Welcome to the real hunger games - the act of cutting calories to lose weight quickly. Are you constantly thinking about food and desperately trying to reduce your calories without cravings? Do you want to learn how you can stick to a diet without feeling hungry all the time? Well, you've come to the right place. Below are the best, evidence-based strategies to help you drop a few pounds as painlessly as possible.
Why Am I Always Hungry?
When it comes to hunger, it is an inevitable part of decreasing your calories. But there is a difference between feeling starved and just a little hungry.
If your hunger level is getting to the point of severe discomfort and constant food obsession, you may not be eating enough. Yes, eating less is the most effective way to weight loss, but not eating enough is not only uncomfortable but may not help you lose more body fat in the long run. Very low-calorie diets often require drastic measures and do not establish habits that set you up for success after losing the weight. Not to mention, crash dieting can negatively affect your mood, energy levels, overall nutrition intake, and may cause you to lose more muscle mass (1,2,3,4).
Starving yourself is not the answer. Weight loss takes time and patience, you just need to trust the process. If you go about it the right way, results will come. And often times slower, more sustainable progress is more likely to stick and can be less painful overall.
Instead of cutting as many calories as possible, focus on the following:
- Eat the right amount of calories for you. Find the sweet spot (around a 15 to 20% calorie deficit) to promote steady weight loss.
- Pay attention to how you feel. If you are constantly thinking about food or uncomfortably hungry, you may be cutting calories too low. And if you are feeling stuffed all the time, you may be eating too much.
There's no reason dieting should mean skipping celebrations with friends or not eating foods you love. Get these RD and Chef approved tips to take the stress out of dieting.
How to Control Hunger for Weight Loss
While cutting calories may help you drop pounds fast, there are additional steps you can take to make your efforts feel a little more bearable and improve your chances for success. Sustainable, healthy weight loss is best achieved through small changes in diet and lifestyle. And learning what changes can make the biggest impact for you is key.
We took a look at the research and what works best for a lot of people and compiled these 12 simple steps to lose weight fast and keep it off:
Tip #1: Keep a Food Diary
Regardless of which type of diet you choose to follow, tracking your daily food intake is one of the best ways to ensure you are sticking to your calorie and macro goals. In one study, participants who logged their food intake lost twice as much weight as those who did not. And additional studies continue to find a link between self-monitoring your diet and weight loss (5).
Tracking your calories is also the easiest way to hold yourself accountable and give yourself daily confirmation that you are sticking to your diet. It’s also one of the best ways to see where you may want to consider making some changes.
I cannot stress this enough: If you aren't counting calories, losing weight is going to be pretty damn hard. You don't need to starve yourself, you just need to hit your calorie goals consistently. Get this part right and everything else becomes easier.
Most people fail at weight loss because they aren't consistent. They are either underestimating their intake, not measuring their portion sizes correctly, only tracking some days of the week, or just not tracking at all. The calorie equation is not a perfect model, but it's pretty close. So do your best to track as accurately and often as possible - especially if you are just getting started.
Tips for Better Tracking:
- Be precise. Use measuring cups or scales to get an accurate portion size.
- Include every single ingredient used - such as cooking oil, seasonings, and dressings.
- Use brand names or a barcode scanner.
- Track every food and drink, including cheat meals, small bites, and alcohol.
- Track every day, at least to start. This will allow you to see your weekly calorie average and know exactly how consistent you are being.
Do this for at least four weeks. After a while, calorie control becomes more inherent and your knowledge of nutrition increases, making sticking to your diet easier - even without a food log. But once you become a pro, still checking in with a tracking app every now and then can be a great refresher and an easy way to get back on course if needed.
Calories vs Macros
You can also choose to track macros instead of just calories - after all, macros are really just your calories organized into carbs, fat and protein intakes. This approach can help give you a leg up on overall diet balance and still maintain calorie control.
Most tracking apps will also calculate your calorie needs with a little bit of key information, like your weight, height, age and activity level. You can even opt for a “macro-friendly” app, like Trifecta, that allows you to quickly input and track your macros with premium features.
Want even more out of tracking?
You can also log your energy levels, mood and stress levels with each meal or day. This will give you great insight into how your diet is making you feel and how stress is potentially affecting your nutrition.
Tip #2: Eat a Healthy Breakfast
How often you eat or when you eat is likely not as strong of a factor in determining weight loss than how much you eat overall, but eating more of your calories earlier in the day may help curb appetite and improve your energy levels (6).
In other words, eating breakfast could help you lose more weight by reducing your hunger levels all day long. Numerous studies have associated breakfast with better daily calorie control (7,8,9). Especially when it comes to high protein breakfasts (10,11,12,13,14). It's no wonder why so many still claim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
But what if you aren't hungry in the morning?
