A little bit of hunger on a fat loss program is normal. To expect no hunger at all while in a calorie deficit is unrealistic. However, if you leap for food every time you feel the slightest twinge of hunger, regardless of whether your calorie needs for the day have already been met or not, you will constantly be taking one step forward and one step back.
Your body’s natural response to calorie restriction is to increase hunger and it’s not just because there’s nothing in your stomach, it’s more complicated than that. A lot of it has to do with hormones secreted by your fat cells (leptin) and by your stomach and gastrointestinal tract (Ghrelin, CCK, Neuropeptide YY and others).
These hormones interact with your central nervous system (brain/hypothalamus) in a way you could describe as turning up the hunger dial a notch. Calories go down, appetite goes up, and you go looking for food!
Hunger: yet another reason why slow and steady wins in the end
This is why I usually favor a patient, gradual approach to fat loss. A conservative calorie deficit means slow weight loss, but less hunger, less chance of bingeing and less chance of relapse.
If you wanted to use a lower calorie “rapid weight loss program” provided it was adequate in nutrients and does not recommend anything unhealthy, that’s certainly your prerogative. However, prolonged very low calorie diets are far more likely to crank up that hunger dial. If you’re the type of person to be prone to cravings, emotional eating or bingeing, crash dieting is the worst thing you could do.
Some people have the willpower and dietary restraint to grin and bear the hunger and so they manage to lose weight more quickly. But in the end, hunger, cravings and “missing favorite foods” gets the best of almost everyone, and post-diet overeating and bingeing puts the weight back on. It’s a verified fact: Research from Oxford University and the National Weight Control Registry says that 80-95% of all dieters gain back all the weight they lost. Uncontrolled hunger is one of the reasons why.
That’s why you need strategies to handle hunger and control your cravings. Since we’re dealing with both a physical and mental challenge, your strategies need to be both mental and physical. Even if you have the strongest willpower in the world, it won’t last you forever in the face of hormonal hunger.
In this article, we’re going to focus mostly on the physical strategies, but let me give you two quick mental reframes that will put everything else you do – mental and physical – into the proper perspective.
Psychological strategies for handling hunger
Cognitive psychologist Judith Beck gave some of the best advice I have ever heard on this matter. She said: “hunger is not an emergency.”
What a great concept. It’s true. We are so conditioned to leap into action and grab food when we feel the slightest hunger, but the truth is, we may not need to eat at all. Nothing bad will happen if you don’t eat when you feel hungry, assuming you’re following all the common sense strategies of a good nutrition plan for fat loss. But good things will happen… like seeing your abs! And building a very strong “discipline muscle” (which will carry over to other areas of your life).
My contribution to the mental strategies list is to reframe what hunger means to you: I say, “hunger is the feeling of fat cells shrinking.” You’re supposed to feel a little hungry on a diet. It means you’re getting leaner.
With that said, you should NOT feel starving or ravenous. If you do, there may be some nutrition issues you need to address and you need some physical strategies to curb hunger as much as possible. It doesn’t matter if you have the discipline of an Olympian and the willpower of a monk, you can’t resist the temptations of the modern world surrounded by food and eating cues when you’re in constant and severe hunger. Food becomes the only thing you can think about. Fortunately there are natural ways to control it.
10 STRATEGIES TO HANDLE HUNGER
1. Eat a substantial breakfast and don’t skip scheduled meals.
Skipping breakfast correlates very highly with late day hunger and even binging. Night time eating syndrome (NES) is a clinically recognized eating disorder. People who eat breakfast are far less likely to experience NES.
2. Eat a lean protein with every meal.
Lean protein foods suppress appetite better than any other macronutrient. A study from the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle found that swapping out a small amount of carbs and putting lean protein in its place (increasing from 15% protein to 30% protein) improved weight loss by increasing leptin sensitivity and reducing hunger. By the way, casein protein, which is available as a protein powder supplement, is a slow-released protein. A study at Maastricht University in the Netherlands reported that casein protein makes you feel fuller. Thick shakes that have some degree of “chew” factor are more filling and make ideal meal replacements when you’re a busy person who struggles with hunger.
3. Avoid very low fat diets.
Don’t cut all the fat out of your diet. Very low fat diets often increase hunger. Physiologically speaking, dietary fats don’t curb hunger as well as lean protein. However, they do slow down gastric emptying and help even out blood sugar levels by providing a mixed meal that is not all carbs. Dietary fat also provides psychological satiety and satisfaction, as it adds flavor and texture to a food or meal.
4. Eat 14 grams of fiber per 1000 calories of caloric intake.
Fiber is satiating and provides bulk to your meals without large amounts of calories. Think veggies first, fruits second, and high fiber whole grains and legumes and root veggies third. Aim for approximately 25-35 grams a day. A new study from the University of Kentucky provided a customized recommendation for fiber: 14 grams per 1000 calories per day energy expenditure. For a female at 2000 calories, that would be 28 grams fiber per day. For a male at 2700 calories per day, that would be 38 grams of fiber per day.
