It's been a month since you started your new diet. You've been tracking every calorie that crosses your lips, have banished all of your favorite forbidden foods and are trying to avoid social events that could serve up dangerous temptations. Your jeans are already starting to feel a little less snug and the scale is slowly but surely moving in the right direction—so why don't you feel like celebrating?|
Instead, you're irritable, short-tempered and downright exhausted. You find yourself counting down the minutes until you can have your next meal or snack, but even after eating it, you never feel satisfied. You experience an irrational jealousy as you watch co-workers, family members and even strangers enjoy delicious food that you're not "allowed" to eat.
In other words, you're hungry. All. The. Time.
If there's one thing that all diets have in common, it's that they're destined to fail. One of the biggest reasons for that failure is deprivation. When your body doesn’t get the nutrients and nourishment it needs—or when you cut out entire food groups or deny yourself even moderate amounts of what you enjoy most—you'll be much more likely to go off the rails and not only break the diet rules, but chew them up and spit them out.
There's a growing school of thought that we should abandon the whole concept of dieting, arguing that a rigid eating plan isn't an effective tool for weight loss success. Instead, experts advocate focusing on healthy, realistic lifestyle changes that won't lead you into "hangry" territory.
1. Sleep the hunger away.
The less often you’re awake, the less you'll eat, right? (Kidding.) Actually, as registered dietitian Ilana Muhlstein points out, many studies have shown a connection between lack of sleep and the tendency to overeat. If you get less than seven hours of shuteye at night, your body will produce more ghrelin, otherwise known as the "hunger hormone," so not only will you feel tired and sluggish throughout the day, but you could also feel a compulsion to eat more.
Additionally, when you don't get enough sleep, your leptin levels will plummet. "Leptin is our friend—it tells us we’re satisfied and should stop eating," explains Muhlstein. "Therefore, when you don’t get enough sleep, you will feel hungrier all day, and it will take more food to feel satisfied. This is a bad combination, especially for someone who wants their weight loss plan to feel sustainable. Bottom line, sleep might be the secret to feeling more satisfied on your diet."
2. Eat mindfully.
Dani Singer, fitness director at Fit2Go Personal Training, believes that the best way to avoid hunger is to define it. "While I am definitely against the idea of starving yourself, I've found that most of us aren't tuned into our own bodies enough to differentiate hunger from boredom," he says.
Singer suggests trying to be completely present during your next meal—no phone, no book, no TV. If you're accustomed to having these dining distractions, it won't be easy at first.
"Your mind will race, it will tell you you're bored, that you have so much to do," Singer says. "It will scream for you to check your phone. Notice those thoughts, let them go and return your attention to your food. Focus on the sensations, the aroma—anything physical. Most importantly, focus on how your body feels as you continue eating. Be fully concentrated on the transition from 'hungry' to 'satisfied.'"
Although this may seem difficult at first, after a few focused, distraction-free meals, you'll likely find that it takes a lot less food to fill you up than you once thought.
3. Embrace the power of protein.According to SparkPeople's registered dietitian, Becky Hand, research data suggests that adequate protein intake helps control ghrelin, while stimulating the secretion of hormones that promote satiety. How much protein do you really need? "When the goal is to achieve a healthier weight while preventing muscle loss, use your Sparkpeople protein range as your guide," says Hand.
In addition, she adds, research is showing numerous benefits of adequate protein consumption at breakfast. Hand recommends aiming for at least 20 grams of protein with your morning meal to reduce food cravings and hunger throughout the day, and to decrease the desire for late-night snacking.
4. Eat more small meals.
This is an oldie, but goodie. By spreading your intake over more small meals throughout the day, you'll feel less deprived and, therefore, less hungry.
"When you eat less often, you get hungry faster," says fitness trainer Samantha Bowman. "Eating chicken and broccoli or salad at meals won’t hold you over for six hours." Bowman suggests adding a small, mid-day meal. Try adding a protein-rich snack, such as tuna and crackers, to those hours in between meals, so you feel satiated without having to constantly search for salty or sweet satisfaction.
Registered dietitian Judy Barbe, author of "Your 6-Week Guide to LiveBest," agrees with the small meals strategy. "Research shows that eating smaller portions of food satisfies a person as well as a larger portion," Barbe says. "The theory is that once you've swallowed something, there is not much memory of how much you ate—you just remember than it tasted good. So take a couple of bites and then stop. After 10 minutes, you will likely have lost the desire for more."
