9 Ways to Deal with Hunger on a Diet

Diets fail for a lot of reasons but one of the primary ones is simply hunger.  I discussed this sort of tangentially in the research review Why Do Obese People not Lose More Weight When Treated with Low-Calorie Diets and one of the comments on that article is what prompted me to write this article.

 

What is Hunger?

To say that human hunger is complicated is a vast understatement.  To cover it in detail would require a series of articles or perhaps an entire book.  Research continues to uncover numerous interacting and overlapping hormones (such as leptin, ghrelin, peptide YY, GLP-1 and others) that monitor how much and what someone is eating (along with their body weight) and those all send a signal to the brain that drives a number of processes, not the least of which is hunger.

Now, it would be truly simple if that’s all there was to it but humans also eat/get hungry for non-physiological reasons.  We get hungry out of boredom, because we are at a party and it’s expected that we eat, because we just saw a commercial for some food we like and many others.

Simplistically, we might differentiate these different drivers of hunger into physiological and psychological factors although, as I discussed in the article Dieting Psychology vs. Dieting Physiology, the distinction between the two is not only false but increasingly fuzzy.  Physiological drives can manifest themselves as ‘psychological’ hunger and psychological factors can affect physiology.

However, even though the distinction is a false one, it is often useful practically to make that division and I”ll be doing so through the rest of that article.

Sufficed to say that human hunger is exceedingly complicated and finding out ways to deal with hunger while dieting is a huge first step in making diets more effective.  And with that said, in no particular order of importance, here are 9 Ways to Deal with Hunger on a Diet.

 

1. Eat More Lean Protein

While dietitians continue to squabble over whether carbohydrates or fats are more filling in the short-term, the data is actually abundantly clear: protein beats them both out.  Increasing amounts of research has shown that both acutely and in the long-term, higher protein intakes help blunt hunger.  It also helps that, as long as you’re dealing with sources of lean protein (low-fat fish, skinless chicken, even low-fat red meat), it can be tough to get a lot of calories from protein in the first place.

I’d also note that there are many other reasons to consume sufficient amounts of lean protein on a weight loss diet including blood glucose stability and sparing of muscle mass loss.  It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of the benefits that are often attributed to ‘low-carbohydrate’ diets have more to do with the increased protein intake; the benefits occur because they are ‘high-protein’.

 

2. Eat Fruit

For odd reasons fruit has gotten a bad rap for dieting, at least in the athletic and bodybuilding subculture but little could be further from the truth.  One aspect of hunger has to do with the status of liver glycogen, when liver glycogen is emptied, a signal is sent to the brain that can stimulate hunger; the corollary is that replenishing liver glycogen tends to make people feel fuller.

The fructose component of fruit works to refill liver glycogen and folks who include a moderate amount of fruit in their weight loss diets often report feeling much less hungry.  That’s in addition to the other benefits of fruit (fiber, nutrients).  Oh yeah, eat whole fruit, stay away from fruit juice.

 

3. Eat More Fiber

No list of this sort would be complete without the mention of fiber.  Fiber can help with hunger in at least two ways.  The first is that the physical ‘stretching’ of the stomach is one of many signals about how much food has been eaten; when the stomach is physically stretched the brain thinks you’re full.  High-fiber/high-volume foods (e.g. foods that have a lot of volume for few calories) accomplish that most effectively.

Additionally, fiber slows gastric emptying, the rate at which food leave the stomach.  By keeping foods in the stomach longer, a high-fiber intake keeps folks full longer.  Basically, mom was right, eat your vegetables.

 

4. Eat (At-Least) Moderate Amounts of Dietary Fat

Ignoring the debate I mentioned above about carbs versus fat and hunger, the simple fact is that exceedingly low-fat diets tend to leave a lot of people hungry in both the short- and long-term.  Tying in with my comments about fiber in Number 3, dietary fat also slows gastric emptying (hence the aphorism that high-fat meals really stick to the ribs).  While dietary fat does little to blunt hunger in the short-term, moderate intakes tend to keep people fuller longer between meals since the meal sits in the stomach longer.

