Handling Hunger When Trying To Lose Weight
WHAT IS HUNGER?
Hunger is a physiological request for energy.
Notice, the key word there is request. Your body wants energy & it can get it one of two ways.
One way is for you to eat something containing energy in the form of calories. This includes carbohydrates, fats & proteins.
The other way is to access energy internally by breaking down and using its own fat stores. This process is called lipolysis and it’s a natural (and wonderful) thing that our body is designed to do during times of fasting (whether it’s a 2 hour fast or a 2-week fast).
OUR BODY’S NATURAL BUFFET
Stored fat, found in “fat cells” called adipocytes & muscles, is used primarily a fuel source. When our body needs energy between meals it can break down fat & convert it to energy. The key is giving it a chance to do so.
When we are always feeding our bodies the minute we feel hunger (especially if that food is refined carbs, flour and/or sugar) our body never needs, or gets a chance, to access our stored fat. Not only do we not lose weight, we continue to gain.
Giving our body “breaks” from food and digesting allows it to focus its energy on other things (like healing) while it accesses stored fat for energy.
IT’S NORMAL (& HEALTHY) TO BE SCARED OF HUNGER
The physical symptoms of hunger can feel scary! And with good reason. They are uncomfortable on purpose. The desire to reduce them has kept us alive and allowed us to evolve as a species. If we did not feel the symptoms of hunger, we would not feel motivated to find food.
You might also have been taught some scary messages around hunger such as:
- If I don’t eat my blood sugar will drop
- I won’t be able to focus or get my work done
- My metabolism will slow down & my body will hold onto fat
- My body will “eat” muscle if I don’t feed it
IT’S OKAY (& BENEFICIAL) TO OBSERVE SOME HUNGER
The truth is that we are living in a time when we never have to feel hunger. We are surrounded by food and we can eat almost immediately whenever we start to feel the uncomfortable symptoms of hunger.
The problem is, if we do this it is very hard to lose weight. Not so much because we are consuming too many calories but because we are never giving our bodies the chance to “dine in” by accessing all the energy we already have on our bodies.
WHAT SHOULD I DO WHEN I FEEL HUNGRY?
So, some hunger is good and allows for the natural process of using our stored fat which in turn leads to weight loss.
But, it’s no fun to feel hungry. So, what do we do when it happens?
First, just observe it. Most of us respond to it so quickly that we never really allow ourselves to experience it. Embrace it with curiosity instead of fear. See if you can describe it as if you are explaining it to someone who has never felt hunger before.
Next, notice that it comes in waves. If you give your body a chance, it will realize that it needs to start burning fat for fuel and this will cause the hunger to decrease or go away completely for a bit.
Drink something. Water, tea, coffee, seltzer water, anything that does not contain calories is fine. Sometimes this will do the trick and reduce the feelings of hunger.
Finally, if the hunger persists and you decide you want to eat outside of a planned meal time, try a low carb snack such as a handful of nuts, a spoonful of natural nut butter or a few ounces of cheese. This will curb the hunger without raising blood sugar.
OVER-HUNGER vs. NORMAL HUNGER
When you first start your weight loss journey your body is most likely unbalanced hormonally. This means that you might feel hunger quite often as you learn how to regulate and rebalance your hormones and shift your body into a state called fat adaptation.
Fat adaptation means that your body can more easily shift into a fat burning state between meals. This happens when we stabilize hormones such as insulin, leptin (fullness hormone) and ghrelin (hunger hormone).
Be patient with this this process. It’s normal to feel a bit “off” as your body is going through a time of detoxing and rebalancing. As you eat more unprocessed, whole foods your hormone levels will regulate and you’ll notice less hunger, more energy & increased fat loss.
PHYSIOLOGICAL HUNGER vs. PSYCHOLOGICAL HUNGER
Physiological hunger cues include things such as stomach growling or rumbling, an empty feeling in the stomach, stomach “pangs” and in some cases light nausea or light-headiness.
Psychological hunger, on the other hand, is craving a specific food (usually sugar or refined carbohydrates) regardless of whether we need sustenance. In fact, you might be quite full and still experience psychological hunger.
Psychological hunger is often triggered by negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, fear, or boredom. (Although it’s important to note that positive emotions such as happiness, excitement & relief can also trigger psychological hunger for some.)
Why do we crave certain foods when we experience these emotions? Because they are concentrated forms of substances that give us a large release of dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is brain chemical that makes us feel good. Often, we crave foods because this dopamine hit gives us temporary relief from negative emotions that we don’t want to experience or are not sure how to handle.
It’s important to note that this might all be happening on a very subconscious level. Part of reversing this is to simply be aware and observe what is happening with compassionate curiosity instead of judgement.
HUNGER vs. STARVATION
Let me be clear that while some hunger is okay, and even necessary for weight loss, we are not trying to starve ourselves. Starving ourselves is when we do not give our body the necessary macronutrients (carbs, fats & proteins) and/or micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) it needs to function properly.
It’s very important that you are planning and eating nutritious meals regularly. You want to make sure that your body understands that it is going to get all the fuel & nutrients that it needs to function. Denying yourself food or eating only very small amounts over a long period of time can result in weight loss but it will also result in great stress and very negative long-term consequences to your body. This is a form of disordered eating, not healthy eating.
While we don’t want to fear hunger, we certainly don’t want to fear food or eating either!
THE HUNGER SCALE
Use the hunger scale below to monitor your hunger levels. You want to manage your hunger by eating when you feel hunger between a -2 and a -4. Stop eating when your hunger is between a positive 2 and 4.
Keep in mind in takes the brain about 20 minutes to realize the stomach is full. It’s important to eat slowly and mindfully. Allow your brain to “catch up” to your stomach.
You can always go back and eat more. You can’t undo overeating once it’s done.