Hunger often seems to be our worst enemy in obtaining our weight and fitness goals. If we could only get a handle on it, taking care of our bodies would be so much easier!
In this article, we will look at how our hunger works and how we can affect it in a positive way — and put us in control of our eating.
For perspective though, let’s begin with the obvious. We need food. If our body does not get the nutrients it needs, it becomes weak, sick, and eventually dies. We certainly don’t want to forget to eat enough! So let’s start by saying hunger is good — it’s obviously essential to our survival.
However, as we know, hunger has a dark side in our modern society. A society where food is so plentiful to many of us.
So we know we need hunger in some form. But before we get into strategies to help hunger, let’s vent and ask: why do we crave foods that can make us unhealthy and fat? Why don’t we just hunger for food that is good for us? Like foods with little to no sugar? And for our hunger to just stop after we reach our calories needed at that moment.
The reason hunger works the way it does lies in our evolution. If it worked the way we think it should now, humans likely would not have survived.
Eating in Early Human History
The need for food and the way we crave it goes way back. In the early years of human existence, life was tougher, to put it mildly. We had to deal with predators and very bad weather, as well as needing to seek and defend safe and warm shelter. In many cases humans were nomads that would have to wonder in various conditions to where food and shelter were more plentiful.
We evolved to be able to eat what the body needed for energy and nutrients. The goal was toward least resistance — that is ability to eat and process what is both plentiful in our environment, and requires the least effort to consume.
We started out mainly eating nuts and vegetables, digging them out the dirt, and then as our brains evolved we needed more energy for protein and gradually started eating more and more meat — starting with eating left over carcuses from the prey of predators — to growing our own livestock.
We also evolved a sense of taste to help motivate us to eat what we need. Bitter tastes for example can warn of poison and other toxic substances. Pleasurable tastes evolved as motivation to eat certain things.
For example, we really like sugar even though we think of it as a questionable craving now. However, sugar in its natural form is actually very good for us in limited amounts. It gave early humans much needed quick energy. It also encourages the storage of fat, which back in the early days was beneficial. Also — unlike now — sugar was hard to come across, so we needed the motivation to find it.
Similarly, we like the taste of salt since it’s essential for our body. Like sugar, salt was more rare in early times. Also like sugar, this desire for the salty taste causes us to eat more salt than is good for us in these modern times of highly available salty foods.
Besides sweet and salty tastes, there are many other taste variations as we know, the goal of which is to encourage us to eat what we need.
There are very complex reasons why we crave food the way we do, and it’s kind of interesting — however, it really is irrelevant. The take away here is that however we got here, we have to deal with how our hunger works now — and develop strategies be the healthiest we can be, in our own lifetime.
Problems When Eating Too Much
As we’ve seen, having too much food was just not much of a problem for the bulk of human history. In fact, the problems of overeating covered here would be considered low priority relative to the very real prospect of simply starving to death. Or being too weak to survive against other dangers.
It’s no surprise that our hunger mechanism errs on the side of eating too much — and storing too much fat — rather than too little.
In our modern times though, with plentiful delicious and processed foods available, overeating can cause some real problems for us.
Here are just a few:
- Gaining weight
- Low energy
- Joint and back problems
- Heart disease
Types of Hunger
When your body gets low on energy, your body produces a hormone called ghrelin, which is known as the hunger hormone, that signals the brain that you need to eat. The more you put off eating in this state, the hungrier you feel. Once you start eating, your body reduces this hormone.
To signal that the body is full, hunger surpressing peptides are release to motivate you to stop eating. This feeling actually takes some time to kick in after your food needs are fulfilled, which is why if you eat fairly rapidly when hungry — and lots of food is still available — you can end up feeling very uncomfortably full.
The above is the basic physical mechanism of hunger, one that makes sense since it more or less urges you to eat the energy your body needs (which more emphasis on eating a bit more). This type of hunger is known as homeostatic hunger.
The other way hunger works though is a craving for the pleasure food brings — and we all know how good that can be. It’s when your body craves delicious food and eat, even if your body does not need it. This type of hunger is known as hedonic hunger. 
Taste and smell are the two main ways we get pleasure from food and there are many reasons nutrient wise that we like specific tastes and smells. These pleasurable tastes and sensations served us very well in attracting us to nutrients we need.
In lots of cases homeostatic and hedonic hunger are present at the same time. Like when we are really hungry and picture all the pleasure the meal will give us makes it want it even more. The problem becomes when you actually do not need the energy and nutrients, and have hedonic hunger on a consistent basis that causes us to overeat. This is when food becomes like a drug so to speak in that we eat mainly for the pleasure it invokes.
So why have a desire to eat for pleasure? Why not just have homeostatic hunger?