As well, exceedingly low-fat diets often taste like cardboard, tying into some of the comments I made initially about psychological effects of dieting; people won’t follow a diet that doesn’t taste good for very long.  Dietary fat gives food a certain mouth-feel and very low-fat diets remove that, leaving people dissatisfied.  The diet usually ends shortly after that.

Research has shown that moderate fat diets improve adherence to dieting and, with rare exceptions, I don’t suggest taking dietary fat much lower than 20-25% of total calories on a fat loss diet.  In some cases (such as very low-carbohydrate diets), it may be higher than this.

 

5. Exercise

I’m hesitant to mention exercise in this article simply because the response to it can vary drastically in terms of hunger control on a diet.  Doing the topic justice would take a complete article in and of itself but here I’m going to give a quick overview.

Basically, through myriad overlapping mechanisms, exercise has the potential to increase hunger, decrease hunger or have no effect.  Some of the effects are purely physiological.  On the one hand, exercise increases leptin transport into the brain which should help some of the other hunger signals work better.  On the other hand, some people can get a blood glucose crash with exercise (this is especially true in the early stages of a program) and this can stimulate hunger.  Most research suggests that exercise has, if anything, a net benefit in terms of hunger control but it’s even more complicated than that.

Whether or not exercise helps with hunger control ends up interacting with psychological factors that I’m not going to detail here. Some research suggests that people ‘couple’ exercise with their diet.  The underlying psychlogy seems to be along the lines of “I exercised today, why would I ruin that by blowing my diet.”  That’s good.

However, another category of people often use exercise as an excuse to eat more.  The underlying psychology seems to be “I must have burned at least 1000 calories in exercise, I earned that cheeseburger and milkshake.”  Of course, since people basically always over-estimate how many calories they burned with exercise, they end up doing more harm than good.

The short-version of this point is this: for some people, regular exercise (and it may not be anything more than a brisk walk) has a profound benefit on keeping them on their diet.  And for others it tends to backfire.

 

6. Consider Intermittent Fasting (IF’ing)

IF’ing is a current dietary trend that, while exact definitions vary, basically refers to a pattern where someone fasts for some portion of the day (perhaps 16-20 hours) and eats most of their food during a short ‘eating period’.  Various interpretations are out there but there is emerging research showing a variety of health benefits from this style of eating.

In the context of this article, IF’ing can be particularly valuable for smaller dieters who simply don’t get to eat a lot of food each day.  A small female trying to subsist on 1000-1200 calories per day and trying to eat 3-4 times per day is only getting a few small, relatively unsatisfying meals per day.

However, if that same dieter fasts most of the day (many find that hunger goes away after an initial spike in the morning), she can eat 1-2 significantly larger (and more satisfying) meals later in the day.

If you’re interested in IF’ing, I’d direct you to Martin Berkhan’s Leangains.com for the absolute best source of IF information on the net.  Martin is currently working on a book on IF’ing and I, for one, can’t wait to see it.

 

7. Use Appetite Suppressants

The history of diet drugs is a mixed bag but, for the most part, diet drugs have fallen into one of two major categories: metabolic enhancers and appetite suppressants.  Sometimes the drugs do both.  Now, used without changes in diet and activity, these drugs tend to only have small and transient effects.

But the simple fact is that they can help a diet.  The old Dexatrim (containing pseudoephedrine HCL) was actually very nice in that it blunted hunger without over-stimulating the person but it’s not available any more.  I’m personally a big fan of the ephedrine/caffeine stack.

Despite scare-mongering to the contrary, EC used properly (e.g. don’t take 3X the recommended dose) is actually quite safe and has both potent appetite suppressant effects along with boosting metabolic rate slightly.  Hell, I thought EC was important enough that I gave it an entire chapter in The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook.

Which isn’t to say that I think every dieter should be using/abusing appetite suppressants from day 1.  At least try the non-drug strategies first; but when the hunger is clawing at you making you want to quit your diet, consider using one.

