You’ve done it: You’ve set a realistic weight-loss goal, your workouts are humming along and you’ve got a solid, balanced nutrition plan in hand to get you the rest of the way to where you want to be. If it all works out in real life the way it does on paper, you’re on track to lose about a half pound a week.
There’s just one problem: You’re hungry. No, scratch that. You’re hangry.
According to research performed at Loyola University inChicago in 2013, two-thirds of Americans will say they are dieting at any point in the year. Yet only 20 percent of those dieters will succeed over the long haul. What’s up with that?
There are several reasons for dietary failure, including underestimating the number of calories consumed and overestimating the number of calories burned during exercise. But the first hurdle every dieter will face, regardless of other factors, is the same: hunger. How you go about clearing that hurdle has everything to do with your long-term success.
Almost everything you need to know about managing hunger can be summed up in a single word: satiety. “You never want to be completely empty or completely stuffed,” says Jessica Crandall, a Denver-based nutritionist with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Hunger leads to bad decisions.”
Fortunately, there are 10 things you can do to blunt the sharp edge of hunger — either when it strikes or by structuring your meals in a way that inhibits it from disrupting your life in the first place.
1. Start with salad
If you’re like 60 percent of the people in this country, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, you’re not eating enough leafy greens — which means you’re missing out on key nutrients vital to maintaining your health. Reverse the trend and stave off hunger at the same time by starting each meal with a small salad, suggests Maite Bueno, a 28-year-old female bodybuilder competing in the WBFF. The greens will help fill you up, adding lots of quality nutrients with very few calories. Just be sure to skip the high-fat condiments and dressings; stick with salt and pepper, lemon juice or vinegar instead. Your body, hair and skin will thank you for it later.
2. Try lemonade — with a kick
No, we’re not talking about vodka. (Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram and could threaten your diet.) We’re talking about spice: Combine 8 ounces of water, one packet of Truvia sweetener, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and one-eighth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper. NPC Figure competitor Ann Claiborne, who also trains a team of amateur physique athletes in Colorado, swears by it. “It tastes like spicy lemonade and works every time,” she says. “My whole team loves it.” She’s onto something: According to research published in the journal Physiology & Behavior in 2011, cayenne pepper isn’t just a natural appetite suppressant — half a teaspoon can actually help rev up your metabolism and cause you to burn 10 calories all by itself.
3. Pump up the volume
Include high-volume, low-calorie foods in meals and snacks, says Lisa Sheehan-Smith, a professor of nutrition and food science at Middle Tennessee State University. “These tend to be high in fiber and water, providing a feeling of fullness,” she explains. “Fiber increases the volume of food, but not the calorie density, and can suppress hunger.” For example, eat a medium apple (72 calories, 3 grams of fiber) instead of drinking a cup of apple juice (114 calories, no fiber).
4. Make friends with fiber
There’s a good reason that high-fiber foods comprise the bulk (pun fully intended) of successful Physique competitors’ diets. Take a cue from Bueno and Claiborne and make sure that the carbs in your diet come from whole-grain sources like brown rice, wheat bran and oatmeal. When consuming fruit, opt for pineapples, oranges or dates. San Diego State University researchers revealed that in a controlled study of adult women consuming various types of 238-calorie snacks — ranging from white bread to low-fat cookies — those who ate dried plums experienced the greatest satiety.
5. Get fat and happy
Good fats fight fat and help you feel fuller longer. Almonds are a natural appetite suppressant, Bueno says. Research published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013 supports her claim: Study subjects who snacked on 1.5 ounces of almonds a day ate less overall than other study subjects and didn’t put on weight. Another healthy fat, omega-3 — found in fish like salmon, tuna and herring — “increases your system’s leptin level,” Bueno explains. “This hormone is responsible for sending the message of satiety to the brain.”
6. Try the coffee cure
Researchers in Queensland, Australia, reported in 2013 that drinking three or four small cups of coffee per day appears to act as a natural appetite suppressant — and, like cayenne, caffeine also boosts metabolism. Be warned, however. We’re talking about three or four small cups of black coffee here, none of that “venti caramel macchiato” business. If you’re one of those people who believe coffee is the best vehicle for cream and sugar ever invented, go for tea instead. It’s comparable to coffee in terms of caffeine content and is available in a vast range of colors and flavors — all of which are high in antioxidants. Several studies suggest green tea and peppermint tea, in particular, can boost satiety and energy at the same time.
7. Skip the sugar
“Sugar intake promotes an insulin spike,” explains Lori Chong, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, “and when it falls, you will feel hungry.” This can quickly put you on a downward spiral because your brain sends signals seeking to maintain the sugar high — sending you straight to the pantry in search of more stimulation. Scientific research on the insulin effect is well-documented: A review of several studies, published in 2013 in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, suggests sugar is about as addictive as heroin or cocaine. Don’t become an addict.
8. Consider chemistry
Cravings for certain foods can be subdued with nutritional supplements, says Dr. James Greenblatt, chief medical officer of Walden Behavioral Care in Massachusetts and author of Answers to Appetite Control: New Hope for Binge Eating and Weight Management (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014). The best for curbing appetite are amino acids, which form the basis for the brain chemicals that signal hunger and satiety. “It’s best to start with a free-form amino-acid blend of all the essential amino acids,” Greenblatt says. “A free-form blend bypasses the digestion process and is easily absorbed by the body to be used in protein, neuropeptide and neurotransmitter synthesis. The blend of all the essential amino acids provides a foundation on which you can build a targeted treatment program.
“In addition, I recommend a combination of 5-HTP and phenylalanine. This combination increases [levels of the brain chemicals] serotonin, dopamine and [the hormone] cholecystokinin, providing a simple way to influence the complex pathways of neurotransmission and appetite. Often, these two amino acids, along with the blend of free-form amino acids, will be sufficient to help you control your appetite.”
Whether you take amino acids in pill or powder form, they’re best absorbed when taken between meals — either 30 minutes before or two hours after eating.
9. Power up or power down
Sometimes, all you need to get your mind off your stomach is the right distraction. Go for a walk; get some fresh air. “If you know it’s emotional hunger or boredom, get out of the food environment,” Crandall says. “I tell all my female clients, ‘Paint your nails because then you can’t touch food!’”
Better yet, turn off all the gadgets and get some quality sleep. A much-cited 2004 study examining more than 1,000 people in Wisconsin showed that inadequate sleep quickly leads to imbalance in the hormones ghrelin (which controls feelings of hunger) and leptin (which controls feelings of satiety). Those with disrupted sleep tend to have more hunger pangs and fewer feelings of satiety than others, which corresponds directly to a higher body mass index. Getting enough sleep on a daily basis is one of the single best things you can do for your overall health and well-being.
10. Exercise your mental muscle
The things we tell ourselves — whether silently or out loud — have a powerful influence over our emotions and behavior. If we constantly say things like, “I’m so hungry! I’ve gotta eat something before I die!” that’s exactly how we’ll feel every time the tummy rumbles.
On the other hand, if we listen to the rumble and say something like, “Good! That means I’m making progress with my weight loss,” or “This is nothing — my body is just adjusting to having a little less in the tank right now,” it won’t be nearly as stressful.
A craving typically lasts about 12 minutes, Crandall says. And if you can find a way to conquer that 12-minute window, you’ve developed a powerful tool that will set you up for long-term success. “It’s not easy,” she says. “If it was, everyone would be successful at it. I encourage all my clients to get support and know how to ask for it. Short-term temptations should not navigate you away from your long-term goal. Focus on the progress you’re making, and find the support you need to get through the challenge.”