Many people, particularly those who have histories of eating disorders, fear the feeling of hunger. In recovery, we are taught to respond to every hunger pang and always eat to full satiation. Once a person is fully recovered, these habits often stick and they rarely allow themselves to feel true hunger. (Side note: if you are not completely recovered, it might be a good idea to skip this post.)
In the weightlifting community, the same phenomenon is exhibited in those looking to build muscle. The smallest sensation of hunger often leads such lifters to pound down food with a panicked urgency to avoid losing all their gainzzz.
While this can be fine if you are consuming a caloric surplus or even a maintenance level of calories, problems arise when someone starts dieting. The harsh reality is that hunger is a perfectly normal and expected part of dieting. It is not something that you should try to overcome, despite what articles like this and this would have you believe.
When my clients complain of feeling hungry during a deficit, I usually ask them to rate their hunger on a scale of 1 to 10. If it’s a 9 or a 10, I will increase their calories. Anything less than that is, sadly, just a normal part of the fat loss experience as your body starts breaking down its fat stores for fuel.
My personal approach to hunger and dieting
When I am trying to drop fat, I don’t count calories or macros. I rely solely on hunger cues to determine my caloric intake. When I am not actively trying to lose fat, I typically just eat four times a day, even when I’m not particularly hungry.
To lose fat, I simply reduce my portion sizes and allow myself to feel a greater amount of hunger between each meal. Eating reduced quantities less often really isn’t rocket science, but it works! Based on how my body feels throughout the day, I can generally tell if I’ve eaten enough, too much or too little, without having to calculate my intake at all.
Once I start feeling hungry, I typically wait one to two hours to eat (meaning that I spend about three to four hours a day feeling hungry). This is slightly longer than I would normally recommend for a client, but I trust myself not to binge on everything in sight when I do finally eat. In this way, I almost effortlessly drop body fat.
Sometimes I will eat and still feel hungry, so I will simply eat something extra. This happened two nights ago when about an hour after my dinner I was still hungry, so I popped out to get a crepe with Nutella. Fat loss FTW. Again, I know the difference between passing hunger pains that have not quite dissipated and true hunger where my body is trying to tell me something.
It has taken me years of practice to be able to lose fat without counting calories, as I am very in tune with my own body, so I wouldn’t recommend this approach for a complete beginner. Beginners would be better off following an individualised fat loss plan that tells them what to eat and when.
The right amount of hunger
While it would be nice to believe that you can diet without feeling hungry, it is practically impossible. It is normal to feel hungry every two to five hours throughout the day.
It is true that some foods – namely, proteins, fibrous vegetables and healthy fats – will keep you feeling more satisfied than others. For example, 200 calories’ worth of gummy bears will produce a very different effect on your body than 200 calories’ of broccoli. When you are in a deficit, it is best to spend your calories wisely.
As I said above, your hunger levels should be between a 4 and a 6 about an hour before your scheduled meal time. Do not wait longer than 90 minutes to eat after feeling hungry, or you might find yourself face-first in a bag of Doritos.
Waiting to eat is also a helpful fat loss strategy as it allows your body to recognise true, physiological hunger versus false, psychological hunger (which may be brought on by seeing a food advertisement or being at a party surrounded by finger food, for example).
During the time before you eat, stay busy with work, running errands or reading to avoid fixating on the uncomfortable feeling of hunger. I also swear by drinking black coffee, herbal tea and Diet Coke (yes, with the chemicals and all!). Finally, make sure you are drinking at least two litres of water a day to ensure you are not mistaking thirst as hunger.
In addition, ensure your food is prepared in advance and stick to your planned meal. If you are eating out and your hunger has reached an 8 or a 9, you may find yourself devouring an extra large pizza instead of the salad you had planned.
There is, however, such a thing as feeling too hungry. If your hunger is constant or interfering with your concentration levels or your sleep, you need to raise your calories a little bit.
In a deficit, you should be able to maintain your strength levels, or only suffer from a small hit. If you are really struggling to get through your workouts, it’s a clear sign that your calories are not high enough or that you are not timing your macros optimally (you should consume the bulk of your calories – particularly carbohydrates – pre- and post-workout).
Keep in mind that your hunger levels are usually the strongest at the very beginning of a new diet (as your body adjusts to the shock of shifting from a surplus/maintenance level of calories) and towards the end (when your fat stores are lower). Contrary to what many people assume, a diet does not in fact get easier as you progress, as you should be reducing your calories as you lose weight.
Hunger and intuitive eating
Eating according to your hunger levels will allow you to eat more intuitively. You will find yourself eating because you are truly hungry, not because the clock tells you it’s lunch time. You will also find yourself able to leave some food on your plate if you are full and satisfied, without feeling obliged to finish it all.
This is a far healthier mindset to have, in my opinion, so I would encourage everyone to eat according to their true hunger levels. And remember that hunger is nothing to fear; it’s a perfectly normal part of the process and it means that your diet is working!
How often do you feel hungry throughout the day?