Many people who read my blog have histories of disordered eating behaviours. When we are in recovery, we are taught to eat to support our health and activity levels. Even for those who have not had eating disorders, if you are involved in lifting weights in any capacity, you may have noticed that you are taught to eat, eat and eat to fuel your muscle growth and strength goals.
For various reasons, hunger has therefore become something to fear. When we feel strong pangs in our stomach, we worry that we are reverting back to old habits of restriction, losing all our “gains”, dropping our blood sugar levels to health-threatening levels, or paving the way for a binge whereby you will eat anything and everything you can get your hands on.
People are afraid of being hungry and, consequently, rarely experience true hunger. People, especially those involved in the fitness/bodybuilding world, eat according to the clock, rather than when their body signals them to eat. They carry snacks with them at all times, lest they dare to feel a momentary sensation of hunger. They are so out of tune with their own bodies’ signals of hunger and satiety.
Hunger is a good thing
In reality, hunger is normal. It is okay to feel your stomach growl at several points during the day. In fact, feeling hungry often is ideal, as it means your metabolism is working properly and your body is efficiently processing all of the food you are feeding it.
In turn, feeling hungry allows you to tune into your true feelings of satiety. This means practicing mindful eating, focusing on the food in front of you, and stopping eating when you are full. When you are not hungry and force yourself to eat just because the clock tells you it’s lunch time, you will likely finish off all the food in front of you – even if you don’t really want it.
The world will not end if you feel hungry. Being hungry does not mean you have to stop everything you’re doing and find sustenance immediately. Feeling hunger simply means that your stomach is empty. It does not mean you are eating up all your muscle tissue, or relapsing into anorexia, or developing hypoglycaemia.
Learning to feel hunger and respond to it appropriately (i.e. not grabbing the most convenient – and often unhealthy – snack you can find) is an incredibly important part of developing a healthy relationship with food. There is a difference between feeling hungry and ignoring or celebrating it as part of an eating disorder, and acknowledging it and eating within a short period thereafter.
Hunger is a reality if you are in a fat loss mode
Judging by the number of emails I receive about this, this may come as a shock to some of you: If you are trying to lose fat and are eating at a calorie deficit, you will feel hungry. While it shouldn’t be a constant sensation, it is normal to feel mild to moderate hunger every two to five hours throughout the day.
To lose fat, your energy output must be higher than your energy input, and that will result in hunger. You can try tactics such as loading up on lean proteins and healthy fats, eating plenty of fibre and drinking lots of water to ward off hunger but, at the end of the day, hunger is inevitable.
I am in a deficit right now, and I’d estimate that I feel hungry for a total of three to four hours per day. It’s not a walk in the park, but it’s also perfectly manageable. When I feel hungry, I usually distract myself with work or a cup of tea or coffee for an hour or so until I eat.
Of course, ignoring your hunger signals for hours on end will have negative consequences. I recommend waiting for a maximum of 90 minutes to eat after feeling the first pangs of hunger. If you feel hungry all day long, your calories are likely set too low and this will backfire in the long run, either by slowing down your metabolism or resulting in huge binges.
If you never feel hungry, it’s a sign that you’re eating too much. Not only is this wasteful, but it will likely lead to weight gain.
Again, feeling hungry is a great thing when you are dieting. It means that your body has used up the fuel you have given it and it is now using its fat stores for energy, which is exactly what you want during a fat loss phase.
My personal journey
I have been guilty of eating for the sake of it in the past. When I was training more intensely, I ate so much food (often twice as much as I’m eating now!) to fuel my workouts. I was so scared of feeling weak in the gym that I probably ate a lot more than I needed to, and it ended up having a negative effect on me. I started carrying a higher amount of body fat and I felt slow, sluggish and, frankly, unattractive. While I feel hungry before every meal now, I was probably only feeling true hunger once every three or four days previously.
Recently dropping some weight has made a significant difference to my everyday life. I feel so much better about myself, both in and out of the gym. I am eating less food, regularly feeling hungry, and yet I haven’t lost all my strength. I’m getting back into the groove at my newer, lighter bodyweight and it feels great. It is entirely possible to drop weight without losing strength.
Another benefit of allowing myself to feel true hunger is that my meals taste better. While it will never be as good as a burger, I have a new appreciation for plain old chicken and vegetables. I’ve also realised that I need far less food than I had been eating to feel full and that I had been eating to the point of “stuffed” far too often.
I like feeling hungry regularly and I no longer fear it in the way that I used to. It’s as though I have completely reprogrammed my body and hunger signals. And I feel more in tune with my body than ever before. Have
Have you ever feared hunger? How often do you feel hungry during the day?