the science of hunger

Hunger 101

Hunger is a natural bodily cue that we all deal with. Sometimes it can be helpful (as in when we are looking to gain weight), but most of the time it is something that people fear. Learning about hunger and how to manage it will also help you improve the quality of your diet for a variety of goals including weight loss, fueling your training, and optimizing your diet for recovery.

Hunger 101

By: Jeremy Partl, Registered Dietitian

Mention the idea of food, nutrition, and “diet,” and there is one word that makes people run the opposite direction: hunger. Many people can’t stand the thought of being hungry. But, while our bodies are quite attuned to keeping us at or near a healthy body weight, when it comes to losing weight and reaching a lean physique, the reality is that sometimes we have to fight the resistance signals that our bodies send us.

In this article, I want to discuss some of the details of how the brain controls our eating behavior. From there, I will expand on and share some of my favorite strategies for what we can do to fight the “SOS call” of hunger and win the battle against the bulge.

How Our Brain Controls Our Eating Behavior

Without going too far down the rabbit hole, I want to briefly share some of the science behind the drivers of our hunger pangs and cravings.

In its most basic sense, hunger is a physiological need for food and nutrients. It is our bodies’ way of telling us that we need more nourishment. Besides the grumbling of our stomachs, our hunger signals can visit us through increased thoughts of food, dips in physical and mental energy, or both.

Our hunger is actually one of three distinct, but interconnected, circuits that control the way we eat: the hunger circuit, the consumption circuit, and the satiety circuit.

For an excellent review of the topic, I would encourage you to read a December article from a review from the Monthly Applications in Strength Science. In it, the author of one of the reviews briefly explains the differences between the three and how they are connected. Here are some of the key points:[1]

The Hunger Circuit

When levels of specific hormones and peptides are low (specifically those like insulin, leptin, ghrelin, etc.), a region in the brain releases neurons—agouti-related peptide (AgRP) and pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC). As a result, our bodies become motivated to seek out food.

Interestingly, activation of these neurons is also related to negative feelings (such as when you get “hangry”) that reinforce the drive to consume more food.

The Consumption Circuit

The hunger circuit and various changes in hormones and peptides explain what drives hunger and motivates you to find food. But when you start eating, your motivation gets up-regulated to what researchers consider to be the “consumption circuit.”

When you start eating food (even just taking a glance at food), neurons in another part of the brain (the lateral hypothalamus) are activated, signaling the reward centers (especially the dopamine and opioid systems) of the brain that good stuff is happening.

Therefore, it should not be surprising that the feel-good sensations we get after eating are the reason why people often cope with stressful or negative feelings or emotions by eating.

This “consumption” system works when you eat any food (even broccoli). However, eating highly pleasurable foods that are high in fat and sugar (like cakes, candies, etc.) tends to over-activate the reward systems, making it even easier to overeat.

The Satiety Circuit

The final circuit of the system is responsible for stopping us from just continuously gorging ourselves, as it works as the stop sign to end eating.

When we eat, this circuit is activated by the caloric and volume feedback that numerous hormones and peptides signal to the brain. As a result, a whole different set of neurons—calcitonin gene-related peptide neurons (CGRP)—are activated, transmitting the stop signal to the consumption circuit to stop eating.

Interestingly, these neurons are also active when you are nauseated and sick and are related to taste aversions, potentially causing you to feel disgusted or repelled by the sight, or even smell, of food.

Managing Hunger and Cravings

As I mentioned above, hunger is a natural physiological phenomenon. If our bodies did not send us hunger signals, we would likely not get enough nourishment. However, when we diet or seek to lose weight, it is natural to experience an uptick in hunger.

We also live in what science-minded folks refer to as an “obesogenic environment,” where we are surrounded by easily accessible and tasty food options that tend to be processed or engineered in ways that override our body’s normal satiety response.

So, what are we to do?

