Whether you’re facing nagging cravings or extreme discomfort that makes it difficult to think clearly, constant hunger can become a major distraction when you’re trying to lose weight.
“Hunger is one of the main reasons people have trouble losing weight and maintaining weight loss,” says Dr. Angela Fitch, associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center. When you eat less, your body slows your metabolism (making it harder to shed pounds) and also makes you feel hungrier (by tweaking levels of ghrelin and leptin, hormones that regulate feelings of hunger and fullness), she explains.
While some level of hunger is natural and normal when you’re trying to lose weight, if sticking with your calorie goal has been a challenge, there are a few ways you can lessen the burden.
“As it’s easy to mistake thirst for hunger (especially when you’re already hungrier than usual) and water can help you feel fuller, make sure to stay hydrated throughout the day,” says Dr. Robert Kushner, medical director of the Center for Lifestyle Medicine at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago.
Stock up on calorie-free drinks you enjoy like fruit-infused water, sparkling water or tea — and keep them within reach with a water bottle or thermos.
START WITH SOUP
For a simple but effective strategy, have a cup of soup as a starter for your lunch or dinner, suggests Dr. Fitch. Flavorful, aromatic and filling thanks to water and fiber-rich veggies, soup can make for a helpful and affordable staple when it comes to dialing down diet-induced hunger.
Case in point: People who had a low-calorie soup before their meal ended up eating about 20% less calories than those who didn’t, finds one study by nutrition researchers at Penn State. Just make sure you reach for clear-broth soups like chicken and vegetables rather than cream-based soups or chowders (which tend to be high in calories and fat).
FOCUS ON HIGH-VOLUME FOODS
If three square meals regularly set you up for late-night munchies, one way to quiet hunger bells is to eat high-volume, high-fiber foods throughout the day. “Ditch the idea that you only need breakfast, lunch and dinner, and honor your hunger by always having nutrient-dense, low-calorie food choices on hand,” says Shena Jaramillo, RD.
Start your meals with a few handfuls of leafy greens for a salad, fill up half your plate with non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, carrots, green beans and asparagus, and schedule snacks that include vegetables like baby tomatoes, cucumbers, radish and celery; fruits like watermelon, grapefruit, berries; and whole grains like popcorn and oatmeal. Boost the volume and fiber, and you’ll feel fuller and have an easier time sticking with your overall calorie goal.
POWER UP WITH PROTEIN
Research shows protein is the most satisfying of all macronutrients, which is why protein-rich snacks tend to keep you full for longer (where plain crackers or chips alone often aren’t enough to fill you up), says Jaramillo. To ward off hunger bells, include high-protein foods with every snack and meal.
A few powerful combos: Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with cucumbers or berries, veggies with hummus, eggs with spinach and feta or chicken and leafy greens in a whole-grain wrap. A small handful of nuts or seeds can help hold you over, too, says Dr. Kushner.
If you’re used to chowing down until you’re uncomfortably full, eating slower makes for a great strategy to dial down your hunger signals and avoid overeating. “It takes time for your stomach to feel that you are full and send a signal to your brain that then sends a signal back to your stomach to slow down the emptying and make you feel fuller,” says Dr. Fitch. As such, you need to give your body time to register that you’re full.
Minimize distractions like the TV and your phone, and talk with people or put your fork down between bites, suggests Dr. Fitch. Mindful eating practices (like savoring every taste and even doing a brief meditation before you sit down) can also help. Then, when you’re finished eating, leave a 20-minute window to allow your satiating hormones to do their work before you ask yourself if you’re actually hungry for seconds, she says.
If you’re battling all-day hunger, it’s important to understand that this is due to your body chemistry, not your character or personal weakness, says Dr. Fitch. For this reason, if you’ve tried all of the above and you’re still struggling with constant hunger pangs, consider consulting with a weight-loss doctor or registered dietitian who can help you re-engineer your environment, mindset, and lifestyle to support a healthy and sustainable weight-loss journey.