Nobody feels their best when they’re hungry, and if you’re aggressively cutting calories to lose weight, running around ravenous all the time can make you downright miserable. Now, scientists have shed more light on the biological mechanisms that may make some dieters irritable and unhappy when they try to slim down.
Researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have discovered that hunger may trigger some brain cells to generate unpleasant feelings, likely as part of an elaborate system that evolved to defend against starvation. The scientists conducted experiments with mice and found that stimulating the hunger-sensitive cells, known as AGRP neurons, caused behavior changes that suggested the animals were experiencing negative feelings. These unpleasant consequences appear to motivate mice to seek out food in order to silence the neurons and end the negative feedback. In other words, the neurons cause the animals to associate hunger with undesirable outcomes.
While humans also have AGRP neurons, and these cells play a key role in our hunger and eating patterns, it’s not clear exactly how these new animal studies translate to people’s behavior. Though the biological pathways aren’t yet fully understood, it doesn’t take a scientific study to prove that battling hunger makes it difficult to stick with a weight-loss plan.
It’s impossible to avoid hunger completely while dieting because our bodies are hard-wired to preserve energy stores at almost any cost. When we consume fewer calories than we burn for an extended period, our brains go into survival mode, encouraging us to eat more. To avoid overeating, most people need to learn to allow themselves to feel mildly hungry between meals without immediately grabbing for food.
On the other hand, you definitely don’t need to walk around feeling famished 24/7 in order to successfully lose weight. There are a number of smart strategies you can use to keep hunger from hijacking your efforts. Some of these tips can even “trick” your brain into feeling more satisfied, helping to temper a bad case of the dieting grumps.
Avoid drastic measures. Overly restricting calories can make hunger unbearable and ultimately backfire by driving you to overeat. Following rigid juice fasts and cleanses can leave you feeling ravenous and cranky after just a few days. To make dieting sustainable for the long haul, follow a balanced meal plan comprised of mostly whole foods and, if you’re counting calories, trim no more than 500 to 1,000 calories off your daily maintenance needs (never go below 1,000 calories per day).
Become a volume eater. Many studies show that the volume of food we eat at meals has a bigger impact on fullness cues than the number of calories consumed. By eating foods that are bulky but low in calories, namely vegetables and fruits, you can feel more satisfied on less food, which makes weight loss less of a struggle. Starting a meal with a tossed salad, serving an extra side of veggies at dinner, and doubling down on the produce in stir fries, soups, casseroles, and pasta dishes are easy ways to make low-cal meals seem more plentiful.
Adjust your eating schedule. Some people feel less hungry throughout the day when they eat a hearty breakfast, while others do better with a big dinner. Some dieters prefer five or six small meals a day to three large ones. As long as you adjust your portion sizes appropriately, any of these approaches can be successful, so experiment with different eating arrangements until you find the one that best controls your appetite.
Distract, distract, distract. Yes, we eat when we’re hungry, but we just as often reach for food because we’re bored, emotional, or acting out of habit. If you’re not physically hungry, the best approach is to get your mind off of food by busying yourself with another activity. When the urge to mindlessly munch strikes, pick up a book or magazine, run an errand, or cross something easy off your to-do list. If you’re not truly hungry, the impulse will likely pass by the time you finish your task.
Sip, don’t snack. Reaching for a glass of water or a mug of tea is another reliable remedy for mindless munching. The liquid volume helps you feel full, and drinking a beverage gives you a few minutes to pause and reconsider your decision to grab a snack. In addition, the ritual of nursing a warm beverage can be very soothing if you’re turning to food because you’re stressed or upset.
Take it slow. When you scarf down a meal quickly, you don’t give your body enough time to register how full it’s getting. There are all sorts of clever tricks you can use to pace yourself, like setting down your fork between each bite or even setting a timer. However, I find the best strategy is to stretch out a meal with good company and conversation. If and when your schedule allows, take a few minutes to sit down to meals with family, friends, or co-workers.
Get more sleep! Sleep deprivation can spike your appetite, so getting adequate rest is important for sticking to your food plan. If you find yourself searching for snacks in the evening just a few hours after finishing a big meal, it’s unlikely that you’re experiencing true hunger. You’re better off hitting the hay a bit early and waking up well-primed for a healthy breakfast.