I’ve spent a lot of time, especially lately, writing about exercise and pushing limits in weight and strength training, but that’s only part of the battle to improve health. Another major component is food, what we eat, how much we eat, and even when we eat.
As I see the number on my bathroom scale get smaller week over week and find myself fitting into jeans that I couldn’t squeeze into a month ago, in addition to pushing myself at the gym, I’ve been trying to push myself in my eating habits as well. Can I eat fewer calories today than yesterday? That sort of thing.
There’s just one problem. I get so hungry.
Is that normal? I mean, everybody gets hungry. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t eat. But is it normal to feel hungry all the time when trying to lose nasty, evil belly fat?
To find the answer, I again turned to my favorite research tool, Google. The first three out of the top four search results seemed to be directed specifically toward a female audience.
The question: Do you have to feel like you’re famished all the time to lose weight? Does that mean you’re doing it “right”?
The expert: Mitzi Dulan, R.D., author of The Pinterest Diet
The answer: Yes, you’re going to have to deal with some stomach grumbling while you’re trying to lose weight—particularly while your body adjusts to consuming fewer calories. But if you’re constantly so hungry that you’re considering gnawing on your desk, you’re probably not consuming your allotted calories as wisely as possible.
-by Robin Hilmantel
“Is It Normal to Feel Hungry All the Time While Dieting?”
Women’s Health Magazine
I take what I always hope is a sufficient amount of protein, fruits, and vegetables with me to work each day. In addition to an actual lunch meal, I bring two to three scoops of protein powder as well as apples, oranges, carrots, celery and mixed greens for a salad to “graze” on throughout the day. I don’t like the feeling of wanting to eat my desk, but on the other hand, I have to be mindful of what I eat and how much. The food diary at MyFitnessPal.com is a wonderful companion and also a terrible tyrant.
According to author Jenny Sugar (ironic name given the topic at hand) at PopSugar.com, Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD advises:
…you should feel mild to moderate hunger three to four times a day at your scheduled mealtimes.
She further states:
Mild to moderate hunger doesn’t mean feeling starved, light-headed, or hungry all day, so you should never skip meals or dip below 1,200 daily calories. Cynthia assures us that “this pattern of hunger is normal, and it’s a good way to know that you’re in balance.” It helps prevent the habit of overeating, so you’re no longer feeding the extra pounds you’re trying to shed. But it also helps avoid under-eating, which starves the lean tissue you need to nourish, and can cause ravenous hunger that leads to bingeing.
I’m pretty sure even approaching a mere 1200 calories a day would find me wasting away to nothing, but again, this was written for female readers. Still, the rest of the advice seems sound. It’s all about balance and timing. Don’t skip meals which leads to overwhelming hunger, which leads to eating half the contents of the fridge.
I won’t quote from the Livestrong.com article since it didn’t seem to add much, but did find the article 9 Ways to Deal with Hunger on a Diet at Body Recomposition to be helpful, at least to a degree.
Eating more lean protein and eating more fruits and vegetables I already knew about, and I’ve been aware that eating moderate amounts of dietary fat is actually beneficial, but I was surprised at the advice to fast intermittently, and particularly to use appetite suppressants.
Let’s take what is called “IF’ing” first:
IF’ing is a current dietary trend that, while exact definitions vary, basically refers to a pattern where someone fasts for some portion of the day (perhaps 16-20 hours) and eats most of their food during a short ‘eating period’. Various interpretations are out there but there is emerging research showing a variety of health benefits from this style of eating.
In the context of this article, IF’ing can be particularly valuable for smaller dieters who simply don’t get to eat a lot of food each day. A small female trying to subsist on 1000-1200 calories per day and trying to eat 3-4 times per day is only getting a few small, relatively unsatisfying meals per day.
However, if that same dieter fasts most of the day (many find that hunger goes away after an initial spike in the morning), she can eat 1-2 significantly larger (and more satisfying) meals later in the day.
I don’t think this would be compatible for someone who is also on a weight or strength training program involving moderate to heavy resistance work. The object isn’t just to lose fat but to gain or at least maintain lean muscle mass. I find that I have to regularly ingest protein throughout the day as my muscles repair themselves after morning weightlifting at the gym in order to make gains (modest though they may be).
Now what about appetite suppressants?
The history of diet drugs is a mixed bag but, for the most part, diet drugs have fallen into one of two major categories: metabolic enhancers and appetite suppressants. Sometimes the drugs do both. Now, used without changes in diet and activity, these drugs tend to only have small and transient effects.
But the simple fact is that they can help a diet. The old Dexatrim (containing pseudoephedrine HCL) was actually very nice in that it blunted hunger without over-stimulating the person but it’s not available any more. I’m personally a big fan of the ephedrine/caffeine stack.
Despite scare-mongering to the contrary, EC used properly (e.g. don’t take 3X the recommended dose) is actually quite safe and has both potent appetite suppressant effects along with boosting metabolic rate slightly.
I’ve written about dietary supplements in the past, but nothing I take is designed to be an appetite suppressant. My long suffering wife (LSW) is fairly rabid about ingesting only healthy, natural products, at least as much as possible, and taking some sort of drug to curb hunger would be out of the question from her perspective, as well as mine.