Luckily, as athletes and active individuals, the exercise we do can better control and suppress our hunger, as a result of beneficial hormonal changes that occur as a response to training.[2]

However, these alterations in hormones do not necessarily prevent us from experiencing the pangs of hunger that we get if we under-feed our bodies and navigate the perils of a Western diet.

Therefore, we must be proactive in our dietary choices, the lifestyle choices we make, and more. Here are some of my top strategies and suggestions to manage our hunger and cravings:

Eat Balanced Meals

Having “mixed” meals that contain protein, carbohydrates, and fats help to reduce the glucose and insulin response, stabilizing energy levels and preventing major swings that can result in roaring hunger sensations.

Eat Simple, Low-Reward Foods

Pizza or a plain, dry baked potato? What sounds more appetizing? What are you more likely to overeat? For most people, this question is a no-brainer. It’s really hard to overeat bland chicken and broccoli. On the other hand, donuts and chips, not so much.

We aren’t born craving these foods.

While our brains do have regions that light up in response to different taste sensations (sweet, sour, savory, etc.), our brain circuits learn a connection between eating specific foods and the amount of the energy they provide. This makes evolutionary sense, as your brain wants to ensure that those precious calorie resources are consumed and saved for future famines. However, famines and food shortages are a rarity, and being surrounded by high-calorie food cues and stimuli 24/7 does more harm than good to our waistlines. Even the sight or smell of these highly palatable foods can release the hormones that leave us craving them, regardless of actually needing nourishment or not. Not only do these foods over-activate the reward systems in your brain, but they also circumvent the satiety signals that we need to stop eating, leading us to overeat past our actual needs.

Choosing boring foods and laying off the tasty sauces, spices, and cheeses that make your food both high in calories and super tasty can really help to curb hunger.

While this strategy is most helpful for weight loss, it can also be applied in the context of weight gain. Ironically, when our goal is to eat the most calories we can before we get full, enhancing the pleasure of our food choices can make it to add calories to the actual food and help us eat more food in general. Add the butter to the rice, salt to your potatoes, add the ketchup to the veggies.

Choose High Volume, Lower Energy Density Foods

Many people operate under the assumption that the stomach is just a calorie-counter. Instead, research suggests that the sense of fullness and satiation is more a result of the stretch and filling of the stomach. In other words, our stomachs respond more to the volume of foods than the calorie amounts of our foods. [3],[4]

 

Therefore, if your goal is to lose weight while staying satisfied, it would be wise to lower the caloric density of your food choices and bump up the volume of your food choices.[5]

What does this entail?

Instead of eating starches, dried fruits, nuts, oils, fatty meats, and dairy, etc. it would be easier to fill your plate with green vegetables, berries, nonfat dairy, and lean proteins (boneless skinless chicken breast, egg whites, etc.).

A perfect example is a comparison of 100 calories worth of broccoli versus olive oil. Both considered “healthy” and equal calorie content. How much broccoli can you eat? Over three cups (or fistful sized servings). The olive oil….less than a tablespoon (or the size of your thumb).

Another strategy you could use is to start a meal with a soup or salad. By the time your actual “entree” comes, your stomach is already filled up quite extensively. Water has a similar effect on satiety.

Choose Satiating Foods

Potatoes can be good for weight loss. Wait!… I thought potatoes were banned from all weight loss diets. I will explain.

In addition to manipulating the energy density and volume of your diet, another factor you can consider is the satiety factor of the foods you eat. Thanks to a seminal study in the nutrition field, researchers developed a list of foods that tend to be the most satisfying and keep you full for the longest amount of time. [6]

Generally speaking, foods that are high in protein, fiber, and/or water are going to be your top selections for satiety. As with the high volume, low energy-dense foods above, you would do your best to choose things like fish, lean cuts of steak, apples, oranges, etc.[7]

Surprisingly, the most satiating food? Potatoes. Keep in mind that they compared amounts of these foods at a standard calorie level during the experiment.

