researchers don’t yet fully understand—also eat differently when they’re under more stress.
I don’t feel like eating all day. But then all of a sudden, I’m hungry enough to eat a small child!
I bet you’ve been avoiding your body’s phone calls. Even if you don’t feel hungry, take a break midmorning and midafternoon: get up, stretch, have a drink of water. Ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” Try something light and small just to get your metabolism going. I think you’ll see you do feel hungry and need to eat.
Putting your HQ to the test
Here’s an example from one of my client’s first food journals. Susan came to me because she had been struggling to lose fifteen pounds for the last several years. Check out her HQ scores and the relationship between her level of hunger and the quality of her food choices.
Client: Susan Age: 33 Height: 5'5" Weight: 145 lbs.
breakfast: 8:30 a.m. at desk
HQ 7, Mood: Good
1\2 cinnamon-raisin bagel, 1 tablespoon cream cheese, coffee and skim milk
lunch: 3:30 p.m. (she got stuck in court!) walking back to office HQ 9 Mood: Tense
2 slices of pizza, Diet Coke
dinner: 8:30 p.m. at home (worked all afternoon; ran a few errands after work)
HQ 8 Mood: Exhausted
Leftover chicken chow mein, 1\2 pint Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Low-fat Frozen Yogurt, Water
You may think she sounds a little extreme, but many of my clients, whether attorneys like Susan, creative types who make their own schedules, or stay-at-home moms, are this busy. They have to work in meals around demanding schedules, and like Susan, they have very little time to make smart food decisions. And I’m not just talking about calories or fat (although this particular day gave Susan way too much of both, and not nearly enough of the fiber-rich carbohydrates, lean proteins, healthy fats, or nourishing antioxidant-high vegetables she needs). I’m more worried about Susan’s blood sugar level. If I were to plot it, it would look like a roller coaster!
Erratic blood sugar levels affect many aspects of health, but especially mood. Who would have thought that a day that included pizza, Chinese food, and ice cream could have resulted in her feeling grouchy for hours? This roller-coaster ride also left her feeling wiped out when she needed the energy the most: in court, and then back at her office. It contributed to her feeling so exhausted that when she got home, instead of getting together with friends or reading a good book, or perhaps going to the gym, she ate her dinner standing over the kitchen counter and then collapsed on the couch with TiVo.
Because Susan has consumed her calories in an irregular pattern, Mother Nature has played a mean trick: even though Susan spent most of the day feeling hungry, her body burned far fewer calories than it should have, completely undermining her weight-loss goals. (Remember, this is a woman who started her day virtuously, with half a bagel.) Registered Dieticians (R.D.s) like me have suspected this for a long time, but researchers in the U.K. recently proved it. A group of healthy-weight women were given the same number of calories per day, but some were told to consume them in six intervals (similar to the Snack Factor Diet), some in three intervals, and some in nine. After a week of each, subjects were then told to fast overnight, so researchers could measure their true resting metabolic rate (or how fast their body was burning calories). Women who ate more sporadically—like Susan, consuming more calories in fewer sittings, and at unpredictable times— had a significant reduction in “thermic effect.” Translation: the calories just sat there, waiting to be converted to a larger jean size, instead of getting burned up as energy, as they should have. (The same researchers have found similar results with overweight women as well.)
With all that in mind, at our next appointment, we improved Susan’s breakfast to include more fiber and protein. Then we made sure she carried snacks in her bag at all times, so that she could have something on the way to or from court, if necessary. And at work, because it often happens that she can’t take even ten minutes to run out for a bite, she now keeps almonds at her desk in individual snack-size Ziplocs and stocks the fridge there with drinkable yogurts.
A sample day from Susan’s second week:
breakfast: 8:30 a.m. at desk
HQ 7 Mood: Good
1 slice whole wheat toast, 1 hard-boiled egg, 1 Starbucks Tall Skim Latte
snack: 10:30 a.m. (on the way to court)
HQ 6 Mood: Good
10 almonds, a drinkable yogurt
lunch: 3:30 p.m.
