How do I eat less without feeling hungry?
Every day, new clients tell me: I know how to eat right and have tried all sorts of diets, but they don’t last because I can’t handle feeling hungry all-day.
Hunger is uncomfortable. It’s distracting and exhausting. Personally, I get cranky and quiet a few too many hours after a meal. Everyone experiences hunger a little differently, but it’s generally a wonderful blend of lightheaded-ness, headaches, stomach pain, stomach growling, and sluggishness. That’s a recipe for lower productivity and feeling downright irritated. Fun fact: Hangry was added to the Oxford English Dictionary earlier this year. So was mansplain. What a time to be alive.
Trying to lose weight by going hungry – i.e. skipping meals/snacks or excessively cutting calories or portion sizes – is not a realistic or sustainable weight loss plan. You do not lack discipline or will-power because you struggle with your appetite. You are just human.
Instead of planning to go hungry, plan to choose foods that will leave you feeling satisfied throughout the day. I’m happy to share my top three tips for how to eat less without feeling hungry.
But first, let’s zoom out and learn about how our bodies become “full”.
How Does Your Body Know When You’re Full?
As you eat, your stomach fills up with food and its elastic, muscular walls start to stretch like a balloon filling with water. Nerves in the stomach walls sense this stretching and communicate with the brain (via neurotransmitters) that it is filling up.¹
But that stretching is just one piece of the puzzle. If you chug three glasses of water, you might feel oddly full, but only momentarily. Certain hormones are released in response to certain nutrients – like carbohydrate, fat, and protein – and each has a unique way of making you feel fuller. The digestive system sends over 20 types of chemical messages (aka hormones) to the brain to relay the message. For example, one important hormone called cholecystokinin (or, CCK) increases satiety by gradually reducing the feeling of reward from food and slowing the movement of food out of the stomach (thereby making the stomach stretch more).² These hormonal mechanisms need time to take effect, which is why eating more slowly can help you feel fuller from less food. More on that later though.
Now that we have some basic biology under our belts, we can dive into my top three tips for how to eat less without going hungry.
#1: Eat More Whole Foods
If you’ve read my first article, What Are Whole Foods? this first tip shouldn’t be too surprising. Here’s a short passage from it that succinctly defines whole foods (and I’m not talking about the supermarket here).
“Whole foods are the plants, animals, and fungi that humans have been eating for generations, which includes: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs. Whole foods are food in their most natural, unprocessed form. They don’t have any crap added (think: sugar, cheap oils, binders, etc.), or any nutrients taken away (think: fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients etc.). Research demonstrates that eating more whole foods instead of processed food can improve all aspects of your health - from reducing your risk of chronic disease to helping you feel better throughout each day.³⁻⁵”
Whole foods have yet another convenient claim to fame: they can make you feel fuller from fewer calories. You see, calories matter but they are not all created equal. A calorie is not just a calorie. Think about it: two hundred calories of french fries does not affect your body the same way as two hundred calories of peppers. You certainly wouldn’t feel the same after eating each of the plates shown below.
Typically, whole foods (especially fruits and vegetables) have fewer calories in a given volume than processed foods. This means you can eat more of a whole food for the same number of calories, as shown below. This tricks your brain into thinking you’re eating more than you really are.
Research shows if we focus on food quality, our brains and bodies will effortlessly regulate food quantity. In other words, if we eat mostly whole foods as nature intended, we will naturally eat less without even trying. Remember back to when you were a child and didn’t consciously restrict portion sizes. Infants and children naturally eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. We can channel our inner child by eating more whole foods.
A study published in JAMA earlier this year that found that people who limited highly processed foods while focusing on eating more vegetables and whole foods — without counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year.⁶ The strategy worked equally well for people whether they followed diets that were mostly low-carbohydrate or mostly low-fat.
An earlier study surveyed 768 individuals who had changed from their usual diet to a diet based on whole foods and experienced dramatic results.⁷ When most people adopted a more nutrient-dense diet, they didn’t experience the usual variety of unpleasant symptoms related to hunger, such as fatigue, weakness, stomach cramps, irritability and headaches. Instead, people experienced a more manageable and less distressing form of hunger that they termed “throat hunger”. The result? They were less tempted to snack between meals and overeat.
