One of the hardest parts about being on a weight loss diet is feeling hungry all the time. Regardless of which diet we choose, that feeling of hunger always seems be present, and it sucks.
It makes us moody, cranky, frustrated, annoyed, irritable, distracted and other wonderful things that make the people in our lives really love being around us. 😉
But, worst of all, it makes us hate the diet we’re trying to stick to. And when that happens, we become much less likely to actually stick to it and much more likely to A) stray from it, B) eat things we weren’t intending to eat and/or eat more than we were intending to eat, and C) fail to reach the goals we’ve set out to reach.
In this guide, I’m going to show you the biggest causes of hunger (especially while on a weight loss diet), help you figure out why you’re always hungry all the time, and lay out exactly what you need to do to minimize or prevent it.
What Makes Us Hungry: The 6 Categories
There are MANY different reasons why people feel hungry, and that list grows even longer when a weight loss diet enters the equation.
The thing is, though, most of these reasons can be classified into just six main categories. They are…
- Underlying health issues.
- Lifestyle factors.
- The fact that you’re on a weight loss diet.
- The approach of your weight loss diet.
- Hormonal adaptations to your diet (aka, your body fights back).
- Basic diet mistakes.
Let’s go through each of these, starting at the top…
1. Underlying Health Issues
This is going to be the one that I’ll be spending the least amount of time talking about, even though it’s the most “serious” of all the causes we’re going to be discussing.
Why is this, you ask? Two reasons.
- First, because I’m not a doctor, and a doctor is the only person truly qualified to help you with this one.
- Second, because the vast majority of people wondering why they are always hungry all the time will most often find one of the other categories on this list to contain their answer. Meaning, comparatively speaking, this is the rarest cause of them all.
Having said that, I still need to mention that some people may indeed have a more serious underlying cause for the hunger they are experiencing (diabetes would be one example of this), especially in cases where there are other symptoms accompanying it.
I have nothing more to add here other than to see a doctor and get everything checked out if you suspect this might be the case. Moving on…
2. Lifestyle Factors
In this category, we have factors that revolve around the way you go about your everyday life. Things you do, things you don’t do, and the way you do the things you do. #doodoo
Here are the most common examples of the types of lifestyle factors I’m talking about, along with how they can affect your level of hunger…
- You’re Not Sleeping Enough
Sleep deprivation is widely associated with weight gain because it decreases leptin and increases ghrelin (source), which are the hormones that regulate hunger (more about them a bit later). For this reason, insufficient sleep is capable of making you feel hungry, thus making you more likely to overeat and gain weight.
- You’re Always Looking At Food
Do you spend a bunch of time watching the Food Network? Or watching a lot of food-based reality shows (people racing to a build a house out of cupcakes or some such nonsense)? Or staring at your Instagram feed where people are posting 12,000 pictures of their food all day long? Well, not surprisingly, this big of a visual focus on food will increase your appetite and make you hungry. Just like how spending a bunch of time staring at “other things” will increase your desire for… well… “other things.” Out of sight, out of mind. Or something like that.
- You’re Always Around Food
Are you a cook? A chef? A baker? Do you work in a restaurant or any type of place that makes or sells food? Well, in yet another unsurprising turn of events, literally touching, smelling, preparing, making, handling, serving and selling food for a significant portion of the day is also capable of making you hungry. I actually hear from people fitting this description quite a bit, and they all tell me how hard it is to be around food without wanting to eat it.
- You Deviate From Your Usual Meal Structure And Eating Pattern
Here’s an example. Let’s pretend you eat breakfast every day. You’ve done so for weeks, months, years… maybe even decades. Eating breakfast is part of your normal and preferred pattern of eating. But then, one day, you happen to be running late for work or school, and you don’t have time for breakfast. So, you skip it. And what happens when you break from the way you usually eat? You find that you feel hungrier than usual.
- You Keep Trigger Foods Around
Are there any foods that you crave more than others? Foods that you are unable to eat in moderation? Foods that cause you to lose your self-control? Foods that make it extremely easy for you to overeat? These would be your “trigger foods,” and if you buy them and keep them around you, just the knowledge that they are there and available to you is enough to increase appetite.
