One of the biggest roadblocks people face when losing weight is hunger on a diet. It is also one of the most normal things you can experience
Luckily, several tactics can help us deal with hunger more effectively and not notice it throughout the day. So, whether you’re skinny fat, or overweight and looking to shed some fat, read on to find out what you can do.
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But First: Why Do We Feel Hungry On a Dieting?
To understand why dieting is often challenging, we must know what caloric restriction means from an evolutionary standpoint.
Your body’s primary goal is to keep you alive, and it has built-in mechanisms to achieve the objective. Fear, disgust, and anger are a few emotions that play a massive role in our survival. For instance, seeing a bear would trigger fear, flood your body with adrenaline, and allow you to run fast, endure longer, and escape the danger.
Famine is another potentially life-ending threat, and your body has developed defenses to guard against it. Dieting to lose some fat isn’t the same as being stuck without food for months, but both are forms of caloric restriction, and your body sees them as the same: threats to your survival.
Hunger is one response to eating fewer calories. The sensation occurs more intensely due to various changes in your body, increasing your desire to eat and making it challenging to keep dieting. With each week, hunger levels increase, and you become more food-obsesses. At some point, all you can think about is eating.
So, while you might be dieting to get ripped or have abs, your body doesn’t see it that way. Instead, it considers the diet as a potential threat to its life. Luckily, you can employ several effective tactics to blunt your appetite and make the dieting process more manageable.
9 Science-Backed Tactics for Dealing With Hunger On a Diet
1. Consider Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a nutritional approach that dictates when to eat and fast. Contrary to popular belief, IF isn’t a diet but an eating pattern because it doesn’t restrict specific foods.
A popular form of fasting is the 16:8 method, where you fast for 16 hours daily and eat all your calories within an 8-hour window. For instance, you can skip eating in the morning, break your fast at noon, have dinner around 8 PM, and fast until noon the next day. Other fasting methods include:
- Alternate day fasting
- Eat Stop Eat
You can read more about my thoughts on fasting for skinny fat folks here.
Intermittent fasting is not exceptional, but it can help manage hunger on a diet. Eating your day’s calories inside a smaller window would allow you to have larger and more satisfying meals, making the diet feel less like one. Instead of eating in the morning, you can have a cup or two of black coffee or tea and enjoy a big meal at noon.
I’ve used intermittent fasting while dieting numerous times, and it’s helped me manage my hunger better, especially when I have to drop my calories below 2,000 to keep losing fat.
2. Load Up On Protein
Protein is essential for your health and fitness outcomes. The nutrient is even more critical when dieting for three reasons:
- The nutrient supplies your body with the building blocks it needs to maintain protein turnover rates, allow your muscles to recover after exercise, and keep them around (1).
- Protein has a much higher thermic effect (TE) than carbohydrates or fats. For reference, protein’s TE is 20 to 35 percent, whereas that of carbs and fats is 5 to 10 percent. For every 100 calories worth of protein you eat, your body expends 20 to 35 calories to break it down and absorb its amino acids.
- Eating enough protein is beneficial for feeling fuller between meals. Data shows that protein has a high satiety score, especially compared to carbohydrates (2, 3). The more protein you consume, the easier it will be to stick with the necessary caloric restriction for fat loss.
I’ve put together a complete guide on the importance of protein if you’re interested. According to most research, the ideal intake is around 0.7 to 1 gram per pound (4).
3. Include Fruits Or Veggies With Each Meal
Eating more fruits and vegetables is one of the most practical ways to enjoy larger food quantities and manage hunger on a diet. For reference, a large bowl of mixed greens with apple cider vinegar and salt can be as little as 100 calories. But, you could enjoy it for a while, fill your stomach, and not feel as hungry.
Fruits are also a great addition to most diets because they fill you up without adding too many calories to your intake. Eating fruits is also an excellent way to curb your sweet tooth and avoid falling for donuts, ice cream, and other goodies that pack tons of calories.
Regardless of your meal frequency, you should add at least a serving of fruits and veggies each time you eat.
4. Eat Slowly And Mindfully
Eating more slowly is an excellent way to feel satiated from each meal (5). The reason is that it takes a while for satiety to settle in after eating, and the faster you eat, the more likely you are to feel stuffed or remain hungry. In contrast, chewing your food more thoroughly and taking your time to enjoy the meal leads to greater satiety, and you might even feel full before finishing a meal.
Similarly, paying attention to your meals instead of distracting yourself with TV, Youtube videos, and such is an excellent way to enjoy your diet.
5. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep might not seem that important for controlling your hunger on a diet, but it is. In a study called The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain, researchers examined the relationship between sleep, appetite, and calorie intake (6). According to their findings, sleep deprivation brings about several neural and behavioral changes that result in a higher calorie intake.
Not sleeping enough causes people to feel hungrier and crave specific foods, particularly processed junk. If that isn’t bad enough, research suggests that not sleeping enough leads to poor impulse control (7). As a result, we struggle to resist nutritional temptations and are more likely to chase pleasure now instead of focusing on long-term outcomes.
According to most guidelines, we should aim for at least seven hours of sleep. Read my guide on the importance of sleep for health and fitness and how to optimize it.
6. Take Temporary Diet Breaks
A diet break is a temporary planned break from a calorie deficit. The objective is to give your body and mind time, usually a week, to recover from dieting before resuming the process.
