At a work party earlier this summer I brought homemade salsa (paleo, vegan, so on) and a bag of Simple Truth’s Root Vegetable Chips. One of my co-workers quickly grabbed the bag to see how healthy the “paleo” chips were compared to the potato chips she had brought.

I wasn’t surprised when she compared the calories and delightfully declared that her chips had “significantly” less calories per serving than mine. While true, her chips also had significantly more (total and unhealthy) ingredients than mine. I smiled and quickly* mentioned that I don’t count calories, I simply listen to my body.

One of the commonly accepted principles of the paleo diet is that you don’t need to count calories. People love this, mostly because people hate counting calories. While the paleo diet is pretty amazing, it doesn’t change the number of calories your body needs each day. If you eat more calories than your body needs, you will still gain weight (even if you’re eating 100% paleo). I believe that in order to maintain a healthy weight (or lose weight) on the paleo diet, it is important to understand why you don’t need to count calories but can still avoid overeating (spoiler alert: by listening to your body). Please keep in mind that this is a very complex subject, and I’m only touching on one tiny little piece of it in this post.

Eating: It’s How Calories Get Into Your Body

This is going to start out pretty simple, but stick with me. How much food we decide to eat each day is determined by two behaviors:

  • How much we eat (size of the meal)
  • How frequency we eat (how many meals)

How much we eat is influenced by many different things, such as how much food we have access to, our perception of what we’re eating, what other things we’re doing when we eat, how the food tastes and smells and looks, how fast we eat and social cues (like being told it’s rude not to clean your plate). Additionally, how much we eat can be influenced by when we start to feel full (satiation). We feel full because of our body’s physiological neurological, gastrointestinal and hepatic (liver) responses to the food we’ve consumed. All these things (and likely more) contribute to our decision to stop eating.

How frequently we eat is also influenced by many factors. Often we decide to eat because it’s already scheduled into our day (lunch time is always at noon). Sometimes we decide to eat because it’s socially appropriate (happy hour with friends). I’ve definitely decided to eat because I was simply bored and wanted something to do. Other times it’s because there is food available (chips and salsa at a bar). Perhaps most importantly, we decided to eat because our bodies tell us we’re hungry (satiety).

There are all sorts of types of hunger, but we’re going to focus on nutritional hunger. Nutritional hunger is more commonly known as malnutrition, which is a condition that results from eating a diet in which certain nutrients are lacking, in excess, or in the wrong proportions. While we often think of starving kids in Africa when we talk about malnutrition, it can (and does, really, it does) occur when people consume food that is either unhealthy or of poor nutritional value. While we may consume sufficient calories, if our body doesn’t get the nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that it needs it will respond by being constantly hungry (constant lack of satiety).

Like I said, very complex topic. People spend their entire lives studying just one tiny little piece of this stuff.

Understanding Satiation & Satiety

To keep it “simple” (it’s not simple), let’s just focus on satiation and satiety.

  • Satiation occurs while you are eating.
  • Satiety is what you experience after eating.
  • Satiation is immediate and prompts the termination of eating.
  • Satiety is not immediate, it is the feeling of fullness or satisfaction that persists after eating.
  • Satiation impacts the amount of food you choose to eat in one sitting.
  • Satiety impacts the length of time you can go before you feel you need to eat again.
  • Appetite is the desire to eat food. Satiation is the absence of appetite.
  • Hunger is the sensation experienced when one feels the physiological need to eat food. Satiety is the absence of hunger.
  • Satiation is influenced by many factors, including the nutrient content of the food your eating.
  • Satiety is influenced completely by the nutrient content of the food you ate.

Satiety & Satiation & How Much We Eat

Scenario #1: Say you eat a meal full of junk food. Your body will recognize that it’s full immediately (satiation) and stop eating instead of trying to seek out more food. As your body digests the junk food it realizes that it lacked the nutrients you need, and was really just empty calories. All of the sudden you feel hungry again (satiety) because your body wants you to go find it some useful nutrients. You grab some more junk food, eat it, and feel full instantly (satiation) but the feel hungry again shortly afterwards (satiety). This cycle will continue until you start giving your body the nutrients it needs (satiety). If you never give it the nutrients, you’ll constantly be hungry and will likely constantly be overeating (I told you it happens).

Scenario #2: Say you eat a normal paleo meal, which is full of nutrients. Your body will recognize that it’s full immediately (satiation) and stop eating instead of trying to seek out more food. As your body digests the paleo food, it will absorb all the nutrients. Since your body has the nutrients it needs, you won’t feel hungry for quite a while (satiety). Likely either you’ll just wait until your body tells you it’s hungry again or you’ll eat when you decide it’s time to eat. Since you’re not constantly hungry you’re unlikely to over eat.

Of course, it is possible that in scenario #2, you would choose to eat at the same intervals as you did in scenario #1, which would still result in overeating. This is why it is so important to listen to your body so you can recognize when you are truly hungry.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that true satiety isn’t achieved after just one meal. Getting enough nutrients to keep your body happy is a constant and on-going process. After all, one meal is rarely every diverse enough to provide all our needed nutrients, and even if it was our bodies likely wouldn’t be able to absorb all of the nutrients at once.

In Real Life

You’re probably thinking, great information, but how does it help me not gain weight and not worry about counting calories? Well, it’s important to think about satiation and satiety along with all the other factors that influence how much and how frequently you eat. Understanding your body’s satiation and satiety cues can help you eat the correct amount of food for your body (instead of counting calories to figure if you’ve eaten the correct amount). Plus, eating highly nutritious foods that your body was made to eat can help your body achieve satiation faster and satiety for longer, which allows you to eat less than you might if you were only eating empty calories. However, you also have to make sure you are aware of all the other reasons you decide to eat to avoid overeating.

Personally, I still count calories from time to time. I often do it when I find myself distracted (in life) because it helps me focus on the content of my food. I’ve definitely ate way too many brownies or chips in one sitting, only to go eat way too much at the next meal because I felt hungry. Listening to your body takes a lot of practice, and a lot of focus. If counting calories helps you focus on your food and your body, I say go for it. That being said, I also went from being a strict calorie counter to just eating paleo and lost 20 pounds, so it does work.

Just some food for thought!

*As a professional strategy, when I’m at work I try to avoid topics that get people fired up (religion, politics). In my workplace, food and eating habits are one of those topics. I’m happy to talk about what I’m eating and why, but I always try to avoid getting into what’s “wrong” with what or how someone else is eating. Truthfully, it’s not my place and it just makes people mad (and mad people in the workplace is not good for anyone). So, I try and avoided getting into issues like this one and instead challenge my thoughts on the subject into these blog posts. Totally healthy. 

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