 

8. Be more Flexible Towards Your Dieting

This is another topic that really deserves a book to fully discuss.  I’d say that I need to write that book but the fact is that I already did, the topics I’m going to briefly look at here are discussed in detail in A Guide to Flexible Dieting.

Let me address this topic with a question “What would you do if I told you you could never have something again?”  Assume it’s something you like or want, how would you react?  Odds are you’d want it that much more, right.  It’s human nature, we want what we’re told we can’t have.

Guess what, that’s dieting.  Or at least how many dieters approach dieting.  Many diets are predicated on some food being bad, off-limits or what have you; dieters go into the diet thinking “I can’t ever eat XXX again in my life” which just makes them want XXX that much more.  This is one of the psychological aspects of hunger I mentioned in the introduction.

And, of course, the followup to this is that when dieters do eventually eat XXX (and they will), then they just feel guilty and miserable, figure the diet is blown and eat the entire bag or box of XXX and abandon the diet altogether.

It’s truly a damaging approach to dieting and research has clearly shown that the type of rigid dieter I’m describing above (who expects absolute perfection from their diet or it’s a failure) do worse than more flexible dieters.

The reality is that, within the context of a long-term diet, even small deviations don’t really do much harm (unless the person goes berserk and makes it harmful).  That is, say you’re on a diet and you eat a couple hundred calories of cookies because you really wanted them.  If you’ve dieted the past 6 days, that’s no big deal.  However, if you decide that you are a worthless piece of crap with no willpower and eat another 1000 calories of cookies; well you made it into a problem.  Understand?

I always recommend that dieters use strategies like free meals (non-diet meals, preferably eaten out of the house), refeeds (extended periods of deliberate high-carbohydrate over-consumption) and full diet breaks (periods of 10-14 days where the diet is abandoned for maintenance) when they diet.  It keeps people from falling into the rigid dieting trap that, invariably, backfires.  Again, all of the details can be found in A Guide to Flexible Dieting.

 

9. Suck it Up or Stay Fat

I want to make it clear that I’m not being facetious with the title of this one; and I’m only being slightly obnoxious.  Even if you do everything I talked about above, apply every strategy perfectly, the reality is that you will probably still have some hunger on a diet.

Well…too bad.  The simple fact is that losing weight requires eating less than you’re burning and this will, at some point, generate hunger.  Now, there are exceptions, extremely overweight individuals often find that they have no appetite in the initial stages of dieting but the reality is that eventually hunger will rear it’s ugly head.

At which point every dieter is faced with a fundamental choice which, put simply is this “What’s more important to me, losing weight, or eating this food?”   I’d note that this is also a reason I’m so adamant about the flexible dieting strategies, at least one way of dealing with food cravings is to include them in the diet in a controlled fashion.  That way the dieter is controlling the diet, instead of the other way around.

But even with that, hunger is a reality of dieting no matter what else you do.  Now, you can try to reframe it (Tom Venuto in his new book suggested telling yourself that “Hunger is fatness leaving the body.”) or you can simply accept it (yes, I know, very Zen) and move on.

But none of that makes the hunger away, it’s just you trying to trick yourself out of feeling bad about it.  When that point is reached, there are only two options that I’m going to put very bluntly.

You can suck it up or stay fat.

After you’ve gotten your protein and fruit and fiber and fat and appetite supressants and exercise and flexible dieting strategies down pat, when hunger rears its ugly head, those are the only two options left.

Comments

comments

33 thoughts on “9 Ways to Deal with Hunger on a Diet

  1. I’ve also found that lots of water keeps my hunger down and i burn an extra 400 calories a day when i drink 16 oz per hour of ice cold H20. This is probably from a combination of the physiological processes associated with “heating the water up” and the frequent trips to the bathroom down the hall. indeed the pedometer shows an extra 1000 steps or so on the days i do this. Again though, my hunger is without a doubt modestly reduced.

    Next experiment; substitute the ice cold water for ice cold diet soda and measure hunger and weight loss.