If you're just not a breakfast person, don't feel the need to force yourself to eat. The research also implies that eating more of your calories when you are using them, which is earlier in the day for most, is part of why breakfast is so key. And adding an additional meal could also mean adding additional calories to your day.
To figure out whether or not you should be eating breakfast, consider the following:
- Eat when you are hungry, even if it takes a few hours after waking up.
- If working out early in the morning a light snack may help beforehand, followed by a quality breakfast for recovery.
- Pay attention to your appetite all day long. If you are experiencing increased hunger from skipping meals, try eating smaller meals more often. And if you are having trouble controlling your calories, try eating less often or restrict your calories to a certain time window.
Tip #3: Get More Protein Each Day
When it comes to foods that support weight loss, not many stack up as well as nutrient dense proteins. Protein has not only been linked to improved appetite control in multiple studies, but it may have added weight loss benefits (15,16,17):
- Protein is more thermogenic than any other macro - meaning eating more protein might help you burn a little more calories just from digesting your food (18).
- Protein helps build, repair and protect your muscles. And maintaining lean muscle mass while cutting calories means more of the weight you lose will be body fat. Not to mention, muscle is more metabolic than fat and gives you that lean, toned look most people are seeking.
- Protein is also the least likely macro to be stored as body fat in a calorie surplus (19). Meaning when you cheat or overeat, getting more of your calories from protein might help reduce body fat gain and support muscle gain instead.
So, exactly how much protein should you be eating?
The US Dietary Guidelines suggest protein intake should make up 10 to 35% of your daily calories. But this is a fairly wide range and the amount you need is most closely related to your amount of lean muscle mass and how much you use your muscles in general. While cutting calories, research suggests that eating 1.04 to 1.4 grams of protein per pound of muscle is needed to maintain lean mass (20).
When looking at percent macros, popular high protein diets recommend roughly 30% to 40% of calories come from protein and this amount might not be too far off. In one study, consuming 30% of calories from protein caused participants to eat almost 450 calories less per day - leading to twelve pounds of weight loss in 3 months (21). Some research has even suggested 25% of your calories coming from protein can help curb cravings (22).
The best sources of nutrient dense protein comes from lean meats, fish, eggs and some plant-based sources.
Tip #4: Load Up on Low Carb Veggies
Calorie control may be key to dropping a few pounds, but your body doesn't run on calories alone - you also need good nutrition (aka micronutrients) to function properly. When your diet is lacking in essential nutrients it signals to your brain to keep your hunger signals turned on so that you need to keep eating until you get the amounts you need. Eating food higher in nutrients can help you satisfy this need much sooner.
This may be why eating more nutrient-dense foods is thought to help manage appetite better (23,24,25). And the most nutrient dense foods you can find come from non-starchy vegetables - basically all vegetables except peas, corn, and potatoes.
Veggies tend to be high in nutrition and very low in calories, giving you more bang per bite. And because they are so low in calories, loading up on veggies can help keep you satisfied and cut calories without having to sacrifice portion sizes.
Try stacking half of your plate with non-starchy veggies for automatic calorie control without going hungry.
Tip #5: Fill Up on High Fiber Foods
Certain types of fiber (soluble fiber) are digested more slowly and pull water into your gut, which can help you feel fuller longer. And other types of insoluble fiber cannot be broken down or absorbed by the body as a source of calories - this can also help keep your digestive system moving along since it tends to be pushed right out.
To keep your hunger at bay and gut going strong, aim to eat at least 30 grams of fiber a day.
And opt for whole food sources over supplements or added fiber ingredients. Research on added fiber for weight loss is not as convincing as fiber from foods (28,29). And naturally, fiber-rich foods also tend to be high in important nutrients. The top sources of fiber in the diet are plant-based foods, like fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Tip #6: Eat Less Added Sugar and Empty Calories
Excluding the right foods from your diet can also make cutting calories easier without having to feel hungry all the time.
Empty calorie foods contain little to no nutritional value and tend to be higher in calories - essentially the opposite of nutrient-dense foods. Identifying and eliminating empty calories from your diet is a great approach to weight management because it can allow you to create a calorie deficit without sacrificing the nutrition your body needs.
Added sugar tops the list for many as one of the best sources of empty calories to avoid when trying to drop pounds. Refined grains, like added sugar and white bread, are absorbed more quickly than starchy, high fiber carbs - this can mess with your appetite and energy levels, causing you to feel hungry again sooner.
Other common sources of empty calories include:
- Soda and sugar-sweetened beverages
- Fried foods
- High sugar, high-calorie desserts
- Pretzels and potato chips
- High-fat meat like sausage and bacon
- Added processed oils and butter
Tip #7: Drink More Water
Before grabbing for a bite to eat, try drinking a glass of water first.
