Why hunger can be the enemy for those wishing to lose weight

Many individuals who are attempting to lose weight will see hunger as a sign that they have pushed themselves into calorie deficit, and that their body weight will be dwindling as a result. They may be right, but the problem is that getting hungry can make it very difficult indeed for individuals to control what and how much they eat when they do finally sit down to a meal.

For a start, a ravenous appetite can make it hard to resist certain ‘filling’ foods such as bread, potato, rice and pasta which, particularly when eaten in quantity, tend to cause surges in the insulin in the body. This hormone not only causes fatty deposition in the body, but also slows down fat mobilisation. These foods are hardly ideal, therefore, for someone wanting to shed excess pounds.

The other major issue with getting too hungry before meals is that it can cause individuals to eat quickly. The risk here is that individuals can end up eating more food than they need. The sensation of being sated enough to stop eating is regulated by quite a complex system which includes the physical sensation that comes from a full stomach as well as hormonal signals that emanate from the digestive tract. When someone is eating quickly, there’s an increased risk that the signals that cause them to register that they’ve had enough kick in a little later than when someone is eating at a more leisurely pace.

In short, getting too hungry can cause individuals to eat too much of foods that are not the best for them anyway. Because of this, I generally encourage individuals to see hunger as the enemy if eating healthily and regulating their weight are the goals.

I am not aware of any research which directly supports this view. However, my experience in practice over the years has been that when individuals learn how to keep hunger at bay with healthy, satisfying foods, they also find controlling their weight much easier too. Many individuals are able to use this strategy to lose weight more quickly while being less hungry, not more.

Although, as I’ve said, there is no direct evidence that I’m aware of that links getting very hungry before meals and an increased risk of excess weight, some research has been published yesterday in the British Medical Journal which provides at least some indirect evidence for this theory. This research, conducted in Japan, found that rapid eating to be associated with a significantly increased risk of being over weight in both men and women.

In men, rapid eaters, compared to slower ones, were found to be at an 84 per cent increased risk of being overweight.

In women, rapid eaters were more than twice as likely to be overweight.

We don’t know for sure that it’s the speed of eating that is causing the enhanced risk of excess weight, but it might be, for the reasons discussed above. And anyway, even if it doesn’t help with healthy weight maintenance, eating more slowly (and in particular chewing food thoroughly) is likely to enhance the digestion of food, which can only be a good thing. As an aside, I’d like to mention that many individuals prone to indigestion and reflux find considerable relief from their symptoms simply by chewing their food to a cream before swallowing. Below, I’ve pasted in a previously published piece which extols the virtues of thorough chewing.

Slower eating and thorough chewing are made so much easier by making sure we’re ready for food at meal times, but not ravenously hungry. For most individuals this means having at least a half-decent breakfast. A muffin, slice of toast, croissant or nothing at all will generally not hold someone’s appetite properly to lunchtime. A better option would be something like Bircher muesli (made with oats, plain yoghurt, nuts and/or seeds, some dried fruit (e.g. sultanas) and water.

Something like this will usually carry someone nicely through to lunch without hunger biting too hard. However, if it were not to, then I recommend a snack of some nuts, seeds and perhaps a piece of fruit in the late morning. The major danger time, in my experience, is between lunch and dinner. For many individuals there are just too many hours between these too meals, and this often causes individuals to get too hungry at the end of the day. Eating a snack like the one outlined above in the late afternoon or early evening is usually all it takes for individuals to tide themselves over nicely until dinner, when they can enjoy an appropriately-sized meal at a leisurely place whether at home, in a restaurant or sitting on a plane.


Maruyama K, et al. The joint impact on being overweight of self reported behaviours of eating quickly and eating until full : cross sectional survey. BMJ 2008;337:a2002, doi: 10.1136/bmj.a2002 (Published 21 October 2008)

The importance of chewing – 20th October 2002

One memory I have from childhood is of Mrs Pearl – a formidable playground patroller and dinner lady at the junior school I attended in suburban Essex. Mrs Pearl had a very defined view of how children should behave, right down to their eating habits. One of Mrs Pearl’s preoccupations was to remind us of the importance of proper chewing, and anyone caught speed-eating would undoubtedly incur her wrath. Latterly, my interest in nutrition has led me to give the value of mastication proper consideration. While the act of chewing may seem relatively superfluous, it actually plays a critical role in digestion. In so doing, chewing helps to ensure we extract maximum nutritional value from the food we eat. The reality is that Mrs Pearl’s views on the importance of chewing turn out to have real bite after all.

When the pace of life is fast, and when we’re trying to cram as much as possible into the day, eating can be something we tend to do on the hoof. Many of us can find ourselves stuffing a sandwich or cereal bar into our mouths, satisfied that we’ve at least managed to get something down us. However, the gut is essentially a long tube that runs through the middle of the body. This means that food in the gut is not really in the body at all. It’s only once food makes its way through the gut wall into the body proper that it can liberate its nutritional goodies into the system.

The majority of food we eat is simply too big to breech the digestive tract wall. Before we can absorb our food, it generally needs to be broken down (digested) first. Chewing is important because it plays a starring role in the digestive process. During chewing, glands found in the cheeks, inside the lower jaw and under the tongue secrete saliva into the mouth. Saliva helps moisten and shape the food for easy swallowing. Saliva also contains an enzyme known as amylase that starts the digestion of starchy foods such as bread, potatoes, pasta and rice. During chewing, the tongue also secretes an enzyme called lipase that participates in the digestion of fat.