- You’re Stressed/Emotional
This one is a little different. “Stress eating,” while certainly a real thing, is not technically a true cause of hunger. Rather, you’re eating to make yourself feel better about non-hunger related things (e.g. you’re stressed, sad, mad, lonely, depressed, tired, nervous, anxious, etc.), or to cope with non-hunger related things, and not because you’re physically hungry. However, to be as complete as possible, I’m going to include it here anyway. Along with…
- You’re Bored
Similar to the previous point, this is another one that doesn’t really qualify as a true cause of hunger. You’re eating because you’re bored, not because of a physical feeling of hunger.
- It’s Part Of Your Routine
Here’s another one in the same vein as the previous two. A common example would be snacking while watching TV. You’re usually not doing it because you’re legitimately hungry. You’re usually just doing it out of habit. Meaning, snacking is simply a part of your TV watching routine. If you attempt to watch TV without eating, you’ll probably feel like something is missing. Even if it’s just because you’re hands aren’t doing anything.
3. You’re On A Weight Loss Diet
Which means, you’re always going to have to restrict some aspect of your diet in order to make fat loss happen.
Which means, you’re going to have to eat less than you currently do.
Which means, you’re going to have to eat less than the amount you have physically, mentally and behaviorally become accustomed to eating.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
Basically, the simple act of “going on a diet” and eating less for the purpose of losing weight is going to result in at least some small degree of hunger.
That’s just the nature of weight loss and the energy deficit it entails.
Of course, the exact degree of hunger felt on a weight loss diet can vary significantly from person to person, diet to diet, and situation to situation. For example, some people experience extreme hunger pretty much all the time, while others barely have any issues at all.
While a lot of this difference comes down to stuff like body fat percentage (someone at lower levels of body fat will typically have more issues with hunger than someone at higher levels) and how long the person has been on the diet (hunger is typically less of a problem early on, and more of a problem as time goes by), a lot of it comes down to the specific method and approach that the chosen weight loss diet employs.
What kind of stuff am I referring to here, you ask? Well, that brings us to category #4…
4. The Approach Of Your Weight Loss Diet
When it comes to losing weight, some people approach their diet in a manner that is equally ideal for fat loss progress, muscle retention, overall health, and the short and long term sustainability of the diet.
Others, on the other hand, approach their diet in a manner that is the complete opposite of this.
And others fall somewhere in between the two.
Basically, there are ways you can approach your weight loss plan – things you can do, things you can avoid, adjustments you can make, etc. – that will make every aspect of successfully reaching your weight loss goal (and permanently maintaining it) as quick and easy as it can realistically be.
In fact, I wrote an entire book explaining exactly how to do that: Superior Fat Loss
But then there are weight loss diets, methods and approaches that do the opposite. Or perhaps diets that will sacrifice something important (e.g. muscle retention, health, sustainability, ease, simplicity, etc.) for the sake of something else (e.g. losing weight extra fast, adhering to some unnecessary myth-based nonsense, appearing special and unique, etc.).
And this is where the degree of hunger experienced on a diet can be greatly affected.
Here now are the 3 most common examples of exactly what I mean…
1. Your Approach To Calorie Intake/Deficit Size
Let’s pretend some example person had a maintenance level of 2500 calories, and they wanted to create a commonly-recommended “moderate” deficit of 20%. This means they’d need to eat 2000 calories per day to lose weight. Cool.
But now let’s say this same person decides to eat 1200 calories per day instead. Why? Because they “want to lose weight really fast!!!” or whatever.
So, instead of having a moderate deficit and eating 500 fewer calories (2000 per day), they have what most would consider in this specific case for this specific person to be an excessively large deficit that requires eating 1300 fewer calories (1200 per day).
That’s a 500 calorie deficit (2000 calories eaten per day) VS a 1300 calorie deficit (1200 calories eaten per day).
Now, let me ask you a very simple question. Which of these two scenarios do you think will make this person hungrier? The more moderate approach that allows them to eat a lot more food while still making acceptable progress? Or the approach that involves a much larger deficit which results in an unnecessarily low calorie/food intake?
If you said the second one, you’d be right. (Additional details here: Am I Not Eating Enough Calories?)
2. Your Approach To Meal Timing/Frequency
I have two examples for this one.
