Being on a diet means restricting your calorie intake and choosing the right foods, but it doesn't have to mean that you're always hungry. You may take a little time to adjust to a new meal plan, but if you're constantly hungry on the diet, then it may mean that you need to adjust the diet.
According to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center (OSUWMC), hunger is a biological mechanism that is designed to keep you alive. Think of it as the fuel gauge on your car that signals you to fuel up before it stops working. Your body needs food to survive, and hunger is its way of telling you to fuel up.
Hunger is a complex process that is regulated by your brain and a number of hormones. Ghrelin is one of the key hormones in this mechanism; known as the "hunger hormone," it signals your hypothalamus when you're hungry. The symptoms of hunger can vary from person to person. They include a growling stomach, lightheadedness, difficulty focusing on a task, headaches and stomach pain.
If you've ever been embarrassed by a rumbling stomach, it's caused by a hormone called motilin. Motilin causes contractions in your digestive system to help it sweep away the last bits of undigested food from your digestive tract. Those contractions can sometimes cause your tummy to rumble loudly.
The Causes of Hunger
Hunger is your body's way of signaling for nutrition, which it needs for growth and maintenance. According to a study published in the journal Expert Review of Endocrinology & Metabolism in November 2017, this is known as homeostatic hunger.
However, there are other types of hunger as well. For example, if you feel like eating dessert right after you've eaten a big meal, it's not because your body is running on empty and you need calories for energy. You want to eat that dessert more for pleasure, to satisfy a craving.
That type of hunger is known as hedonic hunger, according to a study published in Obesity Science & Practice in June 2018, and it typically motivates you to eat energy-dense foods that are tastier than they are healthy.
You may also experience hunger for other reasons. For example, your body sometimes mistakes thirst for hunger. According to the OSUWMC, you may also feel hungry in response to certain stimuli in your environment, like an advertisement featuring visuals of a big juicy burger or the sight of a vending machine.
Sleep also plays a role in hunger; a study published in the journal Sleep in March 2016 found that people who did not get enough sleep tended to feel hungrier and craved more palatable foods like sweet, salty and junk foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, emotions like anger, loneliness, stress and boredom can sometimes trigger hunger. OSUWMC notes that medications like diabetes medication and antidepressants can also cause hunger.
If you find that you are often hungry, your diet could be a potential cause; however, these other factors could play a part as well.
Being Hungry on a Diet
Diets usually mean selectively eating foods to help you achieve your health and fitness goals. Weight loss diets also typically involve restricting your calorie intake; the general rule is that you need to reduce your calorie intake by 500 calories a day to lose 1 pound a week.
It can sometimes take your body a little bit of time to get used to the new regime you're following. As with sleep, your body also gets used to certain rhythms and habits when it comes to food. For example, if you usually eat a doughnut during your morning staff meeting, you may crave it even though you've just eaten a complete breakfast.
However, it's important to make sure that the diet you're on is giving you enough calories and nutrition for your body to sustain itself. Will the hunger pains go away if you're not getting enough calories per day to meet your body's energy requirements? Maybe not.
Adult women need a minimum of 1,200 calories per day, and adult men need a minimum of 1,500 calories per day, according to Harvard Medical School. The Mayo Clinic notes that letting your calorie intake drop beneath that could be counterproductive because it could lead to constant hunger that could even cause you to overeat.
You should inform your health care provider if the diet you have been prescribed does not seem to be meeting your energy needs and is making you feel hungry on your diet all the time.
Resetting Your Appetite Thermostat
Highly palatable foods and calorie-dense foods like junk foods can disrupt the intricate processes by which your body regulates hunger and appetite. This happens because they are able to activate the pleasure and reward mechanisms in your brain, causing you to overeat and gain weight, according to a February 2016 study published in the journal Advances in Pharmacological Sciences.
When you switch to a healthier eating regime that contains more fiber and protein, which promote satiety, chances are you may get full faster and eat smaller quantities, notes an April 2018 study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
According to the Mayo Clinic, eating your food mindfully, without being distracted by other activities like reading, working or watching TV, and checking in with your hunger before you reach for seconds can also help.
Tips to Curb Your Appetite
Being on a diet can be challenging, especially if you feel like you're too hungry to lose weight. There are a few things you can do to help curb your appetite and prevent you from being constantly hungry on the diet. Eat several small meals throughout the day or eat your major meals and keep plenty of healthy snacks around to munch on when you get hungry.
Avoid skipping meals or letting yourself get too hungry because that can cause you to overeat and make poor decisions when it comes to food choices, per the Mayo Clinic. If you find yourself really hungry between meals, eating nutritious, low-calorie snacks like fruits or veggies can help curb your appetite. Drink a lot of water and fluids during the day to help keep yourself full and curb hunger pains caused by dehydration.
You can even try keeping a food journal to help uncover patterns in your eating habits. For example, if you usually eat dinner around 7 p.m. and then experience hunger pangs while you're working late at night, it could be because you haven't eaten anything for a few hours.
- US Library of Medicine: “A Narrative Review of the Construct of Hedonic Hunger and Its Measurement by the Power of Food Scale”
- Oxford Academic: “Sleep Restriction Enhances the Daily Rhythm of Circulating Levels of Endocannabinoid 2-Arachidonoylglycerol”
- Mayo Clinic: “Hunger Games: Do You Know Why You Eat?”
- US Library of Medicine: “The Hidden Dangers of Fast and Processed Food”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Improving Your Eating Habits”
- Mayo Clinic: “Getting Past a Weight-Loss Plateau”
- Harvard Medical School: “Calorie Counting Made Easy”
- Advances in Pharmacological Sciences: “The Influence of Palatable Diets in Reward System Activation: A Mini Review”
- Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: “Always Hungry? There Could Be Medical Reasons Why”
- Colorado State University: “Ghrelin”
- Colorado State University: “Motilin”
- Taylor & Francis Online: “Mechanisms Responsible for Homeostatic Appetite Control: Theoretical Advances and Practical Implications”
- Utah State University: “Learning to Listen to Hunger and Fullness Cues”
- PKD Foundation: “Hunger Versus Thirst: Tips to Tell the Difference”
- Mayo Clinic: “Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics”