15 Science-Backed Tips To Manage Hunger On A Diet
Updated: Jul 25
When it comes to being in a calorie deficit, one of the biggest things you will likely run into is hunger.
In fact, hunger is normal, and experiencing it is characteristic of being in a fat loss phase. Why this is so is because when you are in a calorie deficit, your hormone levels change, your leptin levels decrease, and your ghrelin levels increase.
This is your body’s way of seeking to maintain homeostasis.
What this means for your desire to lose weight is that you will need to fight past your body’s self-defense mechanisms, in other words you will generally be hungrier when you are dieting compared to when you’re not dieting.
So, if you are in a fat loss phase, and yet you are not hungry at all, something’s off. That said, if you are just starting out your diet or your fat loss phase, your level of hunger should not be unbearable to the point that you are simply unable to function- think, work, train, etc.
Something that is important to accept is that hunger is going to be something you will need to learn to manage, and this becomes more so - 1) the deeper in your fat loss phase you are, 2) the longer you are in a deficit, and 3) the deeper the deficit is.
Most clients who are chasing a physique goal are going to have to be in a fat loss phase sooner or later.
Hunger vs Appetite- What’s the difference?
Before I go any further, I think it’s also important to point out that there is a difference between hunger and appetite. Hunger is the biological need to eat something, whereas appetite is a psychological desire to eat something. Hunger cues typically arise when our ghrelin levels rise, or when blood sugar levels drop.
Whereas appetite can spike for many reasons such as poor sleep, high stress levels, social settings or being around trigger foods.
What we are looking at here in this article specifically are science-backed hacks to manage your hunger. Let’s get into it. 1. Keep Protein Intake High
You want to focus on keeping your protein intake high. A good range to shoot for will be between 30-40% of your daily calories from protein. Ideally you would want to include protein at every meal.
An easy way to make sure you do this is to build your meal around a lean protein source. You want to be aiming for a protein bolus of between 30-50g per meal. By splitting your protein intake evenly across your meals you will also be able to keep muscle protein synthesis rates high throughout the day.
The exact amount would differ depending on your protein goal and the number of meals you are having in a day. For example if your protein goal is 160g and you plan to have 4 meals, simply aim to have 40g of protein per meal. There are many benefits of keeping protein intake high during a fat loss phase. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient by far when compared to carbs and fat, a high-protein diet also increases leptin sensitivity, which makes you feel fuller and more satisfied. Protein also has a higher thermic effect of food (20-30%) compared to carbs (5-10%) and fat (0-3%), which means that for every 100 calories of protein that you are consuming, the net calorie intake is actually only between 70-80 calories, as our body uses 20-30% of the energy to digest, absorb and process the protein. Protein can also help maximally preserve lean mass, which is key when in a fat loss phase as we want to hold onto as much muscle as possible.
2. Eat More Low-Calorie, Voluminous foods
Next up, fill your diet with as much low-calorie density, voluminous foods as possible.
Typically foods that increase satiety contain a large amount of water, dietary fiber, and are high in protein.
Think of a huge bowl of romaine lettuce with cherry tomatoes, grilled chicken breast and a low calorie dressing.
The romaine lettuce and cherry tomatoes provide fiber and water content, and the chicken breasts provide extra satiation from the protein.
That’s a winner of a meal right there and very filling for how many calories it is!
Other simple examples that provide volume at very low calorie expense include apples, tomatoes, celery, romaine lettuce, kale, arugula, broccoli, brussel sprouts, asparagus, cauliflower, cucumbers.
Voluminous foods add bulk which stretches your stomach and triggers the stretch receptors in your stomach which signals to your brain indicating fullness and to stop eating.
The sheer size of the meal also helps mentally and psychologically when you are dieting!
3. Eat More Whole, Nutrient-Dense foods
You also want to be filling your diet with as much whole nutrient-dense foods as possible.
Whole foods such as complex carbs, vegetables, fruits, quality fat sources, lean meats fall into this category.
