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Hunger Games

Accelerate your gains, and your fat loss, by understanding why you get hungry — and how you can control it.

By Fred Duncan | Illustration by Adrià Fruitós


Start any diet, and you are going to get hungry. Very hungry. Even worse, hunger will come along at different times than you’re accustomed to, and it will be more intense than you’re ready to handle. In fact, it’s one of the primary reasons people quit on their nutritional plans before they see results. Hunger, by any measure, is no fun at all.

Whatever nutritional plan you decide to follow, you’ll have to lower your caloric intake at certain points if you want to reduce body fat. This creates what’s known as a caloric energy deficit. When you go this route, however, your body recognizes this decrease in energy, and it’ll respond by fighting you every step of the way. The best defense for this — and the best way to ensure lasting dietary success — is to develop a better understanding of why hunger occurs in the first place.

The Basics

Hunger is often confused with appetite, but they are two different, distinct concepts. Hunger is your need to eat, while appetite represents your desire to eat. When you crave a bowl of ice cream after a huge meal, you can chalk that up to desire, not necessity. With this in mind, when hunger starts working its black magic on your mindset, making quality food choices can become daunting challenges, often causing you to abandon sound eating habits in favor of simply feeling better in the short-term.

The act of eating is more complex than you’ve been led to believe. From your taste receptors down to the chemicals and hormones that influence satiety, desire and food intake, your body keeps very close tabs on your energy levels. Human beings are designed for survival. Because of this, our brain is constantly communicating with our body to make sure we have enough energy available.

Thousands of years ago, when there wasn’t a Wendy’s on every corner, humans were forced to endure relatively long stretches of famine. As a result, storing fat — or energy — became a protective mechanism that helped us survive these periods when food intake was low or nonexistent. Our bodies used fat as an energy reservoir that we drew from in order to survive until the next meal came along. This happened with such regularity that the human brain became hard-wired to seek out high-energy food. That’s why you occasionally can’t turn down that plate of French fries.

Hormonal Issues

When you lose fat or reduce calories, your body tries to get your attention by boosting hunger. When you start a new diet, ghrelin — the body’s main hunger hormone — will be secreted, signaling hunger to your brain. As you decrease body fat and adjust your caloric intake, leptin — a hormone secreted from fat cells — will do the same. A decrease in leptin will slow your metabolism and work to increase your food intake. At this point, your body is worried about two things: conserving energy, and making sure it gets more.

After you eat a meal, leptin increases, and it should signal fullness to your brain. At the same time, ghrelin will be reduced, and the feeling of hunger should subside. Obese people can experience a condition called leptin resistance. When this happens, leptin is elevated, but it can’t elicit that feeling of fullness. This leads to more food and eventually to overeating and weight gain.

In a recent study, 14 male bodybuilders underwent a 10-week “weight reduction” period for an upcoming competition. Within the first six weeks of dieting, researchers noted a 27.7 percent decrease in leptin, along with a 20.4 percent increase in ghrelin. These are significant changes that would make anyone’s dieting process more difficult. Knowing how this works, however, will help you mentally prepare for any new diet. Follow this five-point plan to keep your nutrition on track.

Eat Less Often

Yes, when you limit calories, hunger increases, but this doesn’t contradict the aforementioned advice. First, the concept of eating small, frequent meals to speed up the human metabolism, while taken as gospel by some, has not proven out for everyone. At least one study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that subjects who ate two large meals a day experienced greater fat and carbohydrate metabolism than those who engaged in smaller, more frequent feedings. Second, the more frequently you eat, the more often you’ll experience the feeling of hunger.

Your internal clock — or circadian rhythm — keeps your entire system on a tight schedule. This clock determines when your body will release certain hormones. When you increase the frequency with which you eat, your clock picks up on this routine and starts anticipating meals based on the intervals you’ve created for yourself. If you eat breakfast every morning at 8 a.m., you’ll feel hunger pangs if you skip it. This is a conditioned response. Some research has even shown that frequent eating can also lead to unstable levels of ghrelin, further impeding your ability to regulate hunger.

If you eat less frequently, you’ll be able to enjoy larger meals. For most people, larger meals do a better job of signaling fullness than smaller ones. If you can fit all of your daily calorie and macronutrient needs into three meals, why wouldn’t you?

Change It Up

It’s crucial to learn everything you can about the relationship between your brain and the foods you eat. When you eat, you’re influencing the mesolimbic system — the brain’s “reward center.” This system directly affects a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which plays a huge role in emotional response, pleasure and desire. The more palatable your food, the better you’ll feel. This is why you seek out comfort foods when you’re under intense stress.

Taste is one of the primary drivers of food ingestion, so your cravings will likely favor flavorful options. Fast-food restaurants and food producers are constantly researching ways to make food more addictive to consumers. This includes extensive study of food temperature, crunch level, ability to melt and combinations of fat and sugar. All of these factors play a role in your brain’s response to food.

Your brain loves novelty, especially when it comes to your food choices. Different combinations of food will make your dieting process less torturous — and your meals will be more satiating and enjoyable as a result.

Make Better Food Choices

Certain foods regulate fullness better than others. Protein, for example, does an excellent job of filling you up. That’s why it’s a lot harder to eat 1,000 calories of chicken breast than it is to finish off a small tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

The whole-food sources you should be eating will generally have high satiety ratings. Foods such as oatmeal, potatoes, Ezekiel bread, salad, apples, beef, eggs and chicken are all great examples of nutritious, muscle-building foods that will satisfy your hunger. Conversely, high-glycemic carbohydrates fall at the opposite end of the spectrum, doing a very poor job of keeping you full.

Your best plan is to follow a flexible dietary approach. When you overly restrict anything, it’s human nature to crave it. Super-strict diets have very poor adherence rates, often resulting in participants either giving up or developing unhealthy relationships with food. Allow yourself some freedom and understand that small deviations from your plan won’t totally derail you.

Get Proper Supplementation

In addition to high-quality whole-food sources, several supplements can help keep hunger at bay. Fiber, whether from food or in supplement form, helps to control insulin and slow digestion, which in turn helps signal a feeling of fullness to the brain.

If you’re struggling to eat enough fibrous vegetables, add 2 grams of psyllium husk powder to your meals for added fiber. This also helps with carbohydrate meals when you’re trying to keep your blood glucose levels under control.

EGCG (found in green tea extract), guar gum and caffeine have also shown promising research results in terms of appetite suppression.

Put Up Or Shut Up

Gaining massive amounts of muscle is hard, but so is following the proper nutritional recommendations while limiting the amount of fat you gain. If this were an easy process, everybody would be ripped. The next time you’re at your local gym, look around at all the familiar faces and physiques, and note all the guys whose bodies haven’t changed in years. This is what you want to avoid — and the way to do that is to learn to control your hunger.

No matter how sound your nutritional programming happens to be, you’re bound to experience hunger. It’s a natural byproduct of consuming less energy than you’re burning. Managing hunger is a critical component to any successful plan. Maintain your motivation and discipline by employing these strategies for dealing with the mental aspects of hunger, and you’ll experience astounding results.