Similar to refeed days, the objective of a diet break is for you to enjoy more food and increase levels of certain hormones that become suppressed while dieting. One such example is leptin––a hormone produced by adipose (fat) tissue that plays a crucial role in metabolic rate, hunger, and more (8). The only difference is that a longer period of not dieting could bring more pronounced benefits compared to a single day of refeeding.
In one paper from 2019, researchers looked at continuous dieting and its effectiveness compared to intermittent dieting (9). The participants, 51 obese men, had to complete 16 full weeks of caloric restriction in one of two ways:
- Continuous dieting for 16 weeks
- Alternating between two weeks of dieting and two weeks of eating at maintenance until all 16 weeks of caloric restriction are completed
Researchers found that two-week diet breaks allowed participants to lose more weight (and fat), maintain lean body mass, and maintain their results once the dieting period was over.
Moving between dieting and eating at maintenance is not the most practical way to go about it, but the study illustrates how beneficial these diet breaks can be. A temporary increase in food intake can take your mind off food, give you a much-needed psychological break, and make it easier to control your hunger on a diet.
One option is to take a week-long diet break every eight weeks of continuous dieting. That way, you won’t lengthen the dieting period too much, but you will reap many of the associated benefits. It’s important to note that ‘diet break’ doesn’t mean ‘eat as much food as you want.’ You should continue to track your calories and eat around maintenance. In other words, you shouldn’t gain any weight (apart from some water and glycogen gain) throughout your break.
7. Stay Physically Active
The benefits of physical activity are apparent. You can burn calories, build muscle, improve a range of health markers, feel good, and more. But did you also know that regular physical activity can regulate your hunger and satiety signals, resulting in a healthier calorie intake?
According to a paper from 2018, regular exercise can have appetite-regulating effects and promote long-term weight loss maintenance (10). “In spite of inconsistent findings, it has been suggested that chronic exercise alters the sensitivity of the appetite control system by balancing the increased drive to eat with an improved satiety response to a meal.”
I’m surprised when skinny fat individuals email me to ask if they can get fit without exercise. First, it would be impossible to build any muscle, which is crucial for improving your body's appearance. Second, you would struggle to maintain the muscle you have while dieting. Third, you would miss out on all the fantastic benefits of resistance training and aerobic exercise.
Still, it is essential to note that aerobic exercise can lead to compensatory eating in some individuals. For instance, a person might burn 400 or 500 calories on a run but experience significant hunger and overeat by 400, 500, or more calories (11, 12).
8. Experiment With Smaller Bowls And Plates
Researchers have known that smaller plates and bowls result in lower caloric intake. Interestingly, the effect has nothing to do with nutritional choices or physical fullness from eating. Instead, it all comes down to an optical illusion called the Delboeuf Illusion. The illusion refers to our relative perception of size, and the best-known example is the pair of equally-sized disks placed in two circles. One disk is placed in the middle of a large circle, and a much smaller circle surrounds the other. Though equally sized, the disk inside the larger circle appears smaller in comparison.
Interestingly, the same illusion applies to our nutrition. Using smaller plates and bowls tricks your brain into believing that you’re eating more food. In contrast, larger bowls and plates might carry more food, but your brain focuses on the empty space. As a result, you feel like you’re eating less, despite having the same size (or bigger) meal.
9. Lose Weight More Slowly
The final way to control your hunger on a diet is to maintain a smaller calorie deficit and lose weight more slowly. Doing so might not be what you want, but slower weight loss means you can enjoy more food and not feel as deprived.
According to research, the optimal rate of weight loss is 0.5 to 1 percent of your body weight per week (13). For instance, if you weigh 190 lbs, that would mean losing 0.95 to 1.9 lbs weekly. You can initially start with quicker weight loss and slow down after several weeks.
Fix the skinny fat look in 7 simple steps...
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The Bottom Line
Hunger on a diet is one of the biggest roadblocks people face when trying to lose fat. Most quit not because they don’t want to get results but because hunger becomes too overwhelming to handle.
I hope the above nine tactics give you some ideas of things you can add to your life, make dieting more enjoyable, and reach your weight loss goals.
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2. Veldhorst M, Smeets A, Soenen S, Hochstenbach-Waelen A, Hursel R, Diepvens K, Lejeune M, Luscombe-Marsh N, Westerterp-Plantenga M. Protein-induced satiety: effects and mechanisms of different proteins. Physiol Behav. 2008 May 23;94(2):300-7. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2008.01.003. Epub 2008 Jan 12. PMID: 18282589.
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6. Greer SM, Goldstein AN, Walker MP. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nat Commun. 2013;4:2259. doi: 10.1038/ncomms3259. PMID: 23922121; PMCID: PMC3763921.
7. Acheson A, Richards JB, de Wit H. Effects of sleep deprivation on impulsive behaviors in men and women. Physiol Behav. 2007 Aug 15;91(5):579-87. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.03.020. Epub 2007 Mar 31. PMID: 17477941.
8. Kelesidis T, Kelesidis I, Chou S, Mantzoros CS. Narrative review: the role of leptin in human physiology: emerging clinical applications. Ann Intern Med. 2010 Jan 19;152(2):93-100. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-152-2-201001190-00008. PMID: 20083828; PMCID: PMC2829242.
9. Byrne NM, Sainsbury A, King NA, Hills AP, Wood RE. Intermittent energy restriction improves weight loss efficiency in obese men: the MATADOR study. Int J Obes (Lond). 2018 Feb;42(2):129-138. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2017.206. Epub 2017 Aug 17. PMID: 28925405; PMCID: PMC5803575.
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13. Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011 Apr;21(2):97-104. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.21.2.97. PMID: 21558571.
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