Some of her favorite healthy mid-day snacks include an apple dipped in almond butter, a whole carrot, hard-cooked eggs, edamame or a container of 14 almonds with a couple of dried cranberries, mango or apricots.
5. Drink more water.
It's an obvious one, but we'd be remiss not to include it here—simply because it works.
"Water is filling and hydrating and can help make you feel full," says Muhlstein. "It is very common for people to confuse hunger for thirst. They think they are starving for food when really they just need of water."
Next time you feel "starved," try drinking 16 ounces of water before reaching for a snack. If you still feel hungry for food afterward, your body legitimately needs fuel—but if not, you just needed the hydration and can hold off on eating.
6. Don't forget the fiber.Although fiber's role in regulating weight gain and fullness is still under investigation, Hand notes that research indicates that a greater fiber intake appears to reduce appetite, decrease calorie intake and help to achieve a healthier body weight.
"Fiber’s role in hunger control is closely tied to the many types of fiber, each with differing physical and chemical properties," Hand says. She notes five ways in which fiber-rich foods achieve this:
7. Respect your hunger and fullness.
Along with Singer's tips on eating mindfully, registered dietitian Chelsey Amer stresses the importance of honoring your body's cues for hunger and fullness.
"When you eat according to your innate hunger and satiety cues, you won't overeat, you can eat foods that are satisfying to you and you won't feel like you're constantly on a diet," she says.
The key, according to Amer, is to learn to eat a proper balance of nutrients—protein, fiber and healthy fats—to give your body adequate energy and keep you full for a sustained period of time. When you balance the nutrients you eat instead of filling up on empty carbohydrates or just protein, you will eat more satisfying meals, which in the long run will help you manage and lose weight. Amer suggests working with a qualified nutrition professional to learn the basics of good nutrition.
8. Eat more low-density foods.
In her article on satiety, Hand, said that calorie density is the key to feel full without overeating.
"Calorie density refers to the number of calories per gram of food," Hand explains. "Foods that are high in calorie density contain a high number of calories per gram; foods that are low in calorie density contain a low number of calories per gram. When you eat too many calorie-dense foods, you’ll end up consuming a lot of calories to fill your belly. If you focus on low-calorie density foods, you can fill up on fewer calories because low-density foods contain a lot more water, which adds weight and volume to the food, but no calories."
Some examples of low-density foods include broth-based soups, fruits, leafy greens and non-starchy veggies.
9. Choose the right kind of carbs.
Contrary to what you might have heard, carbs aren’t weight loss killers—as long as you're choosing them wisely. The key is to choose complex carbohydrates, which take longer for the body to digest, don't trigger an insulin spike and keep you feeling fuller (and more energized) for longer. Complex carbs can be found in things like legumes, brown rice, quinoa and oats.
Hand explains more about how to distinguish between "smart" and "shoddy" carbohydrates here.
10. Limit your options for each meal.
But isn't variety a good thing? Yes and no. Have you ever noticed that even when you're stuffed, you can always make room to try this one other thing, or to have dessert after a meal? Fitness trainer Kasey Shuler says this could be due to something called sensory-specific satiety. The National Institute of Health defines sensory-specific satiety as "a temporary decline in pleasure derived from consuming a certain food in comparison to other unconsumed foods."
"Basically, the more variety we have in front of us (such as an all-you-can-eat buffet), the more we will eat," Shuler explains. "This is a survival mechanism—the more variety we have in our diet, the more likely we will get all the nutrients we need. But the way our food has been manufactured, our brains light up in response to the dizzying array of flavors and lures us to keep eating more, usually in the form of extra calories our body doesn't need but our brain wants."
If you struggle with overeating during a certain meal, Shuler suggests trying to eat the same foods for that meal for a week (of course, the meal should meet all of your nutritional needs). If you only have one or two options, you may not be as inclined to keep eating once you're full.
Cutting calories is an unavoidable step in any weight-loss journey, but that doesn't have to mean feeling hungry all day. With these smart strategies, you can stay within your target range while still remaining satisfied (and sane) between meals.