HQ 7 Mood: A little hassled
Mixed green salad, Grilled chicken, 1 tablespoon Italian dressing, 1 small apple, water
snack: 5:00 p.m. HQ 5 Mood: Good
KeriBar (I started manufacturing these bars because I wanted my clients to have an all-natural snack that provides protein, fiber, and healthy fats for maximum satiety, and I donate a percentage of the proceeds to fight childhood obesity.)
dinner: 8:30 p.m. at home
HQ 8 Mood: Relaxed
Grilled chicken sausage, mixed green salad with 1 tablespoon vinaigrette, steamed broccoli, 1 cup blueberries, water
See how something as simple as paying attention to her HQ and snacking started a domino effect of healthy changes? Susan had the energy to fuel herself in court. And she is burning calories. It also allowed her to make a healthy decision on her way back to the office. Instead of feeling as if she were on the verge of stealing the sausage pizza from the corner pizzeria, she was able to walk right past it to the deli and pick out something else that appealed to her. And the KeriBar she ate while she was cleaning up some paperwork at the office gave her enough healthy energy for her to make it to the super- market and pick up the sausage she’d been craving (albeit in a healthier chicken form), as well as enough other healthy food to stock her kitchen to get her through the rest of the week. Even though this wasn’t a perfect Snack Factor day, just by adding two little snacks, Susan made a dramatic improvement in her diet and set herself up to succeed at every level. It’s no surprise to me that she dropped three pounds in her first week of snacking well alone.
And even though she ate more often, she ate less overall. And Susan is typical: in one study, obesity researchers found that after just two weeks of adding a 210-calorie snack before an evening meal, participants were likely to eat an average of 300 calories less in the next meal. And the snackers felt more satiated after these smaller meals as well. This is why I always say that snacks anchor your health—and your weight—keeping it on an even keel and making dieting smooth sailing. In the following weeks on the Snack Factor Diet, Susan made progressively healthier food choices, allowing her to keep her hunger and blood sugar levels stable and to lose weight at a healthy pace. She’s down to her goal weight of 130, and she has figured out a way to plan her meals so that she has a slice of pizza for lunch each week.
Here’s a look at a sample day from another client, Robert, now in his fourth week of the Snack Factor Diet. Unlike Susan, whose work schedule could get pretty zany, Robert sits behind a desk and has a predictable routine. Factor this!
When I eat breakfast, I am hungrier for lunch—so I like to skip breakfast.
When you eat breakfast, you’re better prepared for the morning ahead. And the reason you’re hungrier for lunch is that your metabolism is working! The reason you don’t feel hungry for lunch when you skip breakfast is that you’re deprived body is going into starvation mode—so you’re not craving calories, but you’re not burning any, either. So eat breakfast and have a midmorning snack to help keep you on track when lunchtime comes.
Name: Robert Age: 37 Height: 6'0" Weight: 225 (He lost 11 pounds in three weeks.)
Occupation: Investment Banker
breakfast: Time: 7:00 a.m.
HQ 8 Mood: Good
1 slice whole wheat toast, 4-egg-white omelet, Starbucks Grande Skim Latte
lunch: Time: 11:45 a.m.
HQ 6 Mood: Good (out at business lunch—he does this 3–4 times per week)
Mixed green salad with onions, tomatoes, carrots, 1 tablespoon vinaigrette dressing; 8-ounce grilled tuna; steamed green beans; seltzer with lime
snack: Time: 2:00 p.m.
HQ 6 Mood: Somewhat stressed
Dannon Light & Fit Yogurt (they sell them in his office building), 10 almonds, water
snack: Time: 4:00 p.m.
HQ 5 Mood: Anxious to finish up something for work
Celery sticks and 2 teaspoons peanut butter
dinner: Time: 7:30 p.m.