Where many people go wrong with potatoes is that they load all the palatable toppings, adding calories and making it easy to eat. However, plain boiled potatoes are fairly high volume and full of water (despite being a starch).

Make Sure to Stay on Top of Hydration

Rumbling stomach, feeling tired and lightheaded, or having difficulty concentrating? We must be hungry, right?

The truth is, we may not truly need food, but instead need fluids. Sometimes, our bodies’ signals for thirst resemble the same cues we have for hunger.

Too often, we mistake thirst for hunger. As a result, we end up eating food and adding extra calories to our diet. As one study on the topic notes:[8]

“There are concerns that such a confusion can lead to eating in response to thirst or drinking in response to hunger. The former can lead to positive energy balance if the energy value of selected foods exceeds that of a beverage that could have been ingested to alleviate thirst, and the latter can have the same effect if the beverage provides uncompensated energy in the diet.”

Not only can staying hydrated prevent us from eating when we are not supposed to, but drinking fluids is also a great way to keep the stomach stretched and filled. As a result, research suggests that total daily fluid intake reduces energy intake and that drinking water before a meal can help to acutely reduce calorie intake.[9]

Strategize your Food Intake Around When You Are Most Hungry

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right? In recent years, this notion has been hotly debated.

You have studies showing that eating breakfast is beneficial for weight loss. Most importantly, it is vital to point out that these studies generally include a high-protein breakfast and not your standard carb-heavy morning meal.[10] Additionally, there is some new evidence suggesting that the more you front-load your calorie intake (to earlier parts of the day), the greater the influence on weight loss, energy balance, and metabolic health.[11]

However, not all studies support the concept that eating breakfast is beneficial for weight loss. Recent results from well-designed controlled trials found that recommending regular breakfast consumption could negatively affect weight control by adding calories to diets, especially in people who are not typical breakfast eaters.[12],[13]

Since the evidence is so mixed, if you are not hungry in the morning, it’s probably not wise to shift a majority of your calorie intake in the earlier part of the day. However, that does not mean you should load all of your calories into one big meal in the evening, either. Finding the ideal timing of when you eat the majority of your calories is highly individualistic, but important to figure out.

Other factors may play a role in your morning meals as well. If you work out in the morning, you may benefit from a balanced breakfast to help fuel your training. Or, if you are trying to eat more protein to aid in your recovery, a protein shake or other high-quality protein source at the beginning of the day may be crucial.

A lot of people tend to report the highest levels of hunger (probably more specifically cravings) in the evening hours. Physiologically, when we are busy and keeping our mind occupied, the hunger neurons that send us looking for food are not activated. This is why it can be easier to make it through the workday on a meager amount of calories.

However, when you get home, it’s likely that there is not near the amount of distraction, as we generally chill out for the evening. As a result, we are more likely to seek out the calories we need for our daily nourishment. In addition, the more often we repeat this cycle, the more ingrained the habit gets, making it even more likely to be looking for food in the evening.

If you do decide to have a majority of your calories later on in the day, you can keep your morning meals to mostly protein and veggies, and then save more of your daily fats and carbs for the later meals. Just when you’re most prone to be hungry, you have your biggest meals of the day to eat. As usual, total daily calories still have to be the same as they were, just more of them in the evening and fewer in the morning.

Be Mindful

Mindful eating has become a popular term that has been thrown around the nutrition field over the last couple of years. Technically defined as “an intentional and nonjudgmental awareness of physical and emotional sensations while eating or in a food-related environment” it gets applied practically by slowing down eating patterns, taking breaks in-between bites, and paying more attention to the taste, sight, aroma, etc. of the foods that you are eating.[14]

Mindfulness-based approaches appear most effective in addressing binge eating, emotional eating, and eating in response to external cues.[15] Theoretically, this could help to lower calorie intake by reducing the amount of food (especially energy-dense and highly palatable foods) that we eat. However, there is a lack of convincing evidence for the effectiveness of mindful eating in weight management (although it may help to prevent weight gain).[16]

Regardless of what the science says, we all know how easy it can be to plow through the plate we have in front of us or to empty an entire bag of chips or candy in one sitting if we are distracted by technology, hurrying to get somewhere, etc. Taking time to enjoy and savor your meals may help to reduce the overall amount of food (and calories) that you are consuming, without changing the foods you are eating.

