51: Understanding and Mastering Hunger

Feb 05, 2024

“I feel hungry all the time” or “I just can’t control my cravings!” It’s a complaint that nearly always crops up as people get further into their journeys working on their health: hunger and cravings. 

There’s no denying that this is a frustrating part of the journey. But it’s also not your fault. Eating a healthier diet isn’t just about willpower or self-discipline; there are powerful biological forces at play governing how hungry you feel.

So today, join me as I uncover the reasons why our brains tend to fight us when we start releasing weight, the practical ways you can start tuning in to your body’s hunger signals, and two key strategies to keep hunger at bay.

Early Stages of Weight Loss

When you first embark on a health journey, the initial stages may seem deceptively “easy”, especially if you are focusing your nutrition around ample protein, fiber-rich foods, and balanced meals. This is because the body hasn't yet experienced the full force of hormonal shifts, particularly the rise in ghrelin—the notorious “hunger hormone”.

However, as you get a bit further into your journey, especially if you’re utilizing anti-obesity medications, hunger levels are probably going to rise. Although anti-obesity medications are designed to temper appetite, they can only do so much for a limited duration. We can't just increase the dose to infinity. So when you’re faced with this new level of hunger, the challenge is not to panic, but to understand that the body's response to weight loss is a natural, physiological process.

Understanding the Physiology: Ghrelin and the Weight Set Point

Ghrelin, the hunger hormone, becomes increasingly active as the body releases weight. It triggers an alert in our ancient brain, signaling a potential threat of famine. This primal response is ingrained in our biology, making hunger a normal and expected part of the weight loss process.

Studies suggest that maintaining a new weight set point for about a year is often necessary for ghrelin levels to normalize. Regardless of where you started with your weight set point, the body always panics and interprets weight loss as an emergency, intensifying the hunger. 

And so the first step is to simply recognize this physiological reality so that you can have more compassion and avoid the negative thought spirals like “I'm going to make bad decisions and then I’ll never keep the weight off.” Instead, you can get into a more problem-solving mode of what to do if you know this is what’s happening.

Early vs. Late Hunger: A Crucial Distinction

To effectively manage hunger, it's vital to distinguish between early and late hunger. Early hunger manifests as subtle cues—maybe a slight rumble in the stomach, a hollow feeling, or a sense of weakness. Recognizing these signals allows for proactive decision-making.

Late hunger, on the other hand, is the point of urgency, often accompanied by mood changes, low energy, and the infamous "hangry" state. Making informed choices becomes particularly challenging when you’re in this heightened state. Therefore, a key strategy is to tune into early hunger, and allow for measured responses that avoid the pitfalls of late hunger.

Physical vs. Emotional Hunger: Decoding Urges

Another layer to the hunger puzzle is discerning between physical and emotional hunger. Physical hunger originates from the body's signals, while emotional hunger tends to be more specific and urgent, often craving particular foods. To differentiate, consider if a simple, bland item like a hard-boiled egg or a cheese stick would satiate the hunger. If so, it's likely physical hunger.

However, acknowledging emotional hunger requires compassion. Emotional eating is a complex interplay of learned behaviors, genetics, and societal influences. Progressing through the stages of awareness, from recognizing the behavior to ultimately forming new habits, is a gradual and often challenging process.

Practical Strategies: Tuning into Hunger Signals

To develop a deeper connection with hunger signals, consider a practical approach. Regularly check in with your body's cues, perhaps every hour, to understand the subtleties of hunger throughout the day. Note the sensations and gradually build a comprehensive understanding of your unique hunger signals.

A helpful exercise is to identify multiple cues—even up to ten different ones—that signify the onset of hunger. This heightened awareness can guide you in making more informed decisions when hunger strikes.

And if you're someone that really struggles with this, the book Words to Eat By shares some really good questions to ask yourself before, during, and after eating. 

Delay, Don't Deny: A Strategy for Emotional Hunger

One approach to managing emotional hunger is the "Delay, Don't Deny" strategy. It involves delaying the consumption of the foods you’re craving and instead, incorporating nourishing foods like protein and fiber. This not only stabilizes blood sugar but also disrupts the binge-restrict cycle, fostering a healthier relationship with food.

Delaying the urge can be complemented by engaging in different activities or leaving the immediate physical environment. Distraction often plays a crucial role in breaking the cycle of emotional hunger, allowing the urges to naturally dissipate.

The journey of managing hunger is an intricate process that demands self-awareness, compassion, and strategic decision-making. Recognizing hunger as a natural response to weight loss, understanding its various stages, and arming yourself with practical strategies will help to overcome the hunger hurdle on your path to a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.