While the actual act of drinking water itself doesn't necessarily help you lose weight, drinking more water pushes out empty calories from your diet and might also help you feel more satisfied.
Water contains zero calories and is an easy way to fill your stomach while keeping you well hydrated. In fact, having a glass of water 30 minutes before you eat might help you reduce your calorie intake (30, 31). In one study those who drank 2 cups (~16 ounces) of water before their meals, lost 44% more weight in three months, compared to those who didn’t (32).
Plus, hunger can be a sign of early dehydration, since it causes your body to use up stored energy more quickly. In other words, if you are mildly dehydrated and feeling hungry, drinking water could help calm your appetite (33).
How much water should you drink a day?
You are able to get fluids from both foods and beverages, not just water. So the best gauge of how much water you need could just be how thirsty you are (34).
But if you're looking to add a bit more structure than that, have a 16-ounce glass of water before each meal and see if it helps you feel fuller longer.
Tip #8: Slow Down and Practice Mindfulness
Eating more slowly may help you maintain better calorie control and eat more mindfully! Research implies those that take longer to eat - 30 minutes vs. 5 minutes - can reduce feelings of hunger and increase feelings of fullness, regardless of calorie intake and hormonal responses to food (35).
Slow down. Put the fork down between bites. Take your time to taste your food and enjoy it. This will not only help you be more mindful of what you are putting in your mouth but will give you the opportunity to get to know your hunger and fullness cues a little better.
Tip #9: Learn How to Meal Prep
Systematize your diet by establishing a pattern or eating routine. Research suggests this might be is key for managing calorie control (36).
Planning ahead and preparing some or all of your meals in advance could be a lifesaver when it comes to staying on track with your diet. There's nothing worse than getting hit with hunger and not having anything healthy to eat around. We've all been there when lunchtime rolls around, were starving and the only thing on hand is leftover donuts you had the willpower to avoid from the morning. As hunger creeps in and timing gets tight, it can be extremely difficult to make healthy decisions.
Meal prepping ensures you have options that fit your diet on hand when you need them. It can also help save you time and stress if you're making most of your meals in advance. It's a no brainier why research continues to suggest that meal planning is linked to better nutrition and more weight loss (37,38,39).
Ready to get prepping? Check out these meal prep recipes and templates to get you started!
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Tip #10: Get Enough Sleep
Being tired, cranky and hungry all tend to go hand in hand. When you aren't sleeping enough your body isn't running as well as it normally would, which could cause you to store more fat and crave unhealthy foods (40,41). In addition, being sleep deprived often means you are moving slower and get less physical activity throughout the day - causing you to burn fewer calories than when fully energized.
You should be sleeping at least seven hours a night - uninterrupted, quality sleep.
If you think trying to catch up on sleep during the weekends is going to counteract the lack of sleep you got all week long, think again! Daily rest is essential and you need a decent amount of sleep each night. Make your rest a priority. Remove distractions, like your TV, phone, or pets, and find a dark, quiet place to lay down. Use earplugs or sleep masks if needed. Your body and your mind will thank you.
Tip #11: Manage Your Stress
Stress not only messes with your mood, but can also impact certain hormones associated with appetite, and may also cause an increased desire to eat overall(42).
High stress levels are thought to decrease peptide YY (PYY), a hormone that signals fullness (43). Stress has also been associated with increases in hormone cortisol. And cortisol may increase cravings and feelings of hunger in some people (44,45,46,47).
If stress is inhibiting your weight loss efforts, try yoga! Or learn to meditate. Research suggests yoga is positively associated with decreased stress, increased fat loss, and improved mood (48,49,50). The practice of yoga is centered around controlling your breath and being more conscious of how you react to the world around you, helping you channel your stress in a more positive way.
Tip #12: Drop the Booze, At Least for a Little While
Alcohol can provide a significant source of empty calories to the diet and it can be easy to overdo it. In addition, drinking puts a temporary pause on your metabolism and potential fat loss and can affect cravings and hunger.
Alcohol is a toxin and your body will prioritize metabolizing out this toxin before anything else. So if you are drinking, you change the way your body metabolizing food and other macros - potentially shifting the balance towards more fat storage (51,53). For most, it takes roughly one hour to metabolize one alcoholic drink.
Drinking in excess can also cause your blood sugar to drop temporarily which may make you feel hungrier later that night and even the next day - which is exactly why you start to crave high-calorie foods after a night out on the town!
More Tips for When Hunger Hits
Still need more weight loss tips? Here are some things you can try when hunger hits:
- Drink sparkling water
- Chew gum or use breath mints
- Drink sugar-free coffee or tea
- Make sure you aren’t cutting your fat too low
- Stay busy
- Snack on a small amount of dark chocolate