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 Handle 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 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.
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 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.
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. Adopt Flexible Eating Attitudes
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
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 its 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.
Sometimes you just have to suck it up.
- Energy Density
- Comparing the Diets: Part 3
- Comparing the Diets
- High-fat or High-Protein Ketogenic Diet?
- An Introduction to Dieting