I remember the days back in the 1960s when my Mom would take “diet pills” to lose weight. We now know what her doc was prescribing was high grade speed, and that dangerous practice has since been discontinued.
I prefer to take care of my eating and my hunger through other means, thank you very much.
That said, I’m not unmindful of people who are so heavy that they turn to surgery and other drastic measures in order to lose weight because they are disabled and their physical condition is life-threatening. For this sort of person, an appetite suppressant might be a reasonable and even desirable method of weight control and fat loss.
However, for those of us who are trying to lose 15 or 20 pounds, I think we can get by without going to extremes (and as an aside, as of yesterday morning, I officially lost 11 pounds in 62 days. That means, assuming I don’t gain anything again, I’ve only got another 11 pounds to go before I hit my goal weight).
Now how does this author, Lyle McDonald, see the role of exercise relative to diet and hunger?
Basically, through myriad overlapping mechanisms, exercise has the potential to increase hunger, decrease hunger or have no effect. Some of the effects are purely physiological. On the one hand, exercise increases leptin transport into the brain which should help some of the other hunger signals work better. On the other hand, some people can get a blood glucose crash with exercise (this is especially true in the early stages of a program) and this can stimulate hunger. Most research suggests that exercise has, if anything, a net benefit in terms of hunger control but it’s even more complicated than that.
Whether or not exercise helps with hunger control ends up interacting with psychological factors that I’m not going to detail here. Some research suggests that people ‘couple’ exercise with their diet. The underlying psychology seems to be along the lines of “I exercised today, why would I ruin that by blowing my diet.” That’s good.
However, another category of people often use exercise as an excuse to eat more. The underlying psychology seems to be “I must have burned at least 1000 calories in exercise, I earned that cheeseburger and milkshake.” Of course, since people basically always over-estimate how many calories they burned with exercise, they end up doing more harm than good.
The short-version of this point is this: for some people, regular exercise (and it may not be anything more than a brisk walk) has a profound benefit on keeping them on their diet. And for others it tends to backfire.
I don’t think McDonald is writing for people who are athletic or who are aiming to be athletic so much as the person who wants to control their weight primarily by diet and maybe supplement their efforts with mild to moderate exercise of some sort (and it’s fairly obvious that he wrote this article primarily to promote his book).
He does encourage people to be flexible on their diets. No one has totally iron will power, and I was telling my wife just the other day that I’d like to be able to eat pizza again.
Yes, changing your diet is a permanent lifestyle adjustment and for some people, that adjustment may seem extreme. On the other hand, if you can never have a beer again, a glass of wine, a couple of pieces of pizza (through it’s better to make your own) or a hamburger (and anyone can barbecue their own burger and avoid the fast food variety), what’s the use? We’re trying to become healthier so we can enjoy life more, and that enjoyment should include good, tasty foods.
Fawnia Deitrich at Bodybuilding says:
To me, Cheat Days (or meals) are necessary to not only emotionally calm your cravings, but to jump start your metabolism and provide extra energy. Eating foods that are higher in calories, or are not normally in our food plan, will increase our metabolism since our bodies are forced to work harder at burning the calories ingested. The key is to cheat only when necessary, and this skill can take time to learn.
Many people I know have a cheat day every Sunday, however I work better on cheating a few meals or snacks each week. Devoting an entire day (Sunday) to cheating doesn’t work for me emotionally since I know I would want something naughty by Wednesday or Thursday.
There’s a science and even an art to “cheating” but I think the take away is that if you are too rigid with yourself in restricting calories (or too rigid in anything else), eventually, your will power or your system will break down and then so will you. Set reasonable goals, not ones that are insane.
I know this is tough for me, because now that I’m seeing progress, I want to keep on seeing it day by day. When I get to a new low weight, I’m ecstatic, but when that little number gets larger, even by a fraction of a pound on the following morning, I’m crestfallen. I have to remember that the bathroom scale isn’t the ultimate arbiter of how well I’m doing in my program. Weight loss isn’t linear and the fact that I’m gaining lean muscle at the same time I’m losing body fat is going to result in fluctuating weight, at least a little.
However, going back to McDonald, there is a bottom line here:
Suck it up or stay fat.
I want to make it clear that I’m not being facetious with the title of this one; and I’m only being slightly obnoxious. Even if you do everything I talked about above, apply every strategy perfectly, the reality is that you will probably still have some hunger on a diet.
Well…too bad. The simple fact is that losing weight requires eating less than you’re burning and this will, at some point, generate hunger. Now, there are exceptions, extremely overweight individuals often find that they have no appetite in the initial stages of dieting but the reality is that eventually hunger will rear it’s ugly head.
If this were easy to do then no one would be fat or out of shape. When you run through all your tips and tricks, it comes down to exercising some discipline in your life or risk losing some or all that you’ve achieved. This is your health and ultimately your life we’re talking about. You have to decide what you want more? That’s why your goals have to be reasonable and your efforts in moderation. Unless you are one of those people who needs to be extreme in everything you do, pushing yourself too hard will end up with you crashing and burning.
Stay hungry but stay just a little hungry. Cheat a little and be satisfied. Make adjustments based on your goals and how your body is responding to your overall health program. And remember, this is all so you can enjoy life, not torture yourself.
Stay healthy, stay hungry, be a gentleman, believe strongly in yourself and go beyond limitations.