Hit the Hay

Burning the candle, whether intentionally staying up to study or unintentionally binge-watching Netflix, may have you eating more the next day.

Research suggests that you are likely to consume 200–500 more calories following sleep restriction when compared with your normal sleep duration.[17] While time spent in bed is one thing, this does not factor in the actual quality of sleep that we are getting. The next time you get less than the recommended amount of sleep, notice how you are more likely to have increased cravings for high-calorie foods and make more impulse food decisions that can add unwanted calories to your diet.

Some Additional Tips

Before this article becomes an essay, I will leave you with a couple of additional tips and suggestions to savor (yes, the pun is intended).

  • Chew gum

When people pop in a stick of gum, they’re mimicking actions associated with eating, including chewing, tasting, salivating, and swallowing. This type of stimulation helps temporarily convince the stomach that it’s full.

  • Keep Busy

During the day, we have work or school to keep our minds distracted and off of food. What happens when you get home? Your mind and body both settle down to relax. You sit down in front of the TV or computer and chill. That change in environment allows your mind to turn to food, leading to increased cravings and the likelihood to give in. You can still choose relaxing activities like drawing, reading, or socializing with friends to help get your mind off food.

  • Reduce Temptations as Much As Possible

In another article, I will discuss the role of our food environment in our eating choices. However, while I do recognize that you cannot completely eliminate the temptations, taking steps such as removing high-calorie foods from the kitchen and pantry, stocking up on healthy options, taking a different route home, and more can go a long way in ensuring that you are making the right decisions.

  • Eliminate Decision Making

It’s been estimated that the decision making part of your brain has to make over 200 food-related decisions per day. If you take all of the mental work out of eating—no prep, no more thinking about what’s for dinner—it makes it a lot easier to fall prey to cravings that come up. This is one of the reasons why meal prep is such a big asset, and diets that tend to eliminate rather than manage entire food groups—things like Bright Line eating— are so popular. You don’t have to think, you just execute.

  • Listen to Your Body

We talked about all the reasons we eat (joy, stress, social cues, etc.), but plugging into your body’s signals can help you recognize what’s happening in the moment. Do you have physical signs of hunger, such as a growling stomach or an empty feeling in your belly? Are you bored? Uncomfortable? When you’re attentive, you can uncover some of the feelings that are present and notice when you’re eating because you’re physically hungry and when something else may be overriding your body’s own hunger and fullness signals.

  • Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

Sometimes we eat to blunt uncomfortable feelings. Remember, we want bad feelings to disappear, and a quick and easy way to usher in some good feelings is to eat highly rewarding foods. But forcing our feelings off to the side doesn’t really address them. Observe your emotions without reacting to them, which can put you in a better frame of mind to cope with your emotions. This awareness will also help you reduce the urge to distract yourself with food.

  • Develop More Helpful Habits and Rewards

It’s unrealistic to think that you will never eat for reasons other than hunger, and there may be times when you want to eat simply for pure pleasure or to soothe your soul. But often, another habit may be more healthful and helpful in the long run.

Conclusion

Hunger is a natural bodily cue that we all deal with. Whether we are on a diet or just have to fight the temptation of our food environment, hunger is often a part of our daily life. Sometimes it can be helpful (as in when we are looking to gain weight), but most of the time, it is something that people fear. Much of the discussion here has revolved around weight loss because that is the realm where hunger is most directly in opposition to your goals. However, learning about hunger and how to manage it will also help you improve the quality of your diet for a variety of goals, including fueling your training and optimizing your diet for recovery. My hope with this article is that you start to implement some of these strategies to reach your goals and improve adherence to your overall nutrition plan.