  2. Chris

    Unfortunately, most reliable data suggests that the supposed ‘caloric burning effect’ of water isn’t actually real. While one lab has found it in two studies, other labs have found zero effect (using much more accurate methods in my opinion) in at least 4 studies.

    Lyle

  3. I haven’t look into studies regarding the “phenomenon,” but in my experience just staying warm – or even a little too hot – can suppress hunger quite well. Conversely, the colder or more miserable I am, the more noticeable hunger becomes.

  4. Heat tends to blunt hunger, the hypothalamus seems to be involved. This probably explains why folks often lose their appetite during the summer.

    Cold can do strange things to blood glucose and crashing blood glucose can cause hunger too.

    Lyle

  5. What about fluids in general?
    My experience tells me that sometimes I’m not really hungry, it’s just thirst playing tricks.
    I’ve noticed that sometimes when I have my standard evening meal/snack and it doesn’t(note that it should) leave me satiesfied and full it’s seems to help if I add more fluids(water/soda).

    After long and tough sessions of cardio where I’ve been sweating heavily this is very obvious. I can stuff myself with loads of foods and still not feel fully satisfied.
    This usually happens when I’ve been cheating with post-exercise rehydration and haven’t had enough to drink.
    I’ve learned the hard way that I need atleast 2,5 l of fluids or I will end up gorging on whatever sweets available. (Also, since reading your article on milk I’ve been having atleast half a litre of skimmed milk with half a litre of water and a fruit post-exercise and I’ve found it VERY efficient at blunting the immediate hunger and cravings.)

  6. Elfsberg,

    Drinking when hungry certainly can’t hurt and there is *some* research suggesting that hunger may be a misrepresentation of thirst in some cases. And while fluid will put something in the stomach, it won’t say long since it will empty quickly.

    I didn’t want to get into it in this article for the reason that the fluid issue brings up the issue about artificially sweetened drinks (e.g. calorie free type stuff like Crystal light or Diet soda) and then it gets complicated.

    Some data says that they can stimulate hunger (usually when consumed by themselves) and others say they don’t (when consumed with food). And even there there seems to be a lot of individual variance. People with a real sweet tooth often find that the taste of sweet stuff (even calorie free) makes them want more; others don’t.

    It deserves a full article by itself which is why it left out.

    Lyle

  7. Lyle, I for one would love to see an article on artificially sweetened drinks such as Crystal Light and diet soda. They’re so prevalent these days! My best guess is that they’re better for you than regular soda, but worse than plain water. That said, I have no scientific data to back that up so would happily stand corrected if you cite data to the contrary.

  8. 1. Get some sugar free gum. When hungry, chew it.
    2. Freeze your fruit. It takes longer to eat and it lasts longer (won’t rot). Choose the your fruit carefully. Some fruit is lower calorie than other. Avoid calorically dense fruit over less. Keep fruit consumption below about 100-150 calories/day (too much=lipolysis)
    3. If you have a planned cheat for the day, wait until nearly bedtime to eat it. You’re less likely to binge (if you’re asleep)
    4. Go to bed early. A lot of excess calories are eaten after 10-11 pm. Go to bed at 10:30-11 and you won’t do that because you’ll be asleep. (Ambian users excepted).
    5. Save up calories during the day. This allows a consequence free 300-500 calorie cheat while calorie limits are maintained for the day. See #4.

  9. Oh, forgot this.
    Keep foods you might binge on out of the house. If it’s 10pm and you have a bag of chips you’ll eat it. If it’s at your friend’s house, chances are you’ll just skip it and eat a fried egg or something low calorie and protein.
    Also, pre-prep your foods, bag them up, freeze some. If you’re hungry and you have ‘good foods’ (low cal or protein) you’ll binge a little on them and not succumb to ordering a pie. It’s hard to eat 800 cals of eggs or tilapia (unlike three slices of pizza)

  10. In case #2 isn’t clear. Freeze your fruit=eat it frozen. It takes about 30 seconds to eat a bowl of cubed fruit and about 5-10 min to eat the same bowl if the fruit is frozen. Don’t want them frozen so hard you break a tooth, so eat with care, or let it sit out for 5-10 min before consuming.