When you are in a calorie deficit, not only do you have less calories to consume, which undoubtedly increases hunger.
Eating less food also means your body is getting far less micronutrients, which may lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies- which makes it pertinent that you are prioritizing nutrient-dense foods.
Side note: This is also a good time to invest in a good multi-vitamin to cover your bases.
So often clients want to dive straight into a fat loss phase, but if their current food selection and eating habits are unconducive- it’s going to be an uphill battle. This is why making changes to your food selection is not something that should only start working on when you are entering a fat loss phase. Stop and read that again. Instead, food selection and nutrient density is a key factor all clients should be continually working on, but especially when you first come onboard. By making switches to your food selection and choices, you are easily able to get more mileage from your calories, and may even begin to experience relatively effortless fat loss at that point.
I personally believe food selection and the micronutrient density of our food intake is one of the biggest rocks in nutrition, alongside calories and macros.
It’s all too easy to focus on the quantity of our foods, but what we really need to ensure is that the quality is high as well. This is the true definition of flexible dieting.
4. Increase Fiber Intake
Piggy backing off the previous point, you want to make sure that you are keeping fiber intake high.
Fiber has a ton of benefits (check out this article I wrote on Fiber) that are key in a fat loss phase.
It adds bulk to your food which increases satiation, helping you feel fuller longer thus reducing your total intake as a result. It also slows digestion and helps regulate our blood sugar levels which can keep hunger and cravings at bay.
Aim for about 14g of fiber per 1000kcal you are eating. Fibrous vegetables like romaine lettuce, kale, zucchini, spinach, broccoli, bell peppers are a great choice.
This can easily be included daily through salads and stir fry's alongside a lean protein source.
5. Eat Less Processed Foods
You would also want to eat less processed foods when dieting, especially ultra-high processed foods.
Now there are of course great options of processed foods that provide good convenience for the calories and macros they offer- canned tuna, frozen vegetables, frozen berries, deli meats, protein powder.
So please don’t take this as a sweeping statement, it’s definitely not meant to be.
What I am saying generally speaking you would want to opt for less processed foods, particularly ultra high processed foods- sugary drinks, packet chips, cookies, candy bars, fast foods to name a few.
There was a study done on ultra-processed versus unprocessed foods, where participants were instructed to eat as much or as little as they desired, and what they found is that participants that ate the processed diet ate ~500 kcal more per day than the unprocessed diet. This increase in voluntary consumption was due to various reasons including that processed foods were typically eaten faster, they suppress appetite less, and require more calories to be consumed to achieve a similar protein and food mass, as compared to unprocessed foods.
Furthermore, TEF is lower in processed foods which also compounds the problem.
An interesting point I alluded to above, worth elaborating on, is the impact of protein leverage theory.
This theory basically hypothesizes that human beings will prioritize the consumption of protein in foods over other dietary components, like carbs and fat.
And we won’t stop eating until our protein needs have been met, even if that leads to overeating- mind blowing stuff.
This was displayed in the study above where it was found that for both groups, protein intake was similar despite one group eating considerably more calories.
This is also another case against processed foods which tend to be significantly lower in protein, and another vote for prioritizing protein intake.
6. Avoid High Glycemic Carb High GI carbs (70 or higher) are fast digesting and cause blood sugar levels to spike much quicker than low GI alternatives.
There is also research that links high GI foods with overeating and obesity.
This is particularly caused by the rapid absorption of glucose which induces a sequence of hormonal and metabolic changes that promote excessive food intake.
I want to point out here that while high GI carbs get all the hate, the truth is they are typically not consumed alone.
Take white rice for example, you aren’t usually just eating a plate of white rice.
You are likely having it with a serving of protein and veg. If that is the case, you need to evaluate the impact of the full meal in totality and not just the one high GI food item.
What I would say here is there will likely still be benefit from making simple switches to low GI alternatives, especially for foods that you tend to consume alone.
