How to Manage Hunger During Weight Loss

No matter your weight loss strategy, you will have to contend with hunger. Understanding hunger and having a strategy will help. First, hunger is a neurohormonal signal mediated by your brain’s response to what is happening in your digestive tract and metabolism. It’s no different than your brain’s signals for thirst or feeling hot. Like all uncomfortable sensations, the purpose is to change behaviour. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re thirsty, drink. If you’re hot, remove layers of clothing. It’s no more complicated. The first, and often biggest challenge, is being aware of how your behaviour is controlled by these forces.

Once you are aware, you start to catch yourself in the act; mindlessly staring into the fridge or pantry. The second challenge, then, is changing your behaviour to promote your health-promoting goals. Before this, however, a couple of important things to know:

  1. Hunger is not starvation. Hunger is a feeling that is in no way harmful (if you can control it). Starvation is a state of prolonged malnutrition from dietary deficiency.
  2. Hunger is habitual. Our brains are incredible at associating activities and times. If you typically eat lunch at noon, you will feel hungry at noon, even though you have plenty of metabolic fuel on board to keep you going for days. If you eat at your desk, you’ll feel hungry once you sit down, even though you just ate an hour ago.
  3. Your blood sugar is not low. Again, hunger is not dangerous. Most people’s bodies and brains are used to getting a steady supply of food. Once you turn off the tap for a while, the system rebukes you with hunger. Though uncomfortable, there is no physiological reason why your blood sugar levels would drop too low. The obvious exception here is someone who has diabetes and is on medication that lowers blood glucose (eg. insulin, gliclazide).

Now that you know to anticipate and be aware of hunger, what can you do about it? Time for another list!

  1. Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. If you feel hungry and it’s not time to eat, water, coffee or tea will lessen the feeling.
  2. Eat enough protein. Protein is satiating. Get 40-50 grams at your first meal of the day. There is good scientific evidence this leads to fewer calories consumed the rest of the day. Hit your total daily target and eat the protein first at each meal.
  3. Eat enough fibre. Fibre is satiating. Fresh fruit & vegetables, berries, avocados, legumes, and whole grains are good sources.
  4. Do NOT eat sugar, refined carbohydrates, or high glycemic index products. They are known to increase hunger shortly after consumption.
  5. Exercise. Being active reduces the feeling of hunger. Get up and go for a walk.
  6. Stay busy. Being engaged in activities takes your mind off of hunger.
  7. Wait. Hunger won’t last. Once your brain realizes it isn’t going to a quick hit of glucose, your metabolism will carry on via alternative pathways to keep your system running on stored nutrients. The hunger passes. It’s OK.
  8. Eat only at the table, ideally with your family or friends. Socializing slows us down and makes us feel better, regardless of what we’re eating.
  9. Be mindful of when hunger is gone and take your time. Don’t continue to eat simply because there is food on the plate. Eat slowly and deliberately. You should never feel overly full or ‘stuffed’.

When it comes to hunger and weight loss knowledge and planning are powerful tools. And yes, a little will power is also required. This is how you train your body and brain to optimize health.