Cravings at odd times, wanting additional helpings, feeling like we could eat again shortly after a full meal - they're all examples of how hunger can throw us for a loop on a weight loss journey. It's a common issue as people transition to a healthy diet, particularly when they're looking to lose body fat. Oftentimes in these cases, we need to adjust our food intake to include more filling but healthy foods and in some cases more calories overall. (Ever wonder why those frozen "weight loss friendly" meals leave you starving half an hour later?) Still, the reasons behind our hunger can be complex. We might be physically hungry, or we may simply be "expecting" hunger based on past eating routines. As we adapt our diets, we also adapt our expectations and approaches to eating. We gradually undo psychological hunger cues and become more attuned to the genuine physiological signals that tell us we need more fuel for our day. While everyone's metabolism differs and personal medical conditions or even stages of weight loss can influence how we should handle hunger, many commonalities exist. Read on for strategies you can use to address hunger issues!
When Hunger Hits...
Are you actually hungry, or could it possibly be that you just haven’t had enough water throughout your day? Oftentimes what we think are hunger cues are actually thirst cues. Since our bodies are primarily water, adequate hydration is imperative for improved digestion and nutrient absorption - both of which help your tummy tell your brain you’re full! Having a glass of water before, during, and/or after a meal will help decrease the sensation of hunger as well as aid your body’s metabolism. Some people find that warm beverages offer a bigger satiety effect than plain water does. Try a favorite tea blend after your meal, and start reaping the benefits!
Eat (more) vegetables.
Consuming low-nutrient foods (e.g. processed foods, refined carbohydrates, etc.) is a main reason we end up with seemingly unnecessary hunger cues. The fact is, our bodies crave more than calories: they need nutrients. Very rarely when I fill my plate appropriately do I still feel hungry when I’m finished. However, if I’m not totally full, reaching for another small serving of vegetables (seasoned with a bit of healthy fat) offers me a nutrient-dense option that satisfies and keeps me feeling fuller longer. During my grad school days when late nights were common and stress was rampant, late night cravings were at an all-time high. I wasn’t actually hungry but just experiencing cravings. During this time I told myself that if I was really that hungry, I would first eat a serving of vegetables and a glass of water. Very rarely at 11 p.m. did that sound appealing. Low and behold, I realized I wasn’t really all that hungry.
Wait 15 minutes and reevaluate your hunger level.
With busy schedules, our meals are typically on-the-go OR part of daily multitasking (e.g. eating at your desk at work). Because of this, we’re not focused on our food or on how our bodies are responding to the food we’re eating. Furthermore, this chaotic way of eating usually lasts less than 5 minutes when ideally we should be enjoying a slow-paced 15-20 minute dining session (at minimum) in which we enjoy our food choices and fully chew each bite. It might sound silly, but actually slowing your pace and being mindful of what and how you’re eating can dramatically decrease your hunger cues after the meal is done. While you’re learning to incorporate these skills into your day and still finding yourself slipping back into mindless “food frenzies,” sit back, grab some H20 and wait 10-15 minutes before going for another helping (of veggies). Food digestion is a slow process, and it usually takes your body at least 20 minutes to feel the effects of “fullness” when eating.
Make yourself busy.
As soon as you’re done with your meal, avoid lingering at the table with food in sight to suggest you need further servings. Clean up and get busy doing a different activity. Go for a walk, put on some tunes, get one of your many “to-do” list items checked off your list. Do SOMETHING. Boredom begets hunger - specifically, the psychological version of “hunger habit” when we’re looking to be filled with a distraction (e.g. food). Don’t give this sensation the chance to settle in! Instead, get up and get your blood moving and digestion going. Take your mind off your plate. Some research studies have shown that walking right after a meal - rather than waiting an hour or longer - may lead to more weight loss and better blood sugar regulation. It sounds like a great plan to me - the perfect way to minimize overeating and help your weight management efforts!
Skip the fake stuff.
After a meal, we may feel we still “have room” or a taste for something sweet. It’s more cultural association and past habit than physiological need, of course. If we’re going to indulge, some desserts are much more problematic than others. Cookies, brownies, cake, ice cream are all foods with that oh-so-addicting processed fat and processed carbohydrate ratio. Food manufacturers are strategic in how they make their food products, and the perfect mixture of processed fats (not the healthy, whole-food based fats) and refined sugars equate to a great tasting product that plays major mind-games and confuses our metabolism. These same foods are oftentimes laden with fructose or high-fructose corn syrup, an additive that doesn’t signal leptin - our body’s “fullness” hormone . A sweet treat can be included in a healthy-focused meal plan if done right, and be sure to slowly indulge and enjoy it!
Being mindful of our food choices - and reflecting on them through writing - can be surprisingly effective. A basic food journal tracking what we eat and when can encourage awareness and accountability. For many people, however, it’s helpful to get more detailed and include notes about their hunger levels, their mood, their physical activity and movement. Most people don’t realize the foods they eat throughout the course of the day, how much (or little) they are actually having, and don’t know the areas of opportunity (a.k.a. better choices). They also may not see the connection between their moods, stressful events, sleep patterns and hunger. Once you put pen to paper (or finger to mobile app screen) and start tracking, hunger “habits” and associations become clear.
How to Stave off Hunger
In the best case scenario, you avoid the struggle of feeling hungry shortly after meals, right? The type of foods you choose at your meals can make all the difference in the world on how you feel during AND after a meal as well as throughout the rest of your day.
Don’t set yourself for failure.
Processed foods are chemically designed to trigger craving. How often are you preparing pre-made boxed meals or buying fast-food? Identify what vegetables you like and build your meal from there. Next, pick your protein and healthy fat. Learn to season your food healthily and creatively. Choose as many whole-food based options as you can, and start to crowd out the refined carbohydrates and abundance of starches on your plate. These nutrient-dense foods are filling, and you can almost guarantee not feeling hungry at your last bite.
Check your routines.
Do you always have a cookie after your dinner or a soda with your lunch? How about that big bowl of ice cream right before bed? Many of our standby routines are exactly the actions that hold us in unhealthy hunger habits. Start a compliance chart of daily behaviors/routines you want to change. Expect some bumps and have some healthier “inputs” to turn to when emotional/physical cravings hit.
Fill in the gaps.
Supplement strategically based on these nutritional gaps - especially while you’re transitioning to a healthier diet. Above all, really start to get more in-tune with your body and how it responds to food. There will be times when you are truly still hungry and your body is craving nutrients. Even in a perfect world where our nutrition choices are spot on and we eat 100% organic whole foods, we are more often than not still lacking in more than one nutrient. It’s these same nutrients that allow our bodily processes to operate and our metabolism to function properly. Without them, how can we expect to feel and function optimally? Your car doesn’t operate the way it’s made to if you don’t give it the proper care, gas and oil it needs, right? Talk to a club dietitian about specific questions and concerns, but know that a foundation of quality multivitamin supplements and fish oil are good ways to fill the gaps.
Make time for your meals, and allow yourself the focus to be present while you’re eating. Taking smaller bites, chewing our food more times, and being mindful of each forkful are easy tasks that make a big impact on our bodies’ digestion, personal waistlines and food satisfaction.
Written by Becca Hurt, MS, RD Program Manager of Life Time WeightLoss
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.