It is also obvious that most high GI foods also tend to be highly processed, high calorie, nutritionally bankrupt junk foods which are also low in fiber, so opting for alternatives is a smart play.
7. Don’t Drink your Calories
Next up is to make sure you aren’t drinking your calories.
Do not skip past this one. This is the easiest way to waste, or save your calories! What you want to do here is to simply switch the sweetened and calorie-filled drinks like juices, alcohol, soda, you are drinking currently to water, zero or lower calorie drinks options. This will easily peel back a few hundred calories daily.
Just imagine if you switched from a Venti Mocha Java chip to a nonfat Iced latte the 3 times you went to Starbucks a week, this alone you would have saved 1650 calories.
If you make this simple tradeoff alone, in slightly over two weeks, all else equal, you would have lost more than 1 pound of fat if we go by the generic rule that there is roughly 3500 calories in a pound of fat.
Pretty worth it I’d say. If you are wondering if artificially sweetened drinks are a possibility to meet your sweet fix, yes, they are a good alternative that can save you a ton of calories, especially if you drink things like soda on a regular basis.
Artificially sweetened drinks contain very low to sometimes zero calories, and allow you to achieve a calorie deficit and maintain it, which we all know is going to aid long-term fat loss.
While there is some concern about the unknown long-term health effects of artificial sweeteners, an important point to keep in mind is that the dose makes the poison.
Research shows that the amount of artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, stevia) that you would need to consume before reaching toxic levels is almost impossible to achieve via regular (and not ridiculous) food and drink consumption.
The acceptable daily intake for aspartame is 40mg/kg of bodyweight which for a 65kg individual would be 14 cans of diet coke.
Hopefully you aren’t downing that many cans on a daily basis!
So from the lens of getting through a short-term fat loss phase, diet drinks can definitely be a helpful aid.
There has also been some very interesting studies done on the impact of the physical state of food on hunger and satiation.
I really like this study because a lot of people who are getting into fitness and dieting tend to over rely on protein shakes.
I am all for it, but realize that you should primarily be trying to get your protein intake in from solid foods as much as possible and not use supplements as a crutch for poor food choices or lack of planning.
One study in particular split their participants into two groups, one ate a solid protein meal (steamed chicken breast + 750ml water) while the other group had a liquefied protein meal (steamed chicken breast blended in 500ml water + 250ml water).
What they found is that the solid protein group experienced a stronger suppression of hunger and desire to eat than the liquefied protein group.
So even if you are comparing two food items with the same macronutrient split, the solid food option is far more satiating than the liquid alternative.
Granted, it’s unlikely that you are blending your chicken breasts (if you are, that’s just gross).
The practical application here for the rest of the normal folk would be if you are having protein shakes currently to meet your protein goal, and still struggling with hunger and satiation- switch that to solid meals instead.
This point is straightforward so I don’t want to belabor it.
It is very clear in research that sleep deprivation can create hormonal imbalances which cause decreases in leptin levels and increases in ghrelin levels which leads to an increase in appetite and lower feelings of satiation.
Honestly, anecdotal evidence would also show you that on days when you are running on less sleep, you are a little hungry, maybe you crave different foods a little more, and you also have less self-control around your diet.
The solution is simple- get more sleep. Aim to get at least 7 hours a night of sleep.
9. Slow Down and Chew More
One of the main benefits to eating slower is that it gives your body time to recognize you are full before too much food is consumed.
In a study that was done at the University of Rhode, they had two groups of women eating a huge plate of tomato pasta with cheese and a glass of water.
They were instructed to eat to the point of comfortable fullness. One group was told to eat as quickly as possible, whereas the other was told to eat slowly and put their utensils down between bites.
Interestingly it was found that the group which ate slower, actually consumed 67 calories less and ate for 20 minutes longer.
Not only did this group eat less food, they also reported more long-lasting satisfaction after the meal, while the faster group reported greater hunger cues kicking in earlier.