Hunger isn’t the devil even though it’s made out to be. Hunger is completely normal and even encouraged!!
Hunger is your body’s way of telling you when to eat. It tells you when your blood sugar is low and you’re starting to experience potential catabolic (muscle breakdown) effects. It can be a sign of nutrient deficiency or malnourishment. Hunger essentially is your body’s way of maintaining homeostasis. In an ideal and perfect world, hunger—and the balance of the two main hormonal players—is what prevents both weight gain and weight loss.
Hunger is a balance between two hormones: ghrelin and leptin.
Ghrelin is your “hunger hormone”. It is primarily produced in the lining of your stomach. Ghrelin increases hunger. It is usually a sign that you’re energy expenditure is greater than your energy intake (meaning you’re burning more than you’re eating).
Leptin is the opposite. Leptin is the “satiety” hormone and is responsible for making you feel full after eating. Leptin is produced and made by fat cells (also called adipose cells/tissue). Leptin usually means that your energy expenditure is at or below your intake (meaning you’re burning roughly what you’re eating, less if you’re overeating).
For homeostasis (meaning just the norm), you have a balance of these two hormones. When you’re hungry and your body is in need of food, the stomach will produce ghrelin which will travel to the brain to send signals to eat food. This is important to maintain weight and not wither away. It protects energy levels, muscle composition, mood and stress, and organ function. When you’re full and don’t need food, ghrelin is suppressed and leptin is produced, following a similar but opposite mechanism. It’ll tell your body to not feed it to protect your body from weight gain. Evolutionarily, these two factors were essential for survival. Weight loss results in drop in strength and energy, worsening survival. Weight gain results in it’s own set of health problems and inefficiency to move and get around, also lowering chances of survival.
Hunger and Weight Management
Both hormones, regardless of where they’re produced and secreted in the body will send signals to your brain to give it information about your body’s current status quo. Increased ghrelin will tell your body “I’m hungry. Feed me.” Increased leptin will tell your body “I’m full. Don’t feed me.”
These hormones are essential for homeostasis, but also can be used or applied to weight loss and weight gain.
These two hormones are responsible for weight management. Leptin will be elevated to suppress food intake and promote weight loss. Leptin is found to be elevated in overweight individuals, most likely to promote a physiological state to lose weight. The opposite is seen in malnourished individuals. Ghrelin is produced to encourage food intake to gain healthy weight.
The beauty of these hormones is that we can use them to help us lose weight. It requires more practice listening and being in tune with your body but does take out the need for tracking calories and macros.
Simply trying to be a little less full (for a diet phase) or more full (for a gaining phase) will help you accomplish your goals.
In a diet phase, you’re going to be hungry. In fact, we want you to be hungry. If you are experiencing hunger, it’s a sign that your hormones are still functioning properly (will be talked about in more detail later) and you’re in an energy deficit (you’re burning more than you’re eating) which will trigger fat loss.
To lose weight and use hunger to monitor your progress:
Switch most of your daily food to fruits and fibrous veggies (instead of simple, processed carbs).
Eat 5-6 servings of protein/day, at least 1 serving at each meal.
Chew and eat slowly.
Eat to a 60-70% fullness.
Quit eating 2-3 bites before you think you should and wait 15 minutes.
These tricks will first and foremost provide you with more satiety but fewer calories. Assess at the end of each day. On a scale from 1-10 (1 being not hungry, 10 being starving), where are you? Do this daily and average them weekly. To lose weight, you want this number above 5, leaning to a 7-8. As you see a drop in hunger, that’s a sign you’re starting to adapt and will need to make an adjustment to keep losing weight. Here, you could bring intake down a degree more, add in some cardio, implement a quick refeed or diet break, or a number of other plateau-breaking strategies.
In a gaining phase, you’re going to be full. Again, we want this. You’re eating more than you’re burning and leptin is going to be elevated. This will provide weight gain. Now, this doesn’t mean to gorge out on food.
To gain weight and use hunger to monitor your progress:
Add in 1-2 servings of fats and carbs to each meal.
Add in a post-workout shake (carbs and protein).
Add in a meal during your day.
Eat to a 100-110% fullness.
These are ways to sneak in extra food, but not too much. You’ll follow the same method as with losing weight by recording and monitoring your hunger, but this time, we want the hunger to be below 5 and as we start to see it spike, making little additions to each meal.
When this doesn’t work
Unfortunately, in severe cases of starvation and obesity, and especially in today’s society, we see a disruption in the relationship between these two hormones, making weight management difficult. In obese individuals, we see a degree of hormone disruption and leptin-resistance in overweight people. Their bodies are producing leptin, but for some reason (still unknown), it’s not getting to the brain to tell you to stop eating. In individuals experiencing malnourishment or starvation, we see a disruption in ghrelin function, causing adaptation. I see this every day. New clients come to me eating 1000 calories and aren’t hungry in the slightest. In fact, most of my job during that first month is getting enough food in them to restart their hunger hormones and get them regulated again. If this is you, strongly consider working with an experienced coach who can help reset your hunger and get you eating more food!
The key with using hunger as a means to lose or gain weight is you have practice awareness and mindfulness. You need to slow down and be in tune with the food that’s going in your body. Shoveling food in thinking that’s going to get you where you need to be is pointless. There is no mindful way to lose weight successfully and track literally nothing. This is reserved for people who’ve dedicated years to this process and developing the awareness and intuition.
If you’re looking to develop awareness and intuition into your diet to reach your goal, consider hiring a coach to teach you how to break down these signals and processes. Sign up for your consultation here, completely free!