What's the hardest part of weight loss? Sure, planning healthy meals can be a challenge, especially after years of easy-breezy takeout. And exercise can be a royal pain in the butt (sometimes literally). Then there are the day-to-day dilemmas and struggles: Should you go down a clothing size or wait till you've lost five more pounds? Why hasn't the scale budged in two weeks? Did you remember to track last night's snack?|
But none of those nuisances come close to what many regard as hands-down the worst part of weight loss: hunger.
When you're eating a calorie-controlled diet, watching portion sizes and cutting back on high-fat, high-sugar and processed foods, you might find that you feel a little hungrier than usual at first.
But if you're eating nutritious, well-rounded meals, staying fueled with healthy snacks and drinking plenty of water, you shouldn't have to live in a state of deprivation or starvation. The occasional craving is normal, of course—but if you're doing all the right things and still having stomach-grumbling hunger throughout the day, there might be another culprit sending your appetite into overdrive.
You're not getting enough protein or fiber.
Out of the "big three" macronutrients, protein keeps you feeling satiated for longer after eating when compared to a similar meal with a lower protein content and higher carbohydrates or fat, notes Laura Dilz, RD, LDN with Lime and Greens. "While satiety is influenced by a wide array of factors, by increasing your intake of protein, you may feel fuller longer, thus less likely to overeat at meal times or to succumb to snacks in between meals," Dilz says.
Fiber is also an important key to satiety. As Dilz points out, a diet consisting of adequate fiber is usually larger in volume than a low-fiber diet. That means the food takes longer to eat, and it may bring a feeling of fullness sooner and can help to decrease spontaneous food intake.
Need ideas for how to incorporate more protein or more fiber into your diet? We've got you covered.
You're eating too many empty calories.
Anything that doesn't fuel, nourish or otherwise benefit the body can be considered a source of empty calories. The occasional splurge here and there is normal and maybe even healthy, but too many of those empty calories can leave you feeling unsatisfied and ramp up cravings.
"It's easy to keep eating nutrient-poor foods because they don't provide nutrients that support satiety," notes Ilana Muhlstein, M.S., R.D., creator of the 2B Mindset™. "Therefore, you keep eating more and more of it without ever feeling like it's enough."
Muhlstein uses Pringles potato chips—and their slogan, "Once You Pop, You Can't Stop"—as an example. She points out that it's easy to still feel hungry after hundreds of calories of Pringles, because the calories lack nutrients that aid in satiety, like water, protein and fiber.
"You do not need to eat less to weigh less—you just need to be smarter about what you are eating, so you get full and stay full for longer," she says.
Try these ideas for satisfying your cravings without sacrificing the quality of your food.
You're not getting enough sleep.
If you're burning the midnight oil and then forcing yourself out of bed for a 5 a.m. boot camp, you could be unknowingly contributing to your cravings. "Making sure we are getting adequate sleep is extremely important in hormone regulation, and should be made a priority so that the body is able to function optimally," Dilz notes.
Specifically, lack of sleep has been shown to decrease the body's levels of leptin, which is a hormone that is partially responsible for telling you that you're satiated. And a shortage of shuteye has also been shown to increase levels of ghrelin, a hormone that plays the role of increasing appetite and telling you when you're hungry.
"When an individual is not getting adequate sleep, their body is less able to acknowledge when it is full, while simultaneously stimulating appetite, which can lead to the brain getting sent unnecessary signals to overeat or snack in between meals," Dilz warns.
Additionally, registered dietitian Summer Yule points out that when you're sleep-deprived, you may be too tired to exercise, and may have a decreased ability to make smart food decisions.
Check out these expert tips for extending—and improving the quality of—your nightly snoozes.
You're not drinking enough water.
While it might not be a miracle weight-loss serum, water is essential to our health, well-being and even our survival, and it's also been linked to faster metabolism. "When you're not drinking enough water, it is possible to confuse feelings of thirst for feelings of hunger," Yule warns.
Pale yellow urine is one indicator of good hydration, she notes. Carrying around a water bottle, having a glass of water before grabbing a snack and eating plenty of fluid-rich fruits and vegetables are among her recommended ways to stay hydrated.
And while you’re ramping up the water consumption, try cutting back on sugar-sweetened beverages, as Yule points out that this has been shown to help with weight loss. "Sugar-sweetened drinks, which contain a large amount of refined carbohydrates and little to no fiber, will not help you to feel full for very long," she says.
You're exercising more than usual, or maybe even too much.
If you've recently ramped up your gym sessions, you may notice a corresponding uptick in appetite. Liza Baker with Simply! Health Coaching says that many of her clients report higher levels of hunger when they increase their workout intensity, duration or style—particularly if strength training is thrown into the mix.
"Remember that your body tends toward homeostasis, and if you increase the calories you're (burning), it requires more calories to stay in that state," she says. "If you are trying to lose weight by increasing your calories out, don't ignore the hunger pangs entirely—instead, figure out how to create a deficit of about 3,500 calories over the course of a week (meaning 500 fewer calories in or 500 more calories out per day), which should result in approximately one pound lost per week. That is considered sustainable weight loss, meaning it's less likely to come back."
While it's good to refuel after exercise, Yule points out that some of the sports drinks, gels and protein bars intended for athletes are high in calories, low in volume and sometimes loaded with added sugars.
Try these healthy ideas for what to eat after exercise.
You're taking a certain medication, or have a medical issue.
If you're eating a nutritious, well-rounded diet and refueling with healthy snacks but still feeling hungry, there may be a medical reason. For example, Yule points out, in diabetes that is not well-controlled, both hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia can lead to persistent appetite. And there is a rare condition, called Prader-Willi Syndrome, that can cause unrelenting hunger.
"It is important to consult with a physician if you have concerns that your hunger may be related to an underlying medical condition, particularly if it is accompanied by other symptoms," Yule says.
There are also many common medications, such as certain antidepressants and corticosteroids, that come with the side effect of increased appetite, notes Yule. If you are seeing a spike in appetite after starting a new medication, consult your physician to determine whether you can switch to a similar medication that does not carry the same side effects.
You have stress and/or anxiety.
Ever notice that you crave more food after a tough day at work, a nerve-wracking doctor's appointment or a fight with your significant other? The myriad of stressors that fill up our days can elevate stress hormones that make us feel hungrier, even when we don't physically need the sustenance.
"Our bodies tend to not discriminate between emotional or mental stress and the physical stress of a tough workout—any kind of stress uses up more calories than a calm body at rest," Baker explains. This can lead to an unhealthy cycle of emotional eating as a means of calming the mind, body and spirit.
Baker recommends working through the tendency toward emotional eating with a coach or therapist to help identify when and why you eat, and to help you figure out how to short-circuit that habit by putting a new one in place.
If you're fueling your body with enough high-quality calories but still feeling famished, the reason may go beyond your diet and exercise habits. By making some careful adjustments and possibly talking with your doctor, you can get more control over your appetite and start seeing the results you've been working so hard to achieve.