  11. Loved the article. I just recently have started IFing and being more flexible in my diet and have been getting great results with a fraction of the effort.

    Hunger management is far more important than most articles out there which always talk about the latest supplementation or “fat-loss workout plans”.

  12. I started dieting the last week and im gonna use an EC stack in 4 Weeks… I have 30 mg eph Hcl pills.. for the first 15 days ill start with a Really Low dose… Cutting the Pills in the half so i could get a tolerance to it…
    After the 15 days.. how much E do you recommend daily… id planned 30 mg twice a day..

  13. Great article–I appreciate the acknowledgement of the complexities of dieting. I put on lots of pounds after quitting smoking and have a bad ice cream habit. I’m dealing with it know by keeping junk food out of the house but not turning down treats now and then. Hot herbal tea has helped–I like the sweet and spicy kind with cinnamon or the ginger teas.

  14. It seems like all of your advice seems to revolve around a lone wolf, or at least an individual trying to accomplish their body recomposition goals by themselves. Wouldn’t (10) Get a friend/family/etc to help be a huge boost to seeing through to your goal. Just think, a friend can help keep you both exercising or even just not-bored by chatting, games, etc. Family members who want to see you leaner can both help by gathering and/or cooking your meals and bringing them to you in times where you are sorely tempted to just go through that drive through and double down on a burger. Having a supportive social group seems to be a massive advantage over someone trying to raw dog it by themselves.

  15. For me the evening is the worst. After 8 PM I get so hungry and taste everything. Does anyone have any suggestions to reduce evening hunger? Thanks for your opinions or comments because my evening obsession with snacking has ruined my weight loss efforts.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘527190640 which is not a hashcash value.

  16. Distraction is the key for me. An engaging movie late at night that you fall asleep to, rather than wander down to the kitchen always works. Delaying the next meal through an impromptu exercise session is another good distraction. Listening to soothing voices on Youtube (ASMR) is nice and for me immediately blocks even the most severe hunger pangs. Distraction works so well for me that some nights when I log my food intake on myfitnesspal.com I realise I have yet to reach my protein target for the day (200g) for me at the moment. Cottage cheese usually works late in the day and keeps me from waking in the night – the slow release casein maybe. Anyway, hope this might help some of you.

  17. “Suck it up or stay fat” is not helpful. Constructive ways to handle hunger pangs would b3e more helpful. If dieting tough love worked, none of us would be overweight.

  18. There is a reason that’s suggestion NUMBER 9.

    Because at the end of the day, that’s your final choice when the first 8 don’t work.

  19. Number 9 is what I need to hear today. I know I just have to deal with hunger (which often manifests with me as feelings of deprivation) if I want to lose weight. I do the sensible things with protein and moderate exercise, and am learning to diet flexibly as well, but sometimes it just comes down to that choice. Do it or stay fat. Thanks for an interesting and helpful article.

  20. But… do you really have to be hungry? If you eat healthy food in sufficient amounts to keep you full, surely you will lose weight unless you have a metabolism problem?

  21. Hi Lyle, thanks for this article.
    You mentioned eating fruit to refill liver glycogen, but in the ketogenic diet you recommend against fructose for that very reason- it preferentially refills liver glycogen- and you recommend dextrose for a TKD. It has been I think over 10 years since I’ve read that book and I don’t have it anymore, can you remind me what the rationale was for AVOIDING refilling liver glycogen on a ketogenic diet?

  22. Hi,
    I am trying to lose my last 10 pounds. My diet is good and I exercise. I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m 80% full. I have been noticing that I get hungry before bed. Sometimes I eat a snack but then other times I white knuckle it and go to bed hungry. The problem I have with going to bed hungry is that it wakes me up in the middle of the night thus affecting my sleep quality. What are your thoughts on this?

  23. Save some calories for right before bedtime and try to eat a snack containing protein, carbs, fat and fiber. This will keep you full through at least most of the night.

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