I can say with quite a significant level of confidence (both from experience and research) that hunger (and cravings) is one of, if not the, biggest obstacles when it comes to losing weight (Sharifi, Mahdavi & Ebrahami-Mameghani, 2013; Gray, Clifton & Keogh, 2021). If we could get rid of feelings of hunger when trying to lose weight, it would undoubtedly make the process significantly easier. I say easier and not easy because for many people, hunger is only one part of the complex puzzle of weight loss, and many people will eat past the point of hunger for a whole range of reasons. However, if you’ve tried losing weight in the past but found it impossible to stick to, you might be asking the very important question of: How to reduce hunger when dieting?
You CAN’T Avoid Hunger, but you CAN Reduce it
We cannot live without food (I know, groundbreaking news, right?!). Our bodies need a continuous supply of it to ensure the body gets what it needs to be able to survive. From macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein) to micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), the body can only survive for so long without these being replenished. Because of this, our body has systems in place to ensure that when we’re running a bit low on fuel, it’s very good at letting you know.
Hunger is a very strong motivator and can quickly become the only thing you can think about. It is known that feelings of hunger can be overridden by feelings of being under threat, which of course, is a much more imminent problem for survival, but outside of that, few things can get in hunger’s way of giving you a strong nudge to go on the hunt for food (Petrovich, 2018).
So, back to the point of this.
Put simply, we can’t avoid hunger, and some people have a harder time than others when it comes to avoiding hunger. For example, those with obesity have been found to experience a disruption to their hunger and satiety (fullness) signals. These people can have a more difficult time with knowing when they are full as their brains can become somewhat resistant to the “fullness” hormones (Izquierdo, Crujeiras, Casanueva & Carreira, 2019).
How to Reduce Hunger when Dieting
As mentioned above, in those with obesity and potentially less sensitivity to some satiety signals, how can these people reduce their hunger when dieting? We of course have to accept that some people may naturally struggle more with managing hunger, but there’s a few things we can do that can help. Let’s discuss…
The LESS Choice you Have, the BETTER!
The ‘Paradox of Choice’ is a bizarre observation that, if you think about it, has probably happened to you before. Simply put, the paradox of choice is similar to the phrase of “spoilt for choice”. In theory, it makes sense that the more choice we have, the better, right? In reality, the opposite can often be true.
A simple example of this is when you’re sat in a restaurant. The waiter brings you the menu, you unfold it to reveal several pages with lists and lists of different foods, in different categories, for different prices, with different sides, with different deals if you buy this and that before this time, and so on. Before you’ve had chance to run your eyes over all that’s on offer, the waiter is back, their pen hovering over their notepad, clicked and ready to write. You sorrily say:
“Can we just have another few minutes please?”
This is a simple example of where too much choice can leave us feeling paralysed, not knowing what to go for, and we fear that comitting to one particular meal is an almost impossible thing as we get FOMO (fear of missing out) on the meal(s) you’re not picking.
On the flip side, if you go to a fish and chip shop? Well, the choice is severely limited and the process is often a much less stressful one. You’re not spoilt for choice and life is simpler.
A similar scenario can occur with our own food choices, but at home.
You get home from work, it’s been a long day, you’re bloody knackered. You had good intentions all day. You were going to get home and get straight to preparing a nutritious home-cooked meal.
Were going to. Now?
Well, you hadn’t actually planned what you were going to have, you were just going to make ‘something healthy’. You got home and thought “Chicken? Spaghetti bolognese? Salmon and veg? Vegetable lasagne?” and in this moment, we’re faced with the paradox of choice. We become paralysed by all of these options which we simply cannot be bothered to prepare.
Well, now you can barely be bothered to turn the hob on, nevermind stand over the counter and peel carrots and potatoes. It’s looking more and more likely that you’re going to take that oh-so-easy option of grabbing the emergency pizza out of the freezer.