The answer is that like a lot of systems in our body, hunger relies on both negative and positive reinforcements. The negative reinforcement is when we are made to feel uncomfortable. That discomfort motivates us to do something to escape it (homestatic hunger in this case). Positive reinforcement uses the brain’s concept of pleasure to make you do specific things to obtain it. The combination is powerful to make sure we eat enough.
Hacks to Beat Hunger
Ok, so now we know a bit more about hunger itself. How do we deal with it such that we do not overeat and we eat better? Lets look at several things you can do.
Hack your Mind
Beating mindless eating starts — well in the mind. Let’s look at a few ways you can fake out your hunger with thinking.
A 2013 study in the publication Appetite found that women who looked at a phone app that had lots of activity on the screen while they were having cravings for food, saw their cravings get less intense. We have probably experienced this ourselves, especially to avoid eating out of sheer boredom.
So be it puzzles, reading, talking to a friend, studying a new subject — just directing your mind on something else helps reduce hunger.
Break Eating Association Habits
Do we associate some activities with food? Do those activities seem incomplete unless you are eating along with them?
A particularly dangerous association is eating while watching TV. Sure munching on food while watching your favorite show is fun — but studies have shown that this can cause obesity. As soon as you sit down to watch TV, you begin to crave whatever you normally eat there (snacks or meals) and proceed to mindlessly eat. In fact, you may not even crave it yet, but you fix the food out of sheer habit. Combining food and TV is a particularly dangerous, since your mind is passively occupied, you miss the signals that your body is satisfied and simply continue to eat.
Eating can be associated with other activities like being on the computer or even driving. There was a time I got into a habit of grabbing a handful of nuts to eat while driving to work. While nuts are not bad for you, it eventually got to where I felt things were not right unless I grabbed that handful before every commute to crunch on during stress of traffic, and the calories would add up. I was glad to finally just kick that habit.
So search for any food association habits you may have and simply break them — or at least drastically reduce them. Strive to eat as an event unto itself. Eat when you are really hungry, not because it goes with some activity!
Determine if it’s a Real or Unreal Hunger
Are we really hungry? Many of us forget what it really feels like to be hungry. Then we simply eat for the pleasure of it without really needing it (all hedonic hunger no homeostatic). Or we eat in response to emotions and stress instead of listening to the signs that our body is actually hungry.
Some clues that can tell us if our body really needs food is when we hunger generally for any food as opposed to a specific thing. And that’s especially if it’s a particular snack, like a bag of chips or candy bar, yet do not crave other better for you foods. When you are really hungry, even something like a few grapes will seem very good to you.
When I find I am having trouble differentiating if I am really physically hungry, I will stop eating or eat very little for a while until I see what it’s really like to be hungry again. You’ll find in real hungry, even very good for you food can taste and satisfy you very well.
What are some other signs that you are really hungry? Look for these:
- Your stomach is growling, and feels very empty
- The desire to eat grows stronger over a little time
- You feel weak or even a little dizzy
- irritable or cranky
- slight headache
So as a rule of thumb, let your body tell you you are hungry, not your mind.
Eat Mindfully and Enjoy
It’s not my intent to convey that eating for pleasure is all bad. In fact we should enjoy all the pleasures of life — including eating great tasting food!
The real culprit is over eating for pleasure. So why is this relevant? Well, the goal here is to slow down and enjoy the pleasure of eating — with an emphasis on the slow down part.
On the one hand, mindful eating is about paying more attention to your hunger cues while you are eating. Eat slowly and listen to your body more carefully to know when you are satisfied and can stop. Eating slowly is important here since it can take your body 20 minutes to actually feel full.
The other part of mindful eating is to simply drastically slow down, and savor the pleasure of each and every bite. You miss a lot while eating fast, not to mention you consume more calories for the same pleasure.
So treat good food like good wine — slow way down and savor it. Experience every sensation of the food including texture, taste and smell. Pay attention to when your body feels full, and when there is not as much pleasure — then stop. All of this can mean less calories yet even more enjoyment!
Hack Your Diet
Eating is a sure way to satisfy your hunger — but did you know that what you eat affects how hungry you are later? If you eat the wrong things, even a lot of it, you can actually become hungrier later. This can lead to a cycle of overeating.
Learn to modify your diet such that you feel satisfied and less hungry long term. Let’s look at ways to do this.
Eat More Protein
Although protein rich foods are not considered low calorie themselves, they are great for managing hunger — and thus causing you to eat less calories in the long run. High protein foods include meat, cheese and eggs.
Eating protein causes you to feel more full and satisfied. Studies have shown that it boosts hunger suppressing hormones.
There are many effective diets based on this theory including the popular Adkin’s and Paleo diet where you eat little else than protein. Some of these diets can go overboard in allowing only meat and cheese and little else. There is debate on whether leaning to far to protein only eating is healthy — however you do not need to be this drastic. Studies have shown that simply increasing your protein percentage can have many benefits to decreasing overall calories.
