An Adventure with Calorie Restriction (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

Reminder: I am NOT advocating that anyone reading this relate to their own body weight in any particular way.

So there I was, in October 2019, finding that I weighed more than I would have guessed. (And I am deliberately avoiding giving numbers here; I don’t want to play the game where readers compare their numbers with my numbers).

I suppose I could get into a nuanced discussion about whether or not losing weight would bring me any health benefits, and cite sources, and all that … but it would be irrelevant, because that wasn’t affecting my decision-making. I was confident that, as long as I avoided extreme weight-loss methods, that trying to lose weight wouldn’t have a negative effect on my health, and that I could drop it at any time if a weight-loss method did seem to be harming my body. But the difference between ‘has no effect on health’ and ‘has a positive effect on health’ wasn’t going to sway me. Health wasn’t my motivation.

So if I wasn’t necessarily trying to improve my health, what did motivate me to try to lose weight restrict calories? First of all, I did want to know if I could regain a sense of control over my body weight. I also wanted to see if I could prevent this from being a trend towards weight gain. I believe I could have learned to be content with the my weight in October 2019 if it stayed the same for the rest of my life, but learning to be content with rising weight would be more difficult, so I was especially motivated to make sure that my weight did not rise above what I measured in October 2019.

The other motivation was sheer curiosity of what it would be like to restrict my calorie intake over a long period of time. There is a reason I call this an ‘adventure’. After wondering for years how people manage to eat only 2000 calories a day (or less), well, here was a chance for me to learn first-hand.

My plan was very simple: eat only about 1800 calories a day. That’s it. I didn’t intend to make any changes with my physical activity, and I didn’t plan to make any changes to the types of foods I ate.

Now, I have never been very precise with this calorie counting. I don’t even write down the calories counts; I keep the count in my head (and I do almost all of the math in my head). I’ve read somewhere that a study found that people generally underestimated how many calories they were consuming. I don’t remember whether it was a study only on people who were calorie-counting as part of their lifestyle or not, but in any case, I am probably also undercounting the calories I consume. Oh well.

However, even if I am really eating more than 1800 calories per day because my counting is bad, I am certain that I am still eating less than if made no effort to limit calorie intake.

In the beginning, I tried to limit calories by limiting myself to small portions, because that was the suggestion of a book I had recently read. It was … fascinating. On the one hand, limiting my portion size increased my awareness of the taste and textures of the food I was eating, and especially my awareness of how the food felt in my stomach. As a mindfulness exercise, small portions were a success for me. On the other hand, towards my goal of restricting my calorie intake, small portion sizes were a failure step towards figuring out more effective ways to limit my calorie intake.

Trying to only eat small portions did teach me about the different kinds of hunger.

Different Kinds of Hunger-Feelings

Not all hunger feelings are the same, at least for me. Which means I am more confused than ever when other people talk about hunger feelings, because when I read about other people experiencing hunger feelings I’m not sure which feeling they are talking about.

I’m going to try to describe my hunger feelings, but I’m not sure if other English speakers assign the same names to these feelings as I do.

– CRAVINGS

To me, a ‘craving’ is any feeling which is associated with a particular type of food/drink, such as ‘fresh fruit’ or ‘coconut-based ice cream’. I can’t satisfy a ‘craving’ with a different type of food/drink – if I crave fresh fruit, eating coconut-based ice cream isn’t going to help, and vice versa (no, it’s not a coincidence that both of my examples involve sweet foods – sweet foods are more likely to invoke cravings than other kinds of foods). However, if a feel a craving for strawberries, eating an orange will probably resolve the craving, and if I feel a craving for coconut-based ice cream, eating almond-milk-based ice cream will probably resolve the craving. Or I can just ignore the cravings. To me, cravings are the weakest of the hunger feelings, and the easiest to ignore and dismiss. I suspect that they may be more psychological than based on my digestive system.

– APPETITE

The most obvious difference between ‘cravings’ and ‘appetite’ is that ‘appetite’ isn’t directed at any particular type of food. It’s just a general call to eat something. It’s also stronger than cravings, and more difficult to dismiss.

One of the main reasons the ‘small portions’ approach isn’t helpful for restricting my calories is that eating increases my appetite until I am full. If I eat until I feel some (though not complete) fullness, then the appetite can keep going for one or two hours, then it will go away. However, if I decide to eat ANYTHING during those one-to-two hours, it revives my appetite, and I’ve now drawn out the time-period that I’m going to feel an urge to eat. If I eat a portion so small that I don’t even reach partial fullness, then the appetite may stick around for more than two hours, even if I didn’t feel especially hungry before I started eating.

Yeah, it is downright weird that I feel hungrier after I eat something than before I eat something. It’s as if my stomach goes to sleep, but as soon as I eat something, my stomach wakes up, and then wants more food.

You see how this is incompatible with a small-portions strategy for restricting calories? (On the other hand, when I want to increase my calorie intake – such as when I’m on a long-distance hike – frequent small portions are a great strategy, though unfortunately they seem to be less effective at stoking my appetite when I’m engaging in a lot of physical activity). By now, I have figured out that, for me, a much better strategy is to eat until I’m full – even if that means eating 800+ calories in a single sitting – and then stop eating for a while. Once I reach 1800 calories in the day, I (ideally, though in reality not always) just quit eating for the rest of the day. That way, I’m not getting my appetite re-started too many times in the day. Sometimes, after my last meal, I’m not quite full, but by now the appetite almost always fades away within an hour or two.

However, based on what I’ve read, I suspect I may be an outlier with regards to appetite. It seems that many people do find more success with small portions than ‘eat a lot, then stop eating’ approach.

– PANGS

Pangs of hunger are the worst. They are an almost painful ache. And unlike cravings and appetite, they won’t go away by ignoring them.

In the beginning, I didn’t experience pangs of hunger, but I started feeling them a few weeks into the project. I was worried that I was doing real harm to my body. And I knew that I wasn’t going to tolerate them long term – I’d rather give up on the calorie restriction thing and accept whatever weight I was than live with the pangs of hunger.

Then I found out how to stop the pangs of hunger.

Protein.

Protein cancels the pangs of hunger like nothing else. I don’t count protein the way I count calories (and I’m already lackadaisical about calorie-counting), but ever since I started making sure that I am eating a fair about of high-protein foods every day, I haven’t felt the pangs of hunger. When a local supermarket put protein powders on clearance, I stocked up, and I now drink a serving of protein powder mixed with water every day.

Of course, after I found a solution to the pangs of hunger, I ran into another problem…

To be continued…

6 thoughts on “An Adventure with Calorie Restriction (Part 2)

  1. Actually, I can empathize – both with the different hunger feelings as well as the “eat too little and gain extra appetite”. That should actually be your glucose and insulin levels talking to you. Some glucose in the blood: release of insulin. More insulin: your cells open up to the glucose. More open pathways than glucose: appetite.
    Which is also why leaving off the sweet drinks (with sugar or without) is a good way to restrict both calories and appetite. /pharmacist rant end.

    • Huh. Thanks for the potential explanation for the ‘eat and then feel more appetite’ phenomenon. That would also explain why consuming a serving of the protein-powder-with-water doesn’t trigger an appetite increase like a small portion of other foods would (the protein powder mix has some fiber, but very little sugar/starch).

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