5. Drink a lot of water or find a non-caloric beverage to drink when you feel hungry.
Water isn’t necessarily an appetite suppressant, but it does take some space up in your stomach. If you drink something non-caloric when you feel hungry, that may also provide some benefit psychologically. This could include tea or coffee (sans the cream and sugar). I know some folks who use sparkling water as they say the carbonation makes them fuller, at least temporarily. With a splash of juice or flavor, it’s also a low-calorie alternative to diet soda.
Liquids almost never satisfy appetite like whole foods do. However, there are no whole foods that you can eat which contain no calories, but there ARE liquids you can drink that contain no calories. Given that soda and dessert coffees are two of the largest sources of excess calories leading to obesity, a non-caloric drink as a substitution for calorie-containing drinks has great value to the dieter.
6. Experiment with food substitutions – especially carbs – to see what makes you feel fuller.
Some foods make you feel much fuller than others. For example, most people say that oatmeal gets them extremely full, while a boxed cereal like wheat flakes leaves them hungry.
There are some generally accepted guidelines here, but ultimately, it’s an individual thing. You need to experiment. A journal will help. Eat a food or meal, and then take note of hunger and how you feel immediately afterwards and for the three hour period afterwards. Your food journal will reveal a LOT to you.
7. Use calorie/carb cycling or refeed days and allow yourself free meals.
It’s a lot easier to stick to a nutrition program if you have planned free meals and refeeds. Let’s suppose that nothing else helps; you are just always hungry on a diet. Well, who says you always have to stay in a calorie deficit 100% of the time? It’s actually a built-in feature of any good nutrition program to allow free meals that will satisfy your cravings and to give yourself refeed days where you eat more.
If you know you have the free meal coming and if you know you have the refeed day coming, then even if the hunger is difficult to tolerate, you CAN tolerate it because you know you get to eat more in just a few days. Psychologically, it’s like only being on a diet for only a few days at a time. You can also tolerate hunger by reminding yourself that you won’t be on a fat loss program forever. Once you reach your goal, you get to go back up to maintenance calories.
Interesting enough, exercise can either increase or decrease appetite. The majority of research says it decreases appetite, or helps psychologically to improve compliance to a diet, but there are exceptions. For example, cold water swimming increases appetite.
High intensity cardio usually suppresses appetite. Fasted morning cardio sometimes increases appetite. And some people are simply compensators who eat more after any kind of exercise because they feel like they earned the extra food if they worked out, but they end up putting back all or more of the calories they burned. In contrast, some people are more likely to stay on their nutrition program when they exercise because they feel like eating extra would undo all the good they did from training (training can be a motivator to stay on your diet).
Research from the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin has conclusively proven that sleep deprivation increases hunger hormones and leads to more inadvertent snacking during the day.
10. Keep alcohol to a minimum.
There are a lot of reasons to avoid alcohol or drink it only in moderation, if you choose to drink. Research has consistently found that alcohol can distort your body’s perception of hunger, satiety and fullness. If drinking stimulates additional eating, or adds additional calories that aren’t compensated for, and that leads to positive energy balance, then you get fat.
You may also get fat in the belly, no thanks to what booze does to hormones. Men should be on guard more than women. The correlation between drinking alcohol and gaining body fat is stronger in men in almost all of the studies. It seems that women might be better at compensating for alcohol calories than men. In other words, men tend to drink and eat, while women tend to drink instead of eating.
How To Eat More And Burn More
While it’s not realistic to think that everyone will be free of hunger during a calorie deficit (especially during the final stages of a fat loss program), many people I’ve coached using the “bodybuilder and fitness model method” of nutrition find themselves actually eating more than they were before and they rarely feel any hunger they can’t handle…
It’s not uncommon for some of my clients to say they are full all the time, and can’t even eat all the food I recommend to them, even as their body fat keeps going down.
I can’t promise that you’ll never feel hungry on a fat loss diet, but when you switch from appetite-stimulating processed foods and refined calorie-dense sugars to all-natural, low-calorie-density, high-protein, high-fiber, nutrient-dense foods it’s remarkable how much food volume you can eat and still feel satisfied. Add in the right mental strategies, and you can get hunger problems under control.
If you’d like to learn more about this “physique athlete” style of eating, that helps you build muscle, burn fat and keep your appetite, while keeping hunger at bay, check out the latest hardcover edition of my book, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle: Secrets of the Leanest People in the World, available wherever books are sold, or get more details at
Tom Venuto is a fat-loss expert, natural bodybuilder and bestselling author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle. He has been training non stop for 30 years and he’s worked in the fitness industry since 1989, including 14 years as a personal trainer. Visit Tom’s home page at www.burnthefatblog.com or learn more about his book at:
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