Personally, I can attest to how eating healthier helped me manage my hunger better. While I can still get a bit cranky and quiet when I’m hungry, I’m much less irritable and rarely feel stomach pangs or headaches. What’s more is that I’ve heard countless clients tell me they feel the same way after just a few weeks of eating more whole foods!
How does this phenomenon work?
Whole foods don’t high-jack your brain’s pleasure center to the same degree as processed foods, so it pays more attention and responds better to the signals of satiety. Think about the last time you went out for dinner and felt totally stuffed after your entrée, but then suddenly found extra room in your stomach once dessert hit the table. Sweet, fatty, refined foods light up our dopamine and adrenaline receptors just like drugs and alcohol do.⁸ And just like with drugs, you can become addicted to unhealthy foods over time. I would bet if the waiter served a bowl of carrots and cucumbers after dinner instead of hot lava cake you just might be too full for more.
Second, whole foods are more difficult for the body to process than refined foods. This means whole foods stay in the stomach longer, take more time to digest, and release their energy more slowly. They even typically take longer to chew! As a result, we feel fuller sooner and for longer stretches of time. On the flip side, refined foods are already partially processed (aka digested) in factories so our bodies digest and absorb their energy much faster… and then crash much faster too. For example, an orange has fewer calories and sugar than a glass of orange juice, yet it takes longer to eat and longer to digest so you’re left feeling more satisfied.
Check out the graph below, which demonstrates how real food leads to even energy all day long.⁹
Let your body do the processing, not a factory.
Summary: People naturally eat less and lose weight when eating mostly whole foods. Real food helps you feel fuller for longer. Real food makes it easier to only eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re not. And whole foods even make hunger feel less unbearable so you aren’t as tempted to snack or overeat. It’s the not-so-secret solution you’ve been searching for.
#2: Eat Balanced Meals and Snacks
“Balanced” is a word dietitians often throw around, but what does it really mean? There’s no single definition, but a “balanced” meal generally means it contains all three macro-nutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrate (or, at least two of the three for a snack). Ideally, we should always include a fruit and/or vegetable for that perfect slow-digesting fiber and energy.
Check out the Venn diagram below to see what foods fit into which macro-nutrient categories. Notice how many foods fit into multiple groups and thus make for even more balanced meals!
Here are a few ways to be more balanced:
Cooking up eggs and toast for breakfast? Add some spinach, peppers, and onions to the eggs for extra fiber and nutrition.
Grabbing an apple for a snack? Add a handful of nuts or some nut butter for added protein, fat and fiber.
Tossing a mixed veggie salad? Throw in some beans, whole grains (my favorite right now is farro!), oil and vinegar to make it a filling meal.
Why do balanced meals make us feel fuller?
Balanced meals start to make us feel full even before they reach out bellies. Meals and snacks with a variety of textures, tastes, smells, and colors are more satisfying to the senses and thus, more filling.¹⁰ But that’s just the beginning!
Proteins, carbs, and fat are all satisfying for their own unique reasons, so put them together and you can’t go wrong. Let’s get into the details of each nutrient.
Research (and personal experience) points to protein as having the greatest impact on satiety and weight loss.¹¹ These days, the food industry treats protein like the darling child that can do no wrong. New products are constantly popping up that are fortified with protein and boast its benefits (e.g. protein pasta! protein cookies! protein pancakes!). While adding protein to cookies doesn’t make them healthy, naturally protein-rich foods can definitely satisfy. Science doesn’t know exactly why protein is so filling and effective for weight loss, but it has a few interesting ideas:
The body needs to work harder to digest protein, which burns more calories through a process called diet-induced thermogenesis.¹²
Protein activates specific gastrointestinal hormones related to increased satiety.¹³
Two recent studies show that the “sensory experience” of eating protein-rich foods is important to satiety.¹⁴ ¹⁵
While protein tends to steal the spotlight, the fiber found in complex carbohydrates (like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, etc.) deserves its accolades too. Remember when I said we want to choose foods that are more difficult to digest? Fiber takes the cake in this arena for being a form of carbohydrate that is completely indigestible. Fiber passes through the digestive tract pretty much intact. Since our bodies cannot break it down, fiber tends to take up more space in our stomachs and stay there longer, which helps to stretch the stomach walls and make us full.¹⁰ Also, when we pair fiber with other more easily digested forms of carbohydrate like starch or sugar, the fiber buffers their effect our blood sugar so we get more even levels of energy. Lastly, naturally high fiber foods like fruits and vegetables are often relatively low in calories so you can eat larger portions.