- First, let’s pretend you prefer eating breakfast and find that a more balanced eating schedule helps you stay fuller throughout the day. But, you’ve chosen a weight loss diet that involves some form of intermittent fasting (IF), which requires you to skip breakfast and not have your first meal until much later on. Guess what’s going to happen? Yup, you’re gonna be more hungry than you’re used to being.
- Second example… let’s pretend you are able to stay fuller throughout the day when you eat 3 large, satisfying meals. However, you’ve chosen a weight loss diet that requires you to eat 5-6 small meals per day (once every 2-3 hours) instead. Guess what’s going to happen? Yup, you’re going to be hungrier than you would have been when using the first approach.
3. Your Approach To (Unnecessary) Food Restrictions
Like I mentioned before, every effective weight loss diet will always involve restricting something.
However, even though it’s only total calories that truly need to be restricted (and only to a fairly moderate degree), many diets restrict other things instead… often to a very excessive degree.
One common example would be low carb and keto diets, where carbs (not calories) are restricted… often to a very excessive degree.
Now, ignoring the fact that it’s calories (and not carbs) that dictate fat loss and fat gain (and, by the way, these types of diets only work because they get you to eat fewer calories… full details here: How The Low Carb Diet Really Works For Weight Loss), what do you think will make a person hungrier… especially a person who enjoys eating carbs (which most people do):
A) Eating at a moderate caloric deficit and getting their daily calories from a good balance of protein, fat AND carbs so that nothing is overly or unnecessarily restricted?
B) Greatly restricting/completely eliminating an entire food group from their diet (unnecessarily, I might add), which just so happens to be a food group they enjoy and want to be able to eat?
And this doesn’t only apply to low carb/keto diets, by the way.
It applies just the same to every single weight loss diet and dietary approach in existence that is based on doing anything besides simply eating slightly fewer calories.
- Low carb/keto.
- Low fat.
- Gluten free.
- 100% clean eating.
- And on and on and on.
Any diet that greatly restricts or completely eliminates entire foods/food groups that you enjoy eating and would prefer to continue eating to some extent (and CAN continue eating to some extent) is likely to only increase your cravings for those “not allowed” foods.
No, this may not be the case for everyone. But, it is the case for many.
This is a big part of why my Superior Fat Loss program doesn’t have a single “not allowed” food. It’s all about balance rather than unnecessary rules and excessive restrictions.
5. Hormonal Adaptations To Your Diet (Your Body Fights Back)
At this point, we’ve talked about how the simple act of “being on a weight loss diet” is likely to make you hungry to some degree, and how the specifics of the diet itself play a large role in exactly what degree of hunger is experienced.
Now we have something a little different. It certainly overlaps with the stuff we’ve already covered, but it’s still a separate thing of its own.
And that is the hormonal adaptations to dieting and the fact that your body fights back against your attempt to lose weight.
This is a topic I cover in, great, great, GREAT detail throughout Superior Fat Loss, so I’m not even going to attempt to cover it all here.
But I will say this.
Your body is unable to tell the difference between you eating less because you’re trying to get lean and look awesome, or because you’re starving to death.
So, to be safe, it responds by doing everything it can to “fight back” and prevent you from losing weight. (No, this is not “starvation mode.” This is more accurately described as the starvation response.)
Two of the many ways your body does this is by decreasing leptin and increasing ghrelin. You may remember these two hormones from earlier when I briefly mentioned them and told you I’d provide more details a little later.
Well, it’s later. Here are those details…
1. Leptin Decreases
Leptin, nicknamed the “satiety hormone,” is one of the hormones responsible for regulating hunger and body weight.
It is created and released primarily from within your fat cells, and serves the role of being a sort of “message carrier” between your fat cells and your brain.
What kind of messages is it sending, you ask? Well, the main jobs of leptin are to tell your brain how much body fat you have, how much you’re eating, and send the signal that you’re full when you are full. As it turns out, the fatter you are and/or the more you’re eating, the higher your leptin levels are (because you’re perceived as being in a sufficiently fed or overfed state).
But the leaner you are and/or the less you’re eating, the lower your leptin levels are (because you’re perceived as being in an underfed state).
Why does this matter to us? Because a caloric deficit qualifies as an underfed state, which causes leptin to decrease. And when leptin decreases, a signal is sent to your brain that tells it you need more food.
How does your brain respond to this signal? By making you hungry, thus causing you to eat more food.
