While many articles talk about dieting and healthy eating, very few talk about the experience of hunger and how it relates to the way you’re going to feel and behave. It’s a key part of being a human on a diet, rather than just a principle or statistic to deal with.
Today, we’re going to bust through some behaviors and other reasons that you might be feeling hungry more often than you’d like. This should give you a way to improve your diet and make positive lifestyle changes – even if it means simply having a better relationship with food!
What is Hunger?
To start with, hunger is a neurophysiological response – it’s your body telling you that you’re low on food-energy and it needs fuel.
This is an adaptive response. Your body bases hunger on your usual approach and diet, rather than an objective sense of what you need. Simply put, if you eat 10,000 calories a day for a month and suddenly drop to 1000, you’re going to experience amazing levels of hunger.
This is because your body changes to roll with the punches. It will change its metabolic processes and adjust to make sure you get the most out of your diet – whether that means becoming more efficient when you’re restricted or finding ways of off-loading extra calories when you’re feasting.
However, it’s not just the amount of calories you take in – there are a number of other factors that play a role in how your body signals satiety and hunger . These include:
- Food volume – the physical space food takes up
- The density of food and its weight
- How resistant your food is to digestion
- The speed of digestion
- How much liquid you’re carrying
- Your recent eating habits
- Nutrient timing (maybe – kind of – it’s complicated)
- Your psychological state
- Activity and exercise
Clearly, it’s a bit of a complicated topic. Lucky for you, we’re going to break down the most common reasons that you’re going to experience a lot of hunger.
1. Your Adapted Food Intake is High
If you’re used to eating a lot of food, you’re going to have a greater hunger response to short-term changes than someone who is used to eating less. This isn’t always true and it only applies to healthy people, but change is going to be a big player in how hungry you feel.
If you’re used to over-eating, there will be an adaptive period when your body is still compensating for excess calories without actually receiving them . This causes something of a mismatch, or lag period, between what you’re eating and what your body thinks you need.
It’s important to remember that this sort of lag does ease out. It might take a week or two, but it depends on just how long you’ve been on your existing diet before you adjusted it – the more ingrained a set of eating habits have become, the more hunger you’re going to experience and the more persistent it is likely to be.
This is likely the result of a greater problem of dieting structure…
2. You Cut Calories Too Quickly
If you’re on a diet for weight-loss, how do you go from your existing diet to weight-loss? Do you do it all at once? Did you ever think about how that might affect your hunger levels?
We’ve considered that, and it seems to play a key role in the way that we deal with diet. Simply put, we tend to believe that a diet involves going from over-eating at 4000 calories a day straight to 2500 a day. This is simply absurd.
This is likely to cause huge difficulty in the first month of a diet – which probably explains why diet success is around 60-65%. Rather, we advocate for a graduated diet – an approach that reduces calorie intake by 100-250 every 1-2 weeks. This gives you time to adapt and reduces the overall severity of the dieting process.
If you’re too rapid with a diet, you’re going to reduce the sustainability of the diet and increase the risk of failure. How does this work? Excessive hunger signaling.
3. You’re Not Eating Enough
If you’re worried about weight loss, you might be cutting too hard .
We’ve seen countless examples of people (especially women) cutting too hard – trying to lose weight rapidly. There are very few reasons to take this approach in anyone that isn’t a highly-trained athlete trying to cut weight for a competition.
While everyone has different needs, it’s safe to say that your calorie intake should always be in the 4-digit range. Sometimes you’re hungry because you’re not eating enough – always aim for a sustainable and reliable calorie intake.
4. Low Food Volumes
Food volume is key to how hungry you are – independently of your calorie intake .
This means that the more space your food takes up, the more satisfying it’s going to be compared to a smaller amount of food for the same calories. This is primarily applied to vegetables which have almost no calories but take up loads of room in your digestive system .
This is one reason why we recommend eating leafy greens or low-calorie, nutrient-dense vegetables with every meal. These are a great way of filling up with great foods while also controlling your dietary intake and ensuring that you’re in control of your diet.
These foods are high in fiber – indigestible carbs that improve your metabolic and digestive health. This means that they’re going to keep you fuller, healthier, and leaner. You should always make sure to include at least one fibrous veg – and two when you’re eating red meat!
5. You Need More Protein
Protein isn’t just the answer to building muscle and improving performance – it’s a slow-digesting nutrient that provides more satiety for its volume than any other macronutrient.
A single chicken breast is very little food volume, but it provides a huge amount of satiety because of the protein content. If you’re not eating much protein in your meals, it’s probably a key contributor to feeling hungry and unsatisfied.
This applies primarily to wholefoods, however. Protein shakes aren’t going to reduce hunger in the same way that salmon will – even if this is just because of the food volume differences. It all matters when you’re the one with the rumbling stomach!
6. You’re Eating too Many Refined Carbs
Refined carbs aren’t the devil – they don’t make you fat.
The problem they pose is that they’re the opposite of high-volume foods: they pack a lot of calories into a relatively small space  and don’t satisfy in the same way that protein or whole grains do.
A diet that is rich in refined carbs provides very little satiety – this is one of the reasons that it’s easy to over-eat on a diet that’s all white carbs. Try switching to wholegrain or whole wheat versions, as these provide more satiety and have a much better fiber profile.
7. Watch out for Fats
Fats aren’t the devil either! They’re an essential food group.
However, they’re also super high in calories per gram at 250% as much as you’ll get from proteins or carbs. This makes them an easy source of calories without carrying the satisfaction of 2.5g of protein or whole carbs.
A diet that is rich and contains too many fats will mean you quickly reach your calorie limit without actually feeling full . This is one of many reasons why it’s important to mix your diet with the best of each macronutrient group: proteins, carbs, and fats.
Being hungry is a big deal and we can’t just keep pretending it's due to weakness or a lack of willpower. Hunger management is a key part of deciding whether you make progress or not. Being smart about your diet and understanding how to deal with hunger is going to make you happier and more satisfied throughout the day.
If you’re struggling with hunger, run through these hints and see if you’re falling prey to any of them. Even one of them can easily trip you up and undermine a healthy lifestyle. Remember to put emphasis on how you feel, and focus on behavior and habits – not just numbers, scales and weights!
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 Morin, Jean-Pascal, et al. “Palatable hyper-caloric foods impact on neuronal plasticity.” Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 11 (2017): 19.
 Herman, C. Peter. “Restrained eating.” Psychiatric Clinics 1.3 (1978): 593-607.
 Rolls, Barbara J., Adam Drewnowski, and Jenny H. Ledikwe. “Changing the energy density of the diet as a strategy for weight management.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 105.5 (2005): 98-103.
 Starkebaum, Warren, and Martin Gerber. “Biasing stretch receptors in stomach wall to treat obesity.” U.S. Patent Application No. 10/836,549.
 Trivedi, Bijal. “The good the fad and the unhealthy.” New Scientist 191.2570 (2006): 42-49.
Amanda is a gym instructor and a diet and nutrition fanatic that has reviewed 100s of supplements for the benefit of consumers. She struggled with obesity 7 years ago and after losing more than 30lbs, dedicates most of her time in helping others achieve similar results and transform their lives.