Deep Dive —
Analyzing hunger

Nobody wants to feel hungry all the time. But that’s often what is expected when you try to lose weight. At the same time, feelings that seem like hunger aren’t always a signal that the body needs food. Today’s Deep Dive will help you sort out the “need to eat” from the “want to eat.”

To refresh your memory, here are the top tips from our Crash Course on hunger.

  1. Don’t ignore hunger… analyze it
    Your body sends hunger signals when you need crucial nutrients. But sometimes “hunger” is about what the brain thinks it wants, not necessarily what the body needs. How can you tell if you’re really hungry? Ask yourself: “Could I eat a ‘protein + veggies+ fat’ meal?” If the answer is yes, then eat it! If not, try a warm cup of bone broth, unsweetened tea, or a glass of water. Rehydrating can calm the brain’s mistaken hunger signals.
  2. Emotions and habits can feel like hunger
    Anxiety, boredom, loneliness, or any strong emotion can be mistaken by the brain as an emptiness that needs to be filled. Habits like eating while driving, watching TV, or at the movies can also trigger a learned hunger response. Again, analyze the reason for the hunger pang. Drinking water, tea or distracting yourself with a pleasant activity can fill the void that isn’t really hunger.
  3. Protein + tasty fat + high-fiber veggies = feeling full for hours
    Studies show that these foods make you feel fuller longer. Protein, veggies, and fat also provide essential nutrients. So enjoy protein at every meal and eat your vegetables — and don’t fear the fat that makes these foods tasty. This means your body will be less likely to search in the fridge for nutrition it’s missing.
  4. Ketosis is an appetite eraser
    One of the first things people notice when they’re in ketosis is that they’re not hungry all the time. Studies show that ketosis suppresses appetite and reduces levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. If you restrict carbs to less than 20 grams a day, you’ll be in ketosis soon. Not sure if you’re there? Try an inexpensive urine ketone test strip and be sure.

Ready to dive in a little deeper?

Diets that deliberately decrease calories also increase hunger. We don’t really need scientific studies to confirm this (although they do). Scientists also agree that feeling hungry makes it far less likely that someone will be able to stay on a diet long term. This may account for the dismal failure rate of most (deliberately calorie-restricted) diets.

But what about a diet that doesn’t deliberately restrict calories? Many studies show that, with a keto diet, participants eat fewer calories, even when instructed to eat as much as they want of low-carbohydrate foods. Other studies show that people who lose weight on a low-carb diet don’t experience the increase in appetite that normally accompanies weight loss.

It sounds like there’s a key to losing weight and keeping: Don’t be hungry.

In this Deep Dive we’ll look at why keto diets help you avoid hunger, what to do when you feel hungry, and what to do with those urges that feel like hunger but might not be.

Keto and hunger

Scientists don’t fully understand why carb restriction usually results in lower levels of reported hunger, but they do know it is an effect that has been documented since the 1950s. Most experts think it is related to what foods are emphasized on a keto diet and how that affects metabolism.

Protein and fiber-filled veggies allow people to feel full for an extended period of time. It’s no coincidence that keto diets focus primarily on these foods. These are highly nutritious foods that give your body what it needs. That reduces the chance that your body will send you signals that it needs more food.

Adequate protein is especially powerful when it comes to taming the appetite, and inadequate protein may increase hunger. Eating protein triggers the release of hormones that help you feel full and reduces levels of ones that stimulate hunger. This may explain why individuals tend to eat fewer calories when consuming higher-protein foods compared to lower-protein foods.

Like protein, ketones can also increase feelings of satiety and reduce feelings of hunger, probably for similar reasons. Although researchers are still investigating why this happens, it’s clear that ketone production is linked to higher levels of hormones that signal “You’re full” and lower levels of hormones that signal “You’re hungry.”

Finally, a keto diet naturally directs your attention away from foods that stimulate food-reward centers of the brain. Scientists have found sugar provokes addiction-like responses. However, this may also apply to starchy foods, since starches quickly break down into glucose, a type of sugar, during digestion. Because a keto diet reduces your exposure to sweet tastes and sugars, you are less likely to get caught in a cycle of cravings for these easy-to-overeat carbs.