Which is all to say that when leptin decreases, hunger increases. It’s a significant contributor to what makes you hungry enough to want to eat more than you’re supposed to be eating while on a weight loss diet.
2. Ghrelin Increases
Ghrelin, nicknamed the “hunger hormone,” is another hormone responsible for regulating hunger (among other things), and kinda works the opposite of leptin.
Meaning, when leptin decreases, ghrelin increases… partly in response to that decrease in leptin.
Basically, ghrelin is the hormone that stimulates hunger. It goes up right before you eat a meal (when your stomach is empty and you feel hungry), and drops soon after (when your stomach is full and you’re no longer hungry).
But guess what happens when you’re in a caloric deficit and losing fat? Baseline levels of ghrelin increase and continue to increase the longer you remain in this state.
Why? To make you hungry enough to eat more. Why? So you get out of this calorie deficient fat-loss-causing state as soon as possible.
What Does This Mean To You?
A few things…
- First, a deficit is a requirement for losing weight, and a deficit is always going to cause leptin to go down and ghrelin to go up. These hormonal adaptations are two of the biggest reasons for why you feel hungry all the time while trying to lose weight.
- Second, the longer you’re in a deficit, the more significant this is all going to be.
- Third, the larger your deficit is, the more significant this is all going to be.
- Fourth, the leaner you get, the more significant this is all going to be.
Once again, Superior Fat Loss covers all of this in way more detail.
6. Diet Mistakes
Last but not least, let’s talk about mistakes commonly being made within a person’s diet that will lead to increased hunger.
Technically speaking, some of what we’ve already covered in this article can also fit into this “diet mistakes” category. For example, excessively large deficits, unnecessary restrictions and improper meal frequency/timing can all be considered “mistakes.”
However, rather than cover all of those topics again, I just wanted to briefly mention them now so we can move on to the mistakes we haven’t talked about yet.
So, without further ado, here are the biggest hunger-causing diet mistakes of all…
1. You’re Not Eating Enough Protein
Out of all of the primary macronutrients (protein, fat and carbs), protein is BY FAR the most filling. In fact, its role in hunger control is among the most significant of all dietary factors (sources: here, here, here, here and here). This makes consuming a sufficient amount of it each day absolutely crucial from a satiety standpoint (not to mention, the many other important benefits it provides).
So, how much protein should you eat per day to maximize these benefits? 0.8 – 1.3g of protein per pound of your current body weight is the ideal range for people looking to build muscle, lose fat and/or preserve muscle while losing fat. Those who are significantly overweight should use their goal body weight when doing this calculation.
2. You’re Not Eating Enough Fiber
Like protein, fiber is a nutrient that plays a huge roll in controlling hunger (sources: here, here, here, here and here). It provides “bulk” within your stomach, which increases how physically full your stomach is (and the more physically full your stomach is, the more physically and mentally full you will feel). In addition, fiber helps to slow the digestion of the foods and meals we eat, which increases how long we stay full after eating them.
So, how much should you eat? Most recommendations fall somewhere within 12-17 grams of fiber per day for every 1000 calories you eat.
3. You’re Not Eating Protein/Fiber In Every Meal
While your total daily intake of protein and fiber is most important, how you structure that total intake out over the course of the day can have positive effects on hunger as well. Specifically, try to include a meaningful amount of protein and fiber in every meal. By doing so, each meal will become significantly more filling.
4. You’re Not Eating Enough Fat
Like fiber, fat also improves satiety because of its ability to slow the digestion of a food/meal and the absorption of glucose into the blood stream. How much should you eat? Getting between 20-30% of your total daily calorie intake from fat tends to be the ideal range for most people.
5. You’re Not Drinking Enough Water
Everyone knows drinking water is “good for you,” and one of those “good for you” reasons is the fact that water promotes fullness (sources: here, here, here, here and here). For this reason, consuming a sufficient amount of water each day – especially before, during and after meals – is recommended for hunger control thanks to its ability to help make you fuller sooner and keep you fuller longer.
As for how much you should drink, that’s a fairly complicated topic with no completely perfect universal answer. 0.5-1 gallon of water per day is often ideal for most people, though.
6. You’re Not Eating Enough Vegetables
Remember before when I said fiber helps with hunger control? Do you also remember about 5 seconds ago when I said water helps with hunger control as well?
