Good digestion starts with a good appetite. Feeling hungry indicates your stomach and pancreas are producing hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes (sometimes referred to as gastric acid or juices) that are ready to break down the food you consume, and absorb the all-important protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals your body needs to keep healthy.
Unfortunately having an appetite, or feeling hungry can sometimes be seen in a negative light, particularly for clients who want to lose weight. However, it is important to recognise that having an appetite is required for optimal nutritional status.
When it comes to weight loss, it is more important to understand why you’re feeling hungry. Are you hungry because your body is giving you the physical signs of hunger such as; a rumbling stomach, feeling low in energy and willing to eat anything? Or are you hungry because you are feeling emotional, or have a specific craving? For example; you really only want to eat chocolate not vegetables. There are many reasons why we eat, so tuning in and listening to your body’s signals, and asking yourself why you are feeling hungry, is a good place to start. But that’s for another blog.
Why does having an appetite matter?
Having an appetite means your body is more likely to effectively break down the food you eat and use it as fuel. Feeling those physical signs of hunger mentioned above indicate your gastric juices are being stimulated before you even put food in your mouth, ensuring that when food is consumed, the nutrients from the food is cleaved away, absorbed and used by the body. The stimulation of these gastric juices also send signals to other organs lower down the digestive tract.
Signs you may not have sufficient hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes?
- You don’t feel hungry often (but eat anyway because you think you should)
- You experience bloating or have indigestion or reflux within an hour of eating (yes, reflux can be a sign of low hydrochloric acid as well as high)
- You get stomach cramps within an hour of eating
- You never feel full. This may be a result of not absorbing the nutrients you need from your food, hence your body craves more fuel.
- You notice undigested food in your stool
- You have allergies, skin issues or other gut related issues
- Your energy levels are low
- Your iron levels are low despite adequate supplementation
Of course, these may also be signs of other conditions and therefore it is important to speak to your naturopath about what may be the cause of your health complaints.
What does a ‘healthy appetite’ look like?
You may be wondering what I consider to be a ‘healthy appetite’ so I have included some of the signs that I like to see when discussing the digestive system with my clients:
- You feel hungry within 1 to 2 hours of waking up in the morning
- You experience physical hunger pangs such as a rumbling stomach approximately every 4 hours
- You are eating 3 meals a day with small snacks
- You don’t feel hungry all the time, after a meal you will feel full.
- When you feel hungry you are not fixated on one food, but would be happy to eat a variety of foods
- You don’t experience bloating, indigestion or reflux within an hour after eating
- Your bowel movements are regular and frequent (in consideration of what’s normal for you)
7 ways to improve your appetite
If you don’t have a good appetite there are ways to improve it. A consultation with a naturopath is important to understand your health in detail, and make sure there are no other underlying causes for your health concerns but in the meantime, you can adopt these 7 tips for improving your appetite.
- Remove processed, fast foods and other unhealthy foods from your shopping basket
A diet high in refined sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and heavily processed food does not provide your body with enough nutrients to produce hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes, and therefore can impact your appetite.
- Increase your intake of zinc rich food
Zinc is an important nutrient required for the production of hydrochloric acid. You can obtain zinc from pumpkin seeds, wholegrains, lean red meat and poultry, chickpeas and lentils.
- Make sure you are getting your b-group vitamins
Gastric juices also need b-group vitamins. B vitamins are found in a wide variety of foods such as wholegrains, fish, lean meat and poultry, legumes, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables.
- Drink lemon water or apple cider vinegar in water before meals
Squeeze half a lemon into water or add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar into a glass of water and drink 15 – 30 minutes before food. Both of these help to stimulate the secretion of your gastric juices.
- Include bitter foods in your meals
Including bitter foods such as rocket, spinach, kale, radish, dill and fennel all work by stimulating your gastric juices.
- Manage your stress levels
An increase in cortisol production (one of your stress hormones) can reduce the production of hydrochloric acid. Therefore, in times of acute and chronic stress, your appetite can be negatively affected. So, make relaxation part of your everyday routine, think of it like exercise, an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.
- Practice ‘mindful’ eating
Mindful eating really is just taking the time to stop and appreciate your food. By taking the time to prepare your food, look at it and smell it, you are more likely to start to feel hungry. Eating away from screens or other distractions and slowing down while you eat are also ways to support your digestive processes to work well.
If you feel you are doing all of these things and still not feeling hungry, then it’s time to book a consultation to assess your digestive health. It may be necessary to give your appetite a kick start with appropriate nutritional supplementation or herbal medicine.