**Bonus info for the nutrition nerds: The fiber found naturally in whole foods seems to increase satiety significantly more than fiber added to refined food products. Whole foods contain “intact fiber” which means the plant cell walls are literally intact as opposed to crushed from milling and processing. One fascinating study tested the difference in satiety after eating whole apple vs. applesauce vs. apple juice with added fiber vs. plain apple juice.¹⁶ The whole apple, applesauce, and apple juice with fiber were matched for fiber content. They found that people felt significantly fuller after eating an apple > applesauce > both juices. What’s more is that adding naturally occurring levels of fiber to juice didn’t increase satiety. There is something truly special about eating fiber straight from the source!
Tl;dr (too long; didn’t read): You can never go wrong with eating more plants.
Last but not least is fat. Dietary fat (found naturally in avocado, nuts, seeds, eggs, meat, dairy, oil, etc.) seems to fall slightly lower on the totem pole of satiety than protein or complex carbs – but it’s still an important player! Luckily, if you revisit my lovely Venn diagram above, you’ll notice that many protein and/or carbohydrate foods also contain some good fats too. Nature wants us to be balanced too 😉.
Summary: Eating balanced meals and snacks with protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and fat can help you stay satisfied. Bonus points if you can include a fruit or vegetable with every meal and snack.
#3: Eat Mindfully
How you eat can be just as impactful as what you eat. While we’re eating, we’re often thinking about our never-ending to-do lists, yesterday’s meeting, or what channel to watch on tv. We’re thinking about a million things other than what were actually eating – how the food looks, smells, tastes, feels in our mouths and our bodies. As a result, we mindlessly scarf down our meals and wind up thinking: where did the food go? Fully experiencing your meal contributes to satiety big time.
Mindful eating means staying in the moment and paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking. It means noticing the colors, smells, textures, flavors, temperatures, and even the sounds of our food. Pay attention to how your hunger and satisfaction feel in the body. What does half-full feel like, three-quarters full? Notice how eating influences your mood, and how your mood influences your eating.
Being aware of every bite means you taste more and eat less. You’ll be tuned in to the sensations of fullness and you’ll intuitively stop eating when comfortably satiated – as opposed to relying on visual cues, like when the plate is clean. You also might notice that as you become more full, food doesn’t taste quite as magical as it does when you’re starving. Noticing this shift in taste may help you feel more satisfied from the flavors on your plate sooner.
Mindful eating also slows down the pace of your meals. Eating slowly has repeatedly been shown to favor smaller portions and weight loss.¹⁷ This is partly because the hormones and neurotransmitters involved in sending the “I’m full” signals to the brain can take up to 20 minutes to take effect. The most important first step you can take to eat more mindfully is carve out enough time in your schedule for mealtimes. Eating is a relaxing and delicious break from the craziness of the day, enjoy it.
Old habits die hard. Eating more mindfully can be hard so don’t try to change everything all at once. Pick out one or two of the following suggestions to get started:
Take three deep breaths before starting your meal
Try paying your full attention to the first four bites of lunch.
Take a 2-minute break halfway through your meal to check in with how you’re feeling.
Put your utensils down between bites.
Try eating one meal without any distractions. No tv, phone, book, or music. Do you think you can do it?
Summary: Eating mindfully and slowly can help you enjoy your food more, cut down on portions, realize when you’re full and stop eating when you aren’t hungry — without even changing the foods on your plate.
Hunger is Human
You don’t need to struggle through hunger to lose weight and keep it off. Don’t skip meals or try to overcome hunger through sheer will. Don’t punish yourself for eating too much by trying to starve the next day. Don’t deny your hunger, or feel inadequate for experiencing it in the first place. Hunger is biological and having it means you’re human.
The best way to eat less without going hungry? Don’t let yourself get too hungry in the first place. When we let ourselves get ravenous, we’re more likely to crave high-calorie, processed crap and stuff our faces to make the discomfort go away.
Planning to go hungry to lose weight is not a good plan. Weight loss takes time and you need a nutrition plan that will keep you feeling satisfied day in and day out. Choose more whole foods, eat balanced meals and snacks, eat mindfully – and don’t forget, it’s okay to be hungry.
Do you need more support developing and executing your personal weight loss plan? Schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation to learn about I can help!
Thanks for reading,