Raise your hand if you can relate to the following scenario: It’s day 1 of your new diet. You’re excited, you’re motivated and you’re really ready this time. You’re following the guidelines to the letter. The morning wasn’t too bad though you ate your lunch a little early to silence your growling stomach. Now it’s mid-afternoon and you’re freaking starving. Everyone around you is eating and you might be crazy but you’re pretty sure all of a sudden you have a heightened sense of smell because you can almost TASTE that cookie your co-worker is enjoying three doors down. If she comes any closer, she’s gonna lose that cookie and her right arm. All you can think about is food. When can you eat next? What will you eat? All the things you can’t eat! What are you going to cook and bring to that BBQ three weeks and 4 days from now? Food. NOW.
Maybe you white-knuckle it and make it through the day. You wake up in the middle of the night hungry. You’re eating your breakfast while you make it. You start to question your ability to stick with it. Next thing you know, you’re frantically tearing through the pantry for anything with carbs. You’ve blown it. It’s over. You gave in; the hunger won.
That exact thing has happened to me a million times (though no co-workers were harmed in the making of my diet failures). I’ve got good news for you: it’s not your fault. Who can we blame? Hunger and the hormones that trigger it.
Here’s how it goes down: most diets have you eating fewer calories than you normally would. By nature then, even if it’s not a low-carb diet, you’re eating fewer carbs as well. So your baseline is fewer carbs and fewer calories. The almost immediate hormonal response is a decrease in the amount of insulin you produce and an increase in your sensitivity to it. Well that sounds like a good thing, right? It can be, except for the fact that a reduction in insulin production triggers hunger!! The good news is this: it’s not your lack of willpower causing you to fail, it’s that you haven’t yet been taught the tools to battle hunger, cut it off at the pass and balance the hormonal swings that trigger it.
In addition to insulin triggering our sensation of hunger, our body begins to produce even more hunger-stimulating hormones such as cortisol and ghrelin. Your body is fighting to keep you fat and hunger is a POWERFUL weapon.
Now, don’t confuse hunger with cravings. We’ll talk more about cravings later but we’re talking about true hunger here – that empty tummy grumbling physical sensation that makes it hard to focus on anything else.
Onto the practical stuff: how can you handle hunger and turn off those hormonal signals that are making your tummy growl so loud your neighbors think its thunder?
- Increase your intake of fat and protein. A fat loss diet does NOT need to be a low calorie diet. When you make the backbone of your diet lean proteins and non-starchy vegetables you can actually eat a tremendous volume of food and substantial number of calories while continuing to lose fat. Proteins and fat actually send messages to your body to hold off on releasing these hunger-stimulating hormones, so in addition to being able to eat more, your body is less likely to respond with hunger.
- Increase your intake of non-starchy vegetables. Here’s the great thing about these: they are very low calorie so you can eat a very high volume. When your stomach physically begins to stretch as it fills with food, this act of stretching signals your body not to release the hunger hormones. In fact, as your stomach fills with food it actually triggers the release of a hormone called leptin which signals your brain that you’re full and it’s time to stop eating. It’s not uncommon for me to eat 3 or more cups of green, leafy vegetables with my lunch and dinner.
- Don’t enter the carbohydrate cycle. When insulin is low and insulin sensitivity is high hunger sensations are triggered. Your body will actually crave carbohydrates because it wants to increase your blood sugar quickly. These cravings aren’t just in your head, it’s what your body is telling you it wants to fix the hunger problem. Don’t do it! It will make your hunger worse in the long run! Attack your hunger with lean protein, healthy fats or non-starchy vegetables. If you introduce carbohydrates out of desperation you are not only reducing the likelihood that you’ll be able to burn fat, but your blood sugar will peak and then drop, your insulin will rise and then fall and that triggers the cycle to begin again.
The hunger will come. Your body is trying to hang on to those fat stores just in case you need them. You now have tools to help you beat the hunger, avoid white-knuckling it and falling prey to compensation later and keep your body in fat-burning mode.