Be smart about your midday meal. (Photo: Getty Images)
If you’re trying to drop pounds or maintain your weight, your instinct may be to keep your midday meal on the lighter side. Problem is, that often means the arrival of afternoon hunger pangs. And by the time you take your seat at the dinner table, your appetite is raging, your blood sugar level is circling the drain, and you’ve set yourself up for a binge.
It doesn’t help that lunch tends to be consumed while on the road or hunched over a desk, with everyday stressors and time constraints influencing meal choices — meaning a natural gravitation toward sweets or high-calorie picks (hello fast-food burger!). Meanwhile, for other people, lunch means just sticking “to one or two food groups to ‘save’ calories or carbs for later in the day,” Stephanie Middleberg, RD, a nutritionist at Middleberg Nutrition in New York City, tells Yahoo Health. “The thinking is, why waste these on a meal that doesn’t really matter?”
But the thing is, lunch does matter — the right mix of foods can keep your healthy eating habits on track. “The body digests carbs, protein, fat, and fiber at different rates, so the combination of these nutrients means staying fuller longer,” says Maggie Moon, RD, Los Angeles-based dietitian and owner of Everyday Healthy Eating. Below, find the eight elements of the perfect lunch that will keep you going until dinner without cravings or an energy crash:
Pile On The Right Amount Of Protein
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About 25 percent of your lunch should be made up of protein, says Middleberg, which is a portion that’s roughly the size of your smartphone. “Protein is more filling than carbs alone because it takes longer to digest and leave the stomach,” Moon explains. Plus, protein has another trick up its sleeve: Research shows it stimulates hormones that make us feel satiated and signal fullness. Awesome protein options include grilled salmon, slices of turkey, or a couple of hard-boiled eggs. Or choose plant-based protein such as black beans, tofu, or Greek yogurt.
Go With Whole Grains For Fiber
Load up another 25 percent of your lunch with whole grain bread (like rye
or pumpernickel) or a fist-sized serving of grains such as quinoa or brown rice. “Complex carbs are digested in two stages, partly in the mouth and then fully in the stomach, so it takes longer for digestion than simple carbs,” says Middleberg.
Whole grains also have lots of fiber, which “helps keep blood sugar steady,
keeping the body satisfied longer and preventing hunger-inducing drops in blood sugar,” adds Moon.
Pack Half Your Plate With Fruits And Veggies
Seems like a lot, but hear us out: Foods you get from the produce aisle are high in fiber and complex carbs, but generally lower in calories than grains. They create volume in your stomach, promoting fullness without calories, says Moon. To hit that 50 percent ratio, consider vegetable soup, a big salad, or grilled veggie slices in your sandwich.
Don’t Forget Fat
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The monounsaturated fat (a.k.a. “good” kind) found in fatty fish, nuts, and avocado takes a long time to digest, and that leaves you feeling fuller longer, says Middleberg. Don’t get too hung up on trying to get a specific amount of fat in your meal, and instead aim for a food that takes care of two nutritional elements at once (like salmon, which has both protein and fat).
Spice Things Up
Though spicy food itself doesn’t actually promote fullness, the heat leaves you more satisfied because it plays to your sense of smell and taste, making food more exciting, says Middleberg. Curry, salsa, or a chili pepper paste like Sriracha can hit your taste buds in all the right places.
Related: 8 Healthy Spice Trends For 2015
Play With Flavor and Texture
The punch from herbs like rosemary, thyme, basil, and mint are calorie-free ways to trick yourself into feeling more satiated. “I also recommend adding some fermented veggies like kimchi and raw sauerkraut,” says Middleberg. It’s the same thinking with texture: Crispy lettuce or sesame seeds can satisfy your need for crunch; avocado or hummus in your sandwich offers creaminess.
Don’t Forget Your Drink
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“Sip one to two glasses of water before or during lunch,” advises Middleberg. The liquid will keep you full and hydrated, which is important, because dehydration can trigger feelings of hunger. Water is your best bet; unlike sugary juices and teas, it doesn’t set off cravings for sweetness, and it’s calorie-free.
End On The Right Note
Ending a meal with a palate cleanser is an old-school idea, but there’s something to it: Removing lingering flavors can also reduce lingering cravings, and it’s also a psychological signal that the meal is over. “Try a flavored tea such as ginger, or flavored water like cucumber or orange,” Middleberg suggests.
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