• Isaac J. Wedig MS, CSCS

Managing Your Hunger While Dieting

What is it that makes dieting and losing weight so hard? The answer to that question ultimately boils down to one thing, something that anyone who has ever dieted before is a bit too familiar with; hunger.

Managing hunger is a critical part to achieving successful long-term weight loss. In this blog we’ll will discuss how you can use your food selection to manage your hunger and promote better dietary success.

Weight loss would be a piece a cake if you never got hungry, right?

Unfortunately, no matter what your dietary approach to weight loss may be, whether its keto, paleo, or calorie tracking, if you’re successfully restricting calories and losing weight, then hunger is inevitable.

The biggest issue with hunger is that it takes will-power to overcome and will-power can be a hard thing to sustain over long periods of time. When the will-power to battle hunger fails, your weight loss progress stalls.

Minimizing the amount of hunger that you experience on a diet can play a huge role in your long-term success. The less intense, less frequent, and more bearable that your hunger signals are, the less will-power that will be required on your part and the less likely that hunger will be to affect your dietary adherence and to sabotage your progress. This is where smart dieting and good hunger management practices come into play. Losing weight is essentially a "hunger game".

Appetite is a tool used by your body to control energy intake. When they body is in a calorie deficit and you're burning more calorie than you're consuming, hunger goes up accordingly in order to encourage the consumption of more food, thus helping to bring energy back into balance. Two things can cause an energy deficit; 1) calorie restriction (aka dieting), and 2) physical activity. Thus, both these things can increase appetite. Energy intake, or appetite, is regulated on a both short-term as well as a long-term basis.

Short-term appetite regulation influences how much food you consume on a per meal basis. In other words, it dictates how much you will eat in a single sitting before you begin to feel full.

This type of appetite regulation is carried out primarily via gut and brain communication. As you consume a meal, the gut is able to sense the incoming calorie and nutrient content of the meal and relays this information to the brain. Once the short-term energy needs of the brain are met, you get a feeling of satisfaction, you begin to lose interest in food, and you stop eating for the time being.

However, the gut-brain communication that controls this short-term satiety does not do a perfect job. The information that your gut sends to your brain concerning the calorie and nutrient content of a meal is not always very accurate. In fact, it’s based mostly on stomach distention or the physical stretching of the stomach.

Fortunate for us, there are ways to exploit the inaccuracies of this system in order to fool your brain into thinking that you’re eating more food than you actually are. This proves to be a very useful tool in fighting short-term hunger and reducing calorie intake.

In 1995, Susanna Holt and her research colleagues performed a study in which they fed subjects 240-calorie portions of thirty-eight different foods. After feeding the subjects each food item, the subjects reported how full they felt every fifteen minutes. This data was then used to construct a satiety index, representing how filling each of the food items were per unit of calorie.

In general, they found that simple and whole foods tended to be the most satiating, providing the most ‘full’ feeling after their consumption. Whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, and particularly that of white potatoes, were far more filling than white bread, refined and processed carbohydrates, cakes, doughnuts, and other high calorie baked foods.

Looking at the data as a whole they were able to characterize five important food properties that correlated strongest with a foods ability to promote satiety or fullness;

1) Low Calorie density

Calorie density refers to a foods calorie content per unit of weight. Foods with lower calorie-density were the most filling. Think about the relative size of a 240-calorie serving of broccoli versus a 240-calorie serving of cookies. The broccoli takes up a significantly greater amount of volume, and since stomach distention or stretching of the stomach is a large part of the gut-brain commination that regulates short-term hunger, higher volume foods can lead to greater short-term satiety with fewer calories consumed per meal.

2) Low Palatabity

Palatablity refers to how a good food item tastes or how rewarding it is to the brain when consumed. Foods with lower palatability tended to be more filling. For example, broccoli is not nearly as good tasting as a cookie. Highly palatable foods are perceived as very rewarding by the brain and tend to break down normal hunger signaling that typically stops us from eating, leading us to over consume. This is why it’s so much easier to overeat cookies than it is to overeat broccoli. No one ever got fat eating broccoli.