References

[1] Fiselt, A.-K. (2019). How the Brain Controls Eating Behavior. Monthly Applications in Strength Sport, 3(12). Retrieved from https://www.massmember.com/products/mass-subscription/categories/1937978/posts/6502929

[2] Dorling, J., Broom, D. R., Burns, S. F., Clayton, D. J., Deighton, K., James, L. J., … & Stensel, D. J. (2018). Acute and chronic effects of exercise on appetite, energy intake, and appetite-related hormones: the modulating effect of adiposity, sex, and habitual physical activity. Nutrients, 10(9), 1140.

[3] Marciani, L., Cox, E. F., Pritchard, S. E., Major, G., Hoad, C. L., Mellows, M., … & Spiller, R. C. (2015). Additive effects of gastric volumes and macronutrient composition on the sensation of postprandial fullness in humans. European journal of clinical nutrition, 69(3), 380-384.

[4] https://chuckgrossfitness.com/turn-up-the-volume/

[5] Rolls, B. J. (2017). Dietary energy density: Applying behavioural science to weight management. Nutrition bulletin, 42(3), 246-253.

[6] Holt, S. H., Brand Miller, J. C., Petocz, P., & Farmakalidis, E. (1995). A satiety index of common foods. European journal of clinical nutrition, 49(9), 675-690.

[7] https://medium.com/@jlnutrition91/satiety-444a0eeafa6d

[8] Mattes, R. D. (2010). Hunger and thirst: issues in measurement and prediction of eating and drinking. Physiology & behavior, 100(1), 22-32.

[9] Jeong, J. N. (2018). Effect of Pre-meal Water Consumption on Energy Intake and Satiety in Non-obese Young Adults. Clinical nutrition research, 7(4), 291-296.

[10] Leidy, H. J., Hoertel, H. A., Douglas, S. M., Higgins, K. A., & Shafer, R. S. (2015). A high‐protein breakfast prevents body fat gain, through reductions in daily intake and hunger, in “breakfast skipping” adolescents. Obesity, 23(9), 1761-1764.

[11] Ruddick‐Collins, L. C., Johnston, J. D., Morgan, P. J., & Johnstone, A. M. (2018). The Big Breakfast Study: Chrono‐nutrition influence on energy expenditure and bodyweight. Nutrition bulletin, 43(2), 174-183.

[12] Chowdhury, E. A., Richardson, J. D., Holman, G. D., Tsintzas, K., Thompson, D., & Betts, J. A. (2016). The causal role of breakfast in energy balance and health: a randomized controlled trial in obese adults. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 103(3), 747-756.

[13] LeCheminant, G. M., LeCheminant, J. D., Tucker, L. A., & Bailey, B. W. (2017). A randomized controlled trial to study the effects of breakfast on energy intake, physical activity, and body fat in women who are nonhabitual breakfast eaters. Appetite, 112, 44-51.

[14] Framson, C., Kristal, A. R., Schenk, J. M., Littman, A. J., Zeliadt, S., & Benitez, D. (2009). Development and validation of the mindful eating questionnaire. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(8), 1439-1444.

[15] Warren, J. M., Smith, N., & Ashwell, M. (2017). A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition research reviews, 30(2), 272-283.

[16] Warren, J. M., Smith, N., & Ashwell, M. (2017). A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition research reviews, 30(2), 272-283.

[17] St-Onge, M. P., Bormes, A., & Salazar, I. (2016). The role of sleep duration on energy balance: an update. Current nutrition reports, 5(4), 278-285.

I am going to check on whether we can use this image. Just FYI.

No problem. If not, we might be able to find something similar.

I’ll also check on using this chart. If we can’t, maybe I will create a separate one or list the top foods on the Satiety Index.

Sounds good.

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