Hungerphobia – Is it holding you back?

“This breakfast choice keeps you full until lunch”

“[Insert “healthy” food here] will make sure you stay full”

“When you get hungry between meals, snack on [“healthy” option] rather than [“less healthy” option”]

These phrases are used a TON in the nutrition space, often to justify having eggs for breakfast, nuts as snacks, and lots of vegetables with each meal. Now I’m not for a second saying that this is anything but brilliant advice – these are very good choices which provide a ton of useful nutrients, and while hunger is by far and away NOT the only thing that makes people overeat calories (do you REALLY eat chocolate in the evening because you’re hungry and for no other reason?) managing it is definitely an effective method of improving nutritional adherence. When researched, reducing a person’s hunger levels by manipulating food choice will cause some amount of weight loss in about 60% of cases.


And there definitely is a but

On the flip side of this hungerphobia – the mental block people have around ever being hungry – is a massive barrier when it comes to causing weight loss, and this comes primarily from (in my opinion) marketing. Just think about it…

For decades messaging from both nutritional advisory boards and companies who make snack foods has revolved around:

  • Eating in a manner that, first and foremost, manages hunger, and most insidiously,
  • Pre-emptively eating in order to avoid ever feeling hunger

While this is not, as I’ve mentioned, necessarily a bad thing, it’s almost never placed in the context that it should be. As such people seem absolutely terrified of being hungry and thus avoid it at almost all costs. We eat a big breakfast to make sure we’re full, we have snacks in our cupboards, in our car, in our work desk, in our bags, on our desk, and in just about every single place you can buy anything, and we make sure both our lunch and dinner are as filling as possible.

Indeed, nutrition advice for a long time has been to have three meals and 2-3 “healthy snacks” per day

But why? Until roughly the 60’s when the Milkybar Kid marketing campaign was launched by Nestle, snacking wasn’t encouraged to nearly the same extent. Sure, people did it, but there were no foods created with the express purpose of being eaten between meals – and why?

Because you don’t need to.

The perception most have around hunger is that it is associated with low blood sugar, with poor concentration and fatigue, and with a general unpleasant feeling. Moreover, it’s assumed that hunger – because it arises from a physiological need for food – grows and grows over time until it becomes unbearable. As such we try to eat as soon as we feel hungry, or we plan for it and eat “before hunger strikes”.

But that’s not what hunger is.

Hunger arises from a complex milieu of endocrine signals including high levels of some things and low levels of some others, most of which are affected not only by physiological need but by things like:

  • Time of day – you get hungry at roughly the same times of day that you tend to eat
  • Food choices – the fact that some foods prevent hunger longer than others despite providing the same energy content tells you if you think about it, that actually needing energy is not one of the main reasons that hunger arises
  • Thirst
  • And let’s be honest – differentiating cravings/boredom and hunger isn’t always the easiest thing to do

Blood sugar is also maintained extremely well by your body, and it doesn’t require careful balancing by regularly consuming foods. You have probably heard of insulin, the ‘storage hormone’; its role is to store the nutrients that you eat in a meal in order to prevent the concentration of carbohydrate, protein (in the form of amino acids), and fatty acids in your blood getting too high. After it’s done its job, however, it’s time for its partner, glucagon, to start working. When your blood glucose starts to drop glucagon is secreted in order to release stored carbohydrate from your liver, thus maintaining your level where it’s supposed to be.

Blood sugar too high – insulin brings it down

Blood sugar too low – glucagon brings it back up

(Note, in those with diabetes it can be a little more complicated).

If we had to micromanage our blood glucose, we would not have survived in an environment where food was not omnipresent, and our ancestors did OK.

Finally, hunger does not rise and rise over time. If you start feeling hungry it WILL NOT get worse and worse until it becomes unbearable, rather it will come and go in waves, generally lasting 5-20 minutes or so at a time depending on how much attention you pay to it. In short, if you ignore hunger it just goes away.

So what am I saying? To just ignore hunger signals?

Well, yes and no. I’m not suggesting for a second that you just starve, or that you shouldn’t eat – food is kinda important – but what I AM saying is that your hunger signals are not something you should listen to as if they are life and death because that’s not what they are. When losing fat you WILL be hungry sometimes – in fact, if you aren’t ever hungry it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll actually be making progress. It does happen sometimes, but it’s definitely not the norm.

Indeed, one piece of advice I’ve given clients who are trying to lose weight without counting calories is to eat until they are 80% full, then try to wait about 1-2 hours after they get hungry to eat. This, with no other changes, will cause a healthy rate of weight loss in basically everyone without causing any negative effects such as blood sugar crashes or brain fog.

Another tactic that I have used is a one-off 24 hour fast. Eat dinner, then don’t eat again until dinner the next day.

Fasting (which will be covered in another blog really soon!) for this amount of time creates a large calorie deficit which is all well and good, but it does more than that – it shows people what real hunger actually is, and it enables you to really start to get in tune with your body and its signals. You see the up and down wave of hunger, and you realise that, actually, being hungry isn’t all that bad.

It’s not fun or particularly pleasant, but it’s not the end of the world and provided you stay busy you’ll get past it before you realise. I’m not saying you have to try this 24 hour fast to be able to lose weight (though it’s not exactly ‘extreme’, the roughly ¼ of the world’s population who follow the Islamic faith do something pretty similar for about a month each year), but what I am saying is this:

Don’t be afraid of hunger. Don’t glorify it either – I’m not promoting constant restriction or starvation – but don’t be afraid of it. Understand that hunger just exists; it’s not good or bad, it exists and is a normal and natural part of the human experience. You’ll probably feel it more during times when you’re trying to lose fat, sure, but that’s not the end of the world.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s not until you have overcome your hungerphobia that you can ever lose the fat you want to lose or TRULY have a healthy relationship with food.

"All in or all out" Rachael is a vibrant, no-bullshit-talking Scottish nutrition geek and coach helping women to lose weight without giving up their confidence OR their favourite foods.

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