Spend 45 minutes peeling/boiling veg and cooking a nutritious meal, or spend 30 seconds unwrapping a pizza, chucking it in the oven and asking Alexa to put a 15-minute timer on while simultaneously launching yourself onto the sofa? Hmm, what to choose?
I know which sounds easier!
When we plan our meals, with precision, and perhaps even do some of the preparation before we go about our day e.g. peel some veg and chuck them in a pot of water, then we are much more likely to then follow through on that plan. In addition, research has found that those who engage in meal planning are less likely to be obese, and are more likely to have a better quality diet overall due to the inclusion of a greater variety of nutritious foods (Ducrot, et al, 2017).
Go Big on Volume!
In many instances, less is more (at least that’s what I tell myself). But when it comes to trying to manage our hunger, the volume of our meals can have a really big impact on our levels of hunger (AKA satiety) following, or even during, a meal. Our stomach can only hold so much food, and one thing that triggers feelings of fullness is something called gastric distention, which is a fancy way of saying your stomach has stretched because it’s full (Wang, et al, 2008).
So, if we can fill up on foods that are higher in volume, but lower in energy, this will go some way towards helping us feel fuller but for less calories, which means our overall energy intake should be reduced. This is why it’s often recommended to fill at least half of our plate with vegetables where possible, as this will provide a lot of volume of food, for a relatively low amount of calories.
And while I never tell anyone to cut any particular foods out, especially if you enjoy them, we have to be mindful of the amount of foods that we’re having that are high in sugar, salt and fat. These include foods like chocolate, crisps, sweets, biscuits and so on. The reason being is that they provide us with a lot of energy, but in a very small amount of volume, meaning they don’t fill us up at all and don’t help very much with reducing hunger and often make us want more of that particular food.
There’s nothing wrong with including these types of snacks, but when losing weight, just a few of these can take up a big proportion of our daily calorie allowance, often leaving us feeling hungry. Go big on volume, not calories!
Being Mindful can go a Long Way
Being completely honest with yourself, ask yourself the following question:
“How often do I eat when I’m not hungry?”
Chances are, the answer to that question is something along the lines of “quite often”. If you’ve had issues with your weight for a long period of time, you can become very out of touch with your feelings of hunger and fullness. We can become numb to these feelings and pay very little attention to them apart from when we’re at extreme ends of the hunger/fullness scale.
For example, we may only notice fullness when we’ve had so much to eat that we’re uncomfortably full and you’re debating undoing the top button on your pants for fear that it might take someone’s eye out if you don’t relieve the pressure it’s under. For many, this can become your ‘normal’ feelings of what being full should feel like, when of course, we know it shouldn’t feel like that at all, it should feel like we’ve had just enough that we’ve rid ourselves of hunger and feel satisfied.
Paying more attention, or being mindful of our feelings of hunger/fullness can really help us understand when we might be either waiting too long between meals/depriving ourselves a bit too much, and when we’ve had enough food and should stop eating.
When trying to lose weight, we can sometimes reduce our dietary intake a bit too much too soon, which can lead to overwhelming feelings of hunger. You may be able to handle these for the first few days of your weight loss journey, but soon enough you’re likely to give in to these strong feelings and overeat. Sustainable? I think not.
On the flip side, when eating a meal, how often do we pay attention to how full we’re feeling during the meal? For many, the main focus is not how full we are, but on finishing every last bit of food on that plate, regardless of how full we are. This is often a habit ingrained in us from childhood, where we might’ve been told to “make sure you finish everything on that plate!”.
It can take a lot of practice and reminding yourself to get used to thinking “am I full?” during a meal, but the more you do it, the sooner you’ll become more in-tune with your body’s fullness signals.
Slow Down, Drink and Think!
As I’ve previously briefly discussed in another article of mine (here), it can take around 10 to 20 minutes before our brain receives messages from our digestive system telling us that we’ve had enough food and we can now stop eating. How often can you eat a meal in less time than this? I know it’s pretty damn easy to clear a plate of delicious food in less than 10 minutes, nevermind 20!
