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Hunger Pangs

A healthy metabolism has as much to do with what you eat as when you eat.--©

Consider this: A typical person eats dinner around seven, goes to bed, and wakes up hungry. While you slept, your metabolism slowed down but did not stop burning entirely. It still needed to use calories for breathing, brain, and heart functions, but here, it becomes a “choose your own adventure.” If you eat in the morning, you kick-start your metabolism and begin burning energy. A couple hours later, you’ll be hungry again. However, if you wait until noon or two in the afternoon, you will feel less hungry until you eat. Your metabolism has gone into a slow burn during the night and because it was not woken up by the first meal of the day, it goes into something called starvation mode, according to Avtar Nijjer-Sidhu, a local dietitian with the Kern County Health Department.

Nijjer-Sidhu explained that your body functions very differently in feast or famine modes. Feast means your body can happily consume and store calories with no worries about the future. Famine means your body doesn’t know when the next meal will be coming, so it wants to hold on to its energy stores, comprised of fat and glycogen, so it won’t starve to death.

That first meal will turn into two very different energy forms according to the time between waking and eating. Erika Delamar, California State University Bakersfield (CSUB) Health Promotion and Accreditation Coordinator, said the first meal at a typical breakfast time, usually an hour after waking, turns into ready energy. If the first meal is eaten several hours after waking, your body turns the meal into fat and your metabolism slows down. Your body believes that you do not have ready access to energy and will stockpile your calories to prevent you from starving to death or resorting to other extreme measures, like breaking down your muscles for energy.

“The best thing to do is to not let your metabolism slow down,” Delamar said.

Maintaining a healthy metabolism goes further than just eating breakfast, though that is a big help. Once your metabolism begins burning, it needs fuel every couple hours, but our work and school days are typically set up for three meals based on the clock rather than hunger.

“Children have a good understanding of when they’re hungry and will let you know when they need to eat,” Nijjer-Sidhu said, as a recommendation for understanding when to eat outside of set meal times.


Delamar recommends eating five small meals throughout the day, emphasizing protein. This keeps your metabolism constantly burning which is one important part of a healthy body.

The other part of a healthy metabolism is exercise, especially resistance or strength training. Delamar said she believes women tend to be more timid with resistance training because they don’t want to bulk up, but resistance training can emphasize toning like with yoga or pilates. Either way, more muscle mass burns more calories than fat does, even while resting, and this elevated level of energy use helps you maintain or even lose weight. She also recommends drinking lots of water, especially cold water. Not only will hydration help you flush toxins while exercising but the cold water helps your immune system.

Nijjer-Sidhu added that cardio exercise, that maintains or raises your heart rate, also helps keep your metabolism up. It will speed up your metabolism during exercise and for a couple hours afterward. “As long as it’s not at a marathon level,” she said, this type of exercise will tap fat stores.

Humans have a complex relationshipwith food. From eating according to the clock rather than our natural hunger pangs, to eating for emotional reasons like stress or depression, we are now watching obesity become an epidemic with all its related health issues like diabetes and heart disease.

Matt Constantine, Director of Kern County Public Health, said 60 percent of the population of Kern County is obese. “We are 58 out of 58,” he said, ranking last out of California’s counties in terms of deaths due to heart disease.

Obesity, much like a healthy metabolism, is a complex issue hopefully helped in part by Kern County’s Call to Action, where the health department committee connects with community leaders, health care officials, schools, exercise experts, and business leaders to discuss how best to tackle obesity. The local government is the largest employer and Constantine and Nijjer-Sidhu have taken it to heart that they can roll out helpful programs before expanding to the rest of the county. Such programs include walking clubs and encouraging employees to brown bag their lunches. Lunches made at home tend to be healthier than those made at a fast food restaurant, so people are saving money while they save their health.

Many factors are outside our control, but we can control the quality and quantity of food, the intensity of exercise versus the amount of calories taken in.©

At CSUB, Delamar said that they help students with one-on-one nutritional counseling. She has spoken with students in single sessions and occasionally helped guide them for up to a year with pamphlets, discussions about their diets, and directing them to the gym and trainers in order to meld exercise routines with changing food habits. She likes to begin with a food journal and uses this to understand how her students are eating, what, and when, in order to help them make gradual changes that are easy to maintain.

At Bakersfield College, students are also invited to one-on-one counseling sessions. In addition to a student health program, Bakersfield College hosts an annual Health and Wellness Fair. Nothing is sold, Debra Strong, Health Fair Coordinator said. Students are simply connected with exercise, diet, and health experts to help them make the choices they need to in order to lead healthier lives.

While CSUB emphasizes food journals and working with exercise trainers, Bakersfield College combines nutrition counseling and personal counseling in a holistic approach that helps students stressed by coursework and dealing with the future. “We help students maintain a higher health in their lives so they do better in their studies,” Strong said.

As a registered nurse, Strong measures height, weight, and BMI (body mass index), as a starting point to understand how best to help students. She gives them a nutrition packet and goes over types of healthy foods to eat to maintain a balanced diet. As a soccer mom with a full-time job, she empathizes with those who struggle to fit healthy meals into a jam-packed schedule. “Everything in moderation,” she said. “I think that is key.”

Both Strong and Delamar help students transition to work life with a more rigid schedule by helping them brainstorm ways to take their healthy habits into the office. Strong encourages bringing snacks like carrots and nuts, easy to package foods that don’t need a refrigerator and can stave off the restlessness of an empty stomach. Delamar encourages her students to read the food label and really think about what they are eating. Both recommend eating five to six small meals in place of the traditional large three meals, but agree that the school and work schedule is not always compatible with more than one meal break throughout the day.

“Gaining, losing, or maintaining weight,” Delamar said, “it’s a process.”

Nijjer-Sidhu and Constantine agree. A healthy metabolism in a person and an obesity rate in a county can’t be dealt with in a single move. Nijjer-Sidhu talked about how some people she has counseled over their diets do not have the means to make the changes she recommends. She tells them to eat more fruits and vegetables, but without a car and with the nearest grocery store miles away, getting those kinds of foods can be a luxury sometimes. Constantine is helping Kern County in that respect by facilitating more certified farmers markets. Farmers’ markets offer seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables usually at or cheaper than grocery store prices and both Nijjer-Sidhu and Constantine hope that more farmers markets will help those without reliable transportation and close supermarkets improve their diets without undue hardship.

“I can’t just say eat more fruits and vegetables,” Nijjer-Sidhu said, “I have to help put those resources in the community and make them available.”

A healthy metabolism is more than just diet and exercise. Your metabolism will slow down around 40, according to Strong, and a slew of other factors outside of your control including your thyroid gland, genes, and age affect your ability to use food as effective fuel rather than simply turning it into fat. “Some things we don’t have control of, but we have control of our activities,” she said.

Nijjer-Sidhu agreed that while many factors are outside our control, we can control some important facets like quality and quantity of food, the intensity of exercise versus the amount of calories taken in. She warned that not eating properly plus exercising means you burn energy stores and then move onto lean protein—your muscles. She recommends remembering to emphasize protein and think complex carbohydrates rather than simple carbohydrates that run through your body quickly.

Not only will a healthy metabolism help you feel better and stave off diseases, but it will also help you perform better in school and at work, Nijjer-Sidhu said. And good performance is something we’re all aiming for. So why not start with your metabolism.

Article appeared in our 27-2 Issue - June 2010