Once food is swallowed, food is further digested through the secretion of a variety of compounds including acid in the stomach, bile from the gallbladder and enzymes in the small intestine. Chewing and the sensation of food in the mouth are believed to help stimulate the secretion of this food-dissolving substances. Eating bitter foods such as salad leaves helps stimulate digestive secretions, making them an ideal base for a starter. Chicory is especially good in this respect, and is renowned in herbal medicine for its ability to boost digestion.

However, for acid, enzymes and bile to do their work, they need to able to penetrate the food we eat. One final function of chewing is to grind food up, which gives the digestive secretions a fighting chance of completing the digestive process. What is more, the smaller the food particles we swallow, the quicker and more efficient digestion tends to be. One very simple and very effective way of boosting the nutritional value of our diet is to comply with Mrs Pearl’s demands, and chew each mouthful of food properly before swallowing.

7 Responses to Why hunger can be the enemy for those wishing to lose weight

  1. Methuselah 23 October 2008 at 7:26 am #

    How about a good portion of fat and protein for breakfast? I find that eggs and/or mackerel/haddock/kippers makes a fine breakfast and keeps me going until lunch. A bit of fruit or tomato ensures a balanced meal. Meusli is better than a muffin but unless it’s a very nut/seed-heavy blend you’re not going to get through to lunch.

  2. SkepTicTacToe 23 October 2008 at 8:49 am #

    I really don’t buy this idea that eating quickly causes obesity. Association does not equal causation.

    If you take too much fuel on board then your body is out of metabolic homestasis – so one would think you would either go longer until your next meal or eat a smaller meal.

    This is why calorie restricted diets don’t work. Sure you can cut back on food for a day or a week – but once your body realises that you are in a calorific deficit it seeks to restore homeostasis.

    Eat REAL foods (those that can be eaten raw), and you will find that your metabolic homeostasis is at a point that will leave you lean! No pills, no exercise, no hunger.

  3. Andrew R 23 October 2008 at 9:24 am #

    This is a great post! I was especially interested in the part where you spoke about the repercussions of eating fast. When I was overweight, I definitely ate much faster. Also, I tended to eat less meals a day which also added to my being more hungry come meal time.

    That’s one of the major reasons why I stress having at least 5 meals a day. I know that you refer to it as a ‘snack’ between lunch and dinner in particularly, however, even when adding the word snack to one’s vocabulary, I’ve found that that in and of itself can cause people to over-eat. By making each meal relatively the same in portion, I find that also helps in weight loss/management, of course when a caloric deficit exists.

    Once again, thanks for the great post!

    All the Best,

    Andrew R

  4. Anna 23 October 2008 at 9:31 pm #

    Insulin-raising foods create a drive to eat faster as BG roller-coasters up and down, prompting intense hunger. I have done a lot of self-experimentation with a BG meter and various foods, and I know that eating high carb foods, especially sweet ones, creates intense cravings for more high carb foods that I have no problem resisting if I stick to LC eating. Experiencing the ravenous hunger and cravings, while my BG meter tells me my BG is rapidly shifting up or down (yet BG is still quite high and NOT even remotely hypoglycemic). So the high insulin and rapidly changing Bg tricks the hunger mechanism as if there is an urgent need for more food, usually fast acting carbs.

    The other thing I find to generate a lot of hunger is physical activity. Perhaps not immediately afterwards, but hours later I have more hunger. If I am especially active for an extended period of time (days, weeks, months) I definitely see an upward trend in appetite.

    Like Methuselah, I find a satisfying breakfast of high quality protein and ample natural fats keeps hunger at bay much better than starchy or sugary foods. Give me 3 eggs lightly cooked in lots of butter for breakfast (or two eggs scrambled with cheese; cottage cheese; or leftover meat from last night’s dinner) and I’m good to go until mid-afternoon or later most days, needing only a good snack (apple slices with mascarpone cream cheese & nuts, for example) until dinner. But if I have cooked oatmeal, even steel cut for breakfast, I;m sure to have a rumbling hungry belly a few hours later, with BG levels still too high to truly need glucose replenishment (though I’ll feel like I do).

    A glucose meter is a great way to determine if that hunger is a “false” sense due to carb-cravings or one truly due to low blood glucose levels (even then, eating a high carb food will only perpetuate roller coaster BG, so nuts or some fat/protein snack or fat/protein/LC vegetable meal is preferable to ease BG back into a normal, comfortable range.

  5. SkepTicTacToe 24 October 2008 at 11:44 am #

    Anna and Methuselah are abslutely correct about the satisfying nature of a meal high in protein and fat. Like many other paleo eaters I maintain my weight with ease on only two meals a day.

    Sometimes I might eat more frequently (for example after exercise), and sometimes only once a day. Sometimes I have bigger portions, sometimes smaller. If I am hungry, sometimes I eat quickly and sometimes slowly. What I am trying to say is that my eating habits reflect my hunger – just as they should.

    The real issue here is hunger. You can’t sustain hunger – it will make you miserable and inactive. You have to address it.

    A diet of REAL foods (ie those that you can eat raw), with plenty of fresh meat (including fat), will allow you avoid what is otherwise a function of ‘carb craving’. Best of all, you can eat as much as you want on a paleo diet.

  6. Betty Davidson 26 October 2008 at 8:15 pm #

    Thanks for this really helpful info. I noticed when struggling with weight that I used to say to myself or others “I’m starving” when I really just wanted to eat. I believe that those who are incapable of being honest with themselves find it impossible to lose weight or maintainthe loss.

  7. Hilda 28 October 2008 at 11:15 pm #

    Lets not forget eating is good ans should be enjoyed. No-one should feel guilty about liking to eat. In fact MOST people are actually undernourished even in the UK.

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