Well, guess what. Many vegetables just so happen to be high in both fiber AND water content, thus making them one of the most filling types of foods you can eat. This is why, despite being very low in calories, eating a nice-sized serving of vegetables will often produce a much greater physical feeling of fullness in a person’s stomach than a less-ideal meal that contains significantly more calories.
Eating 4-6 total servings of vegetables and fruits per day is a good general guideline to aim for.
7. You’re Drinking Your Calories Instead Of Eating Them
Imagine a sugary 500 calorie drink. Now imagine a balanced 500 calorie meal. Which one do you think will make you feel fuller and more satisfied afterward?
Is it the “liquid meal” that can be consumed in a couple of minutes and contains little to no nutritional value (e.g. no protein, no fiber, etc.), or the “solid food meal” that will take a good bit of time to thoroughly chew, savor, enjoy and swallow… with different textures and different tastes… containing a meaningful amount of various beneficial nutrients (e.g. protein, fiber, etc.)?
Which of these do you think will have the more ideal effect on how hungry you feel? Exactly.
This, combined with the fact that it’s significantly easier to (knowingly or unknowingly) over-consume liquid calories than solid food calories, is why drinking your calories is not recommended (and why drinking water is).
8. You’re Not Taking Diet Breaks, Using Refeeds, Or Cycling Your Calories
Earlier, I explained that leptin goes down and ghrelin goes up as a direct result of A) losing fat and getting leaner, and B) being in the caloric deficit required to make this happen.
I then explained that these hormonal adaptations are a HUGE reason for why you always feel so hungry while on a diet, and that this is magnified even further the leaner you get, the larger your deficit is, and the longer you stay in a deficit of any size.
Now, we can’t really do much about the fact that we’re getting leaner. That is the goal, after all. As for the size of the deficit, that is something we can adjust to a more moderate size.
But the last part – the length of time spent in a deficit – that’s a factor most people think they can’t do anything about. Why? Because we obviously need to stay in a deficit for as long as it takes to lose whatever amount of fat we need to lose.
However, those people would be wrong.
It Can Be Done
There are methods we can use to temporarily and strategically “pause” the deficit by eating more calories so that we return to our maintenance levels or even a small surplus. Why do this, you ask? Because when you come out of the deficit, your body thinks you are back to being in a “fed” state, so it reverses those hormonal adaptations. Meaning, leptin goes back up, ghrelin goes back down, and hunger significantly decreases.
So how do we make this happen?
One way is by using what’s referred to as a refeed day, which is a day of strategic/planned overeating. However, while a single refeed day does indeed have some benefits, it’s unlikely to be enough to have any truly meaningful impact on reversing the hormonal changes we’re trying to reverse. Multiple refeed days (aka calorie cycling) will be needed to make that happen.
But there’s actually something even better than that for this purpose. It’s called a diet break. This is essentially the same thing as a refeed day (you strategically eat enough to get out of the deficit), except instead of being a single day or a couple of days… a diet break lasts for 1-2 consecutive weeks.
And it’s this type of longer break that has been shown to have the most significant positive impact on not only reversing leptin and ghrelin, but also on reversing many of the other hormonal and metabolic adaptations that take place during the fat loss process (slower metabolism, lower testosterone, higher cortisol, etc. etc. etc.).
How To Do It
Getting into the full details of how to properly set up a diet break, or a refeed day, or a calorie cycling approach is something that would require an article of its own. But the good news is, I’ve already written an entire chapter that covers everything in Superior Fat Loss, including my specific recommendations for what I’ve found to work best. Feel free to check it out.
And That’s Why You’re Always So Hungry All The Time
So, what makes us hungry?
On very rare occasions, there is an underlying health issue present. If you ever suspect this to be the case, getting things checked out with your doctor will be the only way to know for sure.
But, in the vast majority of cases, you get overly hungry due to a variety of lifestyle factors, the fact that you’re on a weight loss diet, the approach and methods of your chosen weight loss diet, your body’s hormonal adaptations to your diet, or any number of common dietary mistakes.
Or, some combination thereof.
Fortunately, most of this stuff can be adjusted or improved in a way that significantly minimizes or completely prevents the hunger it causes.
Your next step is to use the information in this guide to make those adjustments and improvements.