So strive to eat smaller, more protein rich meals and you will find that overall you eat less yet don’t feel as hungry!
Cut the Sugar
Sugary foods such as candy, soft drinks, cookies and cakes consist of processed and refined sugars. These are a particularly bad subset of what are known as simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are foods that break down quickly for quick energy by raising sugar levels in the blood stream.
When your blood sugar is low, it makes you hungry. So then why is eating sugary things bad, since you want to be less hungry? The answer lies with how quickly foods with processed and refined sugar increase your blood sugar.
Quick blood sugar spikes are bad because of your body’s over reaction to it. When there is a lot of sugar in the bloodstream, your body produces insulin to neutralize the sugar. However, this system is imperfect and it ends up over compensating and sugar then gets low, and you are hungry again.
The same cycles occurs with your energy. Sugary foods gives you energy right away — a sugar high. But then comes the “crash” energy-wise later on.
Your body needs some amount of sugar. The best place to get it is from fruits which deliver the sugar in a slower way so that you do not have wild blood sugar swings.
Strive to cut out all processed sugars. When feeling the urge for something sweet, reach more for fruits. You will feel better, have overall more energy, age slower and lose weight.
Eat Less Starchy Foods
Starchy foods include potatoes, rice, bread, some cereals and pasta, Like sugary foods, these are carbohydrates that cause quick rises in blood sugar. So eating lots of “carbs” like this will cause the same swings of blood sugar described above, making you hungrier and possibly causing a cycle of overeating.
The below picture shows this cycle of diet hell that applies to sugary treats and many starchy foods.
There are actually two types of carbohydrates, simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are the ones we have discussed, that causes the quickest spike in blood sugar. These include processed sugar and a lot of the common starchy food. Complex carbohydrates are better in that the sugar is a more complex molecule that breaks down more slowly into blood sugar. This slower delivery of sugar to the bloodstream makes the cycle described above much less likely to occur. So what are these better complex carbohydrates?
The complex carbohydrates are the foods that have wholegrain and high fiber such as brown rice and wholewheat bread and pasta.
Starchy foods are an important source of energy and provide some important nutrients. Strive to eat less of the bad carbs and more of the good complex carbohydrates.
Up Your Fiber
Fiber is also a type of carbohydrate, but it’s not digested by the body at all. It basically just goes straight through you. Yet the bulk in fiber can make you feel full and satisfied.
So while obviously you cannot live just on fiber, as it has no nutrients — fiber filled foods will satisfy you with less calories.
Also fiber is helpful in keeping you regular, and who doesn’t like that?
Some high fiber foods to eat are:
- fruits such as bananas, oranges,, raspberries, blackberries and dried figs
- vegetables such as Brussel sprouts, carrots, peas, sweet potatoes,beans such as edamame and black beans
- bran flakes, high fiber cereals , oatmeal
- chia seeds, flaxseed meal
Ok, not everyone likes spicy food. Being from Louisiana, and living in Texas, I sure do though. In any event, spicy foods are shown to be more satisfying per calories and thus you eat less on these spicy meals!
Get More Sleep
You would think that sleeping less burns more energy and thus you would lose instead of gain weight. However, it has been scientifically shown that lack of sleep increases your appetite the next day and thus makes you more likely to overeat.
It has to do with the hunger hormones. When you don’t get enough sleep, you run low on leptin, which is a peptide responsible for a feeling of fullness. Also it increases ghreline which stimulates your appetite. Also, although not totally understood, it also increases your desire to eat for pleasure.
So bottom line: not enough sleep makes you hungrier during the day. So try to get enough sleep.
Of course sometimes you will have a few bad nights of sleep. Most of us do not avoid sleep by choice. It just happens due to stress or even insomnia. Advice to simply sleep more is not very helpful in these cases. So where you just cannot sleep well, just make a special effort to not overeat the next day, which in itself could help you sleep better the next night.
Many of us feel stress and anxiety over daily problems, as well as stressful events. This is bad enough mentally, but it also can cause you to overeat. Why would it do this?
Stress and anxiety is a general mechanism for survival and sets you up for a physical fight or flight response. It does not matter if the stress comes from sources that are largely in your imagination and causes no physical threat.
The body releases cortisol which increases insulin and thus lowers your blood sugar such that you crave food — especially quick energy food like high sugary treats. Why would stress do that? It’s because your body thinks you need a lot of calories to fight the threat or to run away from it. So from an evolutionary view, it makes sense.
The other reason is that the brain seeks the pleasure of food to offset stressful emotions. And although there is plenty of good food out there that give you pleasure, you tend to reach for the convient packaged foods like sugary snacks and desserts, as well as prepackaged comfort foods like chips and other salty snacks.