To help us manage better with smaller portions at mealtimes, there’s a few things we can do.
– Drink plenty of water alongside our meal.
– Take your time – the faster you eat, the more you’re likely to still feel hungry after you’ve finished your meal (meaning you’re more likely to go for a second serving).
– Eat without distractions. It’s so easy to eat a meal with a fork in one hand and a phone in the other, and while you’re scrolling away, you’re mindlessly eating your meal and all of a sudden, you look down and your plate is empty and you’re wondering where that meal went! Taking our time with meals, being mindful of the foods we’re eating, chewing thoroughly, putting our knife and fork down between mouthfuls are all little things we can try to help us manage with smaller portions, and they may even help you acknowledge that you’re not actually hungry after your meal.
There are a bunch of different things we can do to try and manage hunger when we’re trying to lose weight. While we eat for many other reasons than hunger, such as for a range of emotions like stress and boredom, if we can manage our hunger better overall, it should make the process of weight loss significantly easier.
Remember, we can’t avoid hunger. When we’re losing weight and in a calorie deficit (eating less calories than we burn), we’re essentially mildly starving ourselves, so our bodies wouldn’t be very good at survival if they didn’t increase our feelings of hunger to try and stop you doing this. While we can’t avoid hunger, we can certainly do things to manage it better.
These things include:
– Planning our meals thoroughly to ensure meals contain a lot of high-volume, low energy ingredients e.g. lean meats and vegetables. Take as much decision-making away from yourself in times where hunger and cravings may dominate your thoughts. Plan, plan plan!
– Go big on volume! Building on the previous point, if we can make our meals higher in volume but for not many extra calories, this can significantly help manage hunger as we’ll fill up for less energy.
– Be mindful of our hunger/fullness signals. It’s a tough habit to crack, but with practice, you can become much more aware of how having smaller portions may be way more manageable than you think.
– Slow down, drink and think! Take your time with meals, have a good supply of water to hand (and make sure you’re drinking it!) and think about how you’re feeling during a mealtime. Are you really as hungry as you’re telling yourself?
Comment or Questions? Post a Comment and I’ll Get Back to you!
If you made it this far, thanks for sticking with my little ramble!
I hope you found the information in this article interesting and helpful. If you have any questions or comments, drop them in the comment box below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
Follow me on Instagram!
Ducrot, P., Méjean, C., Aroumougame, V., Ibanez, G., Allès, B., Kesse-Guyot, E., Hercberg, S., & Péneau, S. (2017). Meal planning is associated with food variety, diet quality and body weight status in a large sample of French adults. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14(1), 12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-017-0461-7
Gray, K. L., Clifton, P. M., & Keogh, J. B. (2021). Weight Loss Barriers and Dietary Quality of Intermittent and Continuous Dieters in Women with a History of Gestational Diabetes. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(19). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph181910243
Izquierdo, A. G., Crujeiras, A. B., Casanueva, F. F., & Carreira, M. C. (2019). Leptin, Obesity, and Leptin Resistance: Where Are We 25 Years Later? Nutrients, 11(11). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11112704
Petrovich, G. D. (2018). Feeding Behavior Survival Circuit: Anticipation & Competition. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 24, 137–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2018.09.007
Sharifi, N., Mahdavi, R., & Ebrahimi-Mameghani, M. (2013). Perceived Barriers to Weight loss Programs for Overweight or Obese Women. Health Promotion Perspectives, 3(1), 11–22. https://doi.org/10.5681/hpp.2013.002
Wang, G.-J., Tomasi, D., Backus, W., Wang, R., Telang, F., Geliebter, A., Korner, J., Bauman, A., Fowler, J. S., Thanos, P. K., & Volkow, N. D. (2008). Gastric distention activates satiety circuitry in the human brain. NeuroImage, 39(4), 1824–1831. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.11.008