Analyzing feelings of hunger

Of course, this doesn’t mean you’ll never feel hungry or have any cravings on a keto diet. These are likely to be most problematic in the first few weeks, as you adjust to your new diet and before you create enough ketones to use as an alternate source of fuel for the carbs that you are now limiting. It doesn’t do much good to hear “You won’t be hungry on a keto diet,” if you actually do feel hunger!

When you think you’re hungry, the first thing to consider is what you last ate. Hopefully, what you ate was a filling meal of protein foods, plus veggies, plus enough fat to make your food taste delicious and leave you feeling satisfied. If you have been dieting on and off for much of your adult life, you may not be used to eating until you feel truly full. It’s okay to do that now.

The next thing to consider is when you last ate. If it has been several hours, your body might be looking for more of those wonderfully nourishing foods it had a while ago. If that’s the case, go ahead and eat! Just remember to skip the carbs, prioritize your protein, include veggies, and add enough fat to make everything delicious and satisfying.

If you feel hungry again soon after eating, you may not be including enough protein, fiber, and fat at mealtimes. You need protein to turn on fullness hormones, fiber from above-ground vegetables to (literally) fill you up, and fat to provide the energy that your body needs to run. Especially in the first few weeks of your diet, be sure to include plenty of all three at each meal.

If you are susceptible, another problem might be too many carbs — or even sweet-tasting foods that are keto-friendly. For some people, even a small amount of sweet-tasting, sugary, or starchy foods can provoke cravings.

Another possibility is that you may not yet be able to fully use ketones for fuel. If you’re limiting carbs, but your body has not yet switched to efficiently making and using ketones for fuel, your body might interpret this lack of easily accessible energy as “I’m starving here!” To help you through this awkward phase, a smoothie made with unsweetened protein powder and coconut milk contains fatty acids that are easily used for fuel.

During the first few weeks of your keto diet, it probably isn’t a good idea to “tough it out” when it comes to hunger. Hunger can torpedo the best efforts to lose weight. Eat when you are hungry; stop when you are full.

Other hunger-like feelings

But what if you are not sure? Maybe your last keto meal was full of plenty of protein and veggies, plus satisfying amounts of fat, and no sweeteners. Yet, soon after, you still find yourself with cravings and urges that you’re not sure what to do with. What then?

It’s time for the four Rs. Replenish, Rehydrate, Redirect, and Relax.

Replenish: Because a lack of protein or energy can drive hunger, be very sure this is not what’s going on. Feed yourself some protein-rich foods, preferable with some energy from fat built in. All the deviled eggs you want, for example. Or some slices of sirloin, duck breast, or sausage. This is not the time for fat bombs or keto treats. Feed your body protein and energy it can use.

Rehydrate: Thirst and hunger can feel similar. Your body may be saying “I need something!” but you might not know exactly what. A cup of hot tea, bone broth, or bouillon can rehydrate you, warm your tummy, and calm your mind.

Redirect: If you are not in the mood for things your body might need, then you may be dealing with “wants” instead. If you can, redirect yourself to things that need your full attention. A difficult task at work. A seriously neglected corner of the house or yard. Any kind of exercise you like. When you finish, refuel and rehydrate. At that point, you may truly need it!

Relax: If you have some cravings, there is no need to stress with thoughts like “I’m doing it wrong.” If you find that you have some unwanted urges to eat off-plan, take some time to think about them. If you think it might be because your last keto meal wasn’t quite right for your needs (Not enough protein? Too much artificial sweetener?), your next meal is a chance to find what works better. Because a keto diet feeds your body what it needs, you don’t have to worry about forcing your body to always accept less.

Stay focused on the delicious foods that will help you avoid hunger and keep your body nourished. As you do this, be kind to yourself by findings ways — other than food — to relax and reward (another R!) yourself for paying attention and staying on track.

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