Think about dessert on thanksgiving. You could be absolutely stuffed from dinner, but when dessert comes out, you still manage to pack away some pumpkin pie. However, I bet you wouldn’t want to eat another serving of turkey. That’s because pumpkin pie is highly palatable and it allows you override your normal hunger regulation.

3) Low fat content

Foods with higher fat content tended to be less filling. This probably isn’t inherently due to the fat itself but rather the fact that fat is twice as calorically dense as carbohydrate and protein, providing 9 calories per gram as compared to just 4. Therefore, foods with more fat tend to be more calorically dense, taking up less volume per unit calorie. Fat also tends to make foods a bit more palatable and rewarding to consume.

4) High fiber content

Dietary fiber refers to indigestible carbohydrate that is found in plant food sources. The more fiber that a food source contained, generally the more filling that it was. Higher fiber foods take up lots of space in your gut and draw water with it, helping to provide a more satiating feeling.

5) High protein content

Foods that contained a higher percentage of their calories from protein tended to be more filling.

Conclusions and Practical Take-home

This data serves to further support the notion that most of your diet should consist of simple, minimally processed, whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits, lean meats, lean diary, and whole grains. These foods, by nature, tend to be the most filling, possessing many of the characteristics that were discovered by Holt’s team. They typically have the lowest calorie-density, aren’t overly palatable, are generally lower in fat, and contain high amounts of fiber and protein. It’s hard to overeat on whole foods.

Individuals who switch to a whole food or “clean eating” diet are generally very successful in terms of short-term weight loss, which can owed in most part to the powerful effect that these types of foods have on short-term appetite regulation. Introducing more filling foods into the diet decreases the amount of calories that are consumed on a per meal basis. This indirectly reduces the total amount of calories that are consumed per day, which is the main driver of weight loss.

Flexibility and balance are key aspects to dietary adherence. The goal is to create a way of eating that is sustainable and realistic. It’s completely fine to include some foods in your diet that are less filling, more processed, and more palatable. However, if and when hunger becomes an issue while dieting, or you have stalled in your weight loss, then you might want to consider altering your food selection, substituting the less filling processed foods for more filling whole foods.

In addition to consuming mostly whole foods in your diet, if you find that you are struggling with hunger, go through these three steps;

1) Check your total daily protein intake

Try to center each of your meals around a decent dose of a lean protein source, including chicken, turkey, fish, lean beef, beans, and dairy.

It may be advantageous to track your daily total protein intake and aim to consume roughly 1g/lbs of your bodyweight per day. If you’re consistently falling short of this goal, increasing your protein intake may help to manage hunger and help you preserve lean body mass as you diet.

2) Check your fiber intake

Men should aim for about 38g of fiber per day and woman about 25g. However, if your struggling with hunger, it may be beneficial to increase your fiber intake a bit more than this, up to about 20% of your total carbohydrate intake.

Foods high in fiber include fruits such as apples, oranges, and strawberries, vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, spinach, and beets, beans, legumes, and whole grains. Substitute things like brown rice for white rice, whole wheat bread instead of white bread, and oatmeal over more processed breakfast cereals.

3) Eat lower-calorie dense foods

Fruits and vegetables tend have the lowest-calorie density and highest volume, particularly that of fibrous vegetables. Therefore, adding more of these foods to your meals can add tons of food volume with little calories.

Add a serving of fruit or vegetable to every meal and eat it first, before consuming the other components of your meal. Try to reduce your consumption of very high-fat and calorically dense food items such as oils, fat-based sauces, butters, whole dairy, and processed foods.

Consume calorie free-fluids with each of your meals. Water is probably best to consume, but don’t be afraid of diet sodas, black coffee, unsweetened tea, and other calorie-free flavored beverages. The extra water added to each meal can help you feel more satisfied as well.


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