Overeating, especially food that is bad for you, tends to cause you more stress, that can lead to a cycle of overindulgence.
What should you do about all this? First strive to get your stress level down. There are hundreds of techniques here, both physically and mentally. Spend some dedicated time researching these. The other thing you can do is to consciously know that stressful emotions lead to more desire for food, and strive to curtail that cycle. Like go for a walk instead of eating. Look at it as a way for you to gain more control over your situation and help solve it.
Drink More Water
I saw a Ziggy cartoon the other day where Ziggy’s doctor was putting him on a diet where he could eat anything he wanted — he just had to drink an entire glass of water between each bite. Of course this is drastic, but there is some truth in the effectiveness of something like that!
Drinking more water is something you have undoubtedly heard many times before. It just helps to be reminded of it. When you feel really hungry and are tempted to overeat — drink water! Water fills you up, and gives you something to do. It makes you feel full.
It’s a good habit to drink water before a meal as it will generally make you eat less during the meal. This study for example shows that drinking two glasses of water immediately before a meal causes people to eat 22% less food that those who did not drink any water.
Hunger Proof Your Exercise
We know that exercise is a pillar for getting into shape and having good health — both physically and mentally. Other blogs on this site discuss this.
Exercise though can have mixed results on your hunger. There are studies that have shown shown that exercise can actually decrease hunger, especially high intensity exercise. However, in practice this is not always the case for all people and for all types of exercises. In fact in many cases the opposite occurs –and you can end up simply re-eating all the calories you burned, and even surpassing that.
Even then, exercise is still good for you, but you need to be aware of this possible effect when your goal is controlling your hunger and eating less. What good is it for weight loss to exercise hard and burn 500 calories, only to give into high level hunger due to that and eat say 700 calories extra?
One way exercise can cause you to overeat is psychological. After a tough workout, you may feel you deserve a treat. You may indulge in some unhealthy food thinking that you made up for it due to the exercise.
This could be partially right. Be aware though that while exercise burns calories, it can burn much less than you think relative to calories you gain in eating. For example running a mile burns about 110 calories. Munching on some snacks can easily add to 300 plus calories very quickly, like a bag of chips and a cookie would roughly be equivalent to.
The other reason is that exercise can ultimately simply make you more physically hungry since your body wants to replace the energy it lost during exercise. This of course makes total sense for the body. It’s just that eating tends to have momentum so as I have mentioned it’s easy to overshoot the calories that you burned.
If you are focusing just on exercise and feel you are not watching what you eat at all, you can end up over eating and actually gaining weight while you are in a regular and good workout routine (I have been there!). That is why experts frown on the effectiveness of having a weight loss plan solely based on increased exercise. Focusing just on diet and not exercise, you could be starving yourself and just not have the energy or motivation to exercise at all.
So exercise — it’s great! But strive to keep diet in mind after exercise and know you could have a tendency to eat more. Working on both your diet and exercise at the same time is the key to really getting into shape.
Tips for Breaking the Cycle of Heavy Eating
Sometimes it seems we just get into a long term mode of heavy and unhealthy eating. It may start with the holidays, or vacation or just a period of time where there are lots of festivities. The short term overeating itself is not bad, but what can be bad is when after the events you find that you really crave more food and continue the heavy eating.
It’s ironic that the more eating you do on a daily basis, the more you crave food. Eating tends to have momentum. Extended periods of time eating like this will cause significant weight gain.
So how do you break this cycles of overeating? When you get into the habit of eating a lot of rich and unhealthy yet tasty snacks and foods, it’s hard to quickly stop, and start eating well. Fruits and vegetables just do not seem satisfying, and an effort to suddenly start eating right and in a low quantity causes significant stress and physical discomfort. As a result, the attempts usually fail with the pledge to start again at a later time.
When you are in this overeating mode, I have found the best way to get out of it is to treat food like an addiction, for example to caffeine. The way to kick the habit is not to go cold turkey, but to gradually decrease your eating week by week.
For example, start with saying you will continue to eat anything you want during meals, but only have 2 significant snack (something satisfying, but not on the unhealthy side — say a cheese stick, or a bag of unsalted nuts). Then once you are there and feel good, take it a step further. Like work on cutting your portion size of meals by 20% but still allow anything. Then maybe cut one of the snacks, then eat specific healthier foods in your meal, and so on.
You get the point. Gradually cut down until you feel good at a better lower and healthy eating level. There will be some pain along the way, but not nearly as much pain as there is when suddenly changing your diet, as is usually done (and usually fails)! You will feel a lot better physically and mentally as well.
Even when you get to that point you can splurge sometimes but know your tendency may be to keep eating heavy after the splurge, so just make sure you drop back in your new routine immediately after the event.
Strive to address each of the areas in this article to control your hunger. You will be able to enjoy food yet also look good and feel better!