HQ 4 Mood: Great
8-ounce steak filet, tomato and onion salad with 1 ounce blue cheese and balsamic vinegar, large bowl steamed spinach, large seltzer, 1 light beer
What’s exciting to me about Robert’s daily routine now isn’t just that it’s allowed him to knock off eleven pounds— it’s that he’s feeling great doing it. Because he’s done some experimenting and found the right timing for him; by the end of the day his HQ is at a very comfortable 4, and his metabolism has been steadily stoked.
How snacking changes behavior
Much of what I’ve mentioned so far deals with the physical science of snacking and weight loss—what’s actually happening in your body when you choose almonds and yogurt over a bag of Lay’s Baked potato chips. But what’s as important (if not more so) is that snacking causes major behavioral changes, too. And after all, your behavior is the only thing that stands between you and the body weight you’ve been struggling to reach.
There’s plenty of good science behind these behavioral claims. And I’ve seen it played out in my practice again and again. People who snack make better choices when they are:
•At restaurants. Walking in with an HQ of 6, for example, allows you to be a cool customer, not someone waiting to wolf down the whole bread basket. You can sip a glass of water instead of obsessing about dinner rolls. And once those overly generous restaurant portions arrive, it’s easier to remind yourself that there is no need to clean your plate—in fact, my clients quickly learn to eat about half of what they are served in most restaurants. You’ll see those restaurant red-flag words like fried, flaky, or puffed for the fat traps they are and go for something grilled instead. Or you’ll make a conscious decision to have the house special you’ve been craving, but say no to dessert.
•At parties. With a day’s worth of healthy snacks under their belts, my clients say they arrive and survey the food that’s laid out as someone who’s ready to pick and choose among the best of the spread, not a desperado monopolizing the chips and dips.
•In grocery stores. Don’t go in hungry—have a snack before you start shopping. Try not to shop at a time of day when you’re emotional or hungry; if you’re always tired and grouchy at the end of a workday, save shopping for Saturday mornings. You are more likely to buy junk and things you don’t need when you shop at these times. And most people get themselves in trouble when they start browsing. I suggest you have two lists, one with bare essentials for a quick trip and one that’s more elaborate for when you have the time.
•At home. People who come home starved at the end of the day are vulnerable. They often wind up inhaling the first thing they get their hands on—sometimes even food they don’t really like—because the idea of chopping even a single vegetable makes them want to lie down and pass out. (Remember that four-year-old we talked about? It’s no surprise that so many tantrums happen just before dinner!) But when you’ve been giving your body what it needs, right when it needs it, dinner isn’t that overwhelming. Even after a rough day, you can summon the strength to defrost a piece of chicken, steam some frozen vegetables, and eat at the table like a human being, instead of gulping down three-day-old leftovers in front of the fridge. Healthy “clean” meals are more appealing when you have not deprived yourself all day.
•At the table. Snacking allows you to eat more slowly and therefore consume less food. That’s because it takes about twenty minutes for leptin and other digestive chemicals to kick in and send signals to the brain that say, “Whoa—I’ve had enough.” If you’ve always been a speed-eater, it’s not a habit you’ll change overnight. It’s going to take some conscious effort on your part. My clients tell me it helps them to put their fork down in between bites, for example, or sip water often throughout the meal.
If you’re starving, with an HQ of 7 or more, this kind of slow, deliberate eating is torture. But if you’ve snacked well, it’s rewarding. In fact, some people find this style of eating not just healthful but also spiritual. Mindful eating is a practice that’s gaining favor among meditation teachers around the country, and is even taught at trendy spas like Miraval in Tucson, Arizona. The idea—like all mindfulness practices—is to breathe deeply, taste your food fully, and really savor it. When you’re thinking about nothing else but the food in your mouth, you’re living fully in the moment. For those who practice regularly, those kinds of mindfulness meditations are proven stress reducers, which not only help you manage your weight, but also boost your immune system. And if that all sounds a little too New Agey, fine. But mindful eating will definitely put you in closer touch with your HQ and closer to that strapless dress you can’t wait to wear again!