Learning to listen to your hunger signals takes constant work.
A common question clients ask is “how long will it take to normalize my hunger signals?” As always, context is king and there’s several factors that impact your hunger cues. In this article, we’ll dive into the three main time points: While dieting, immediately post diet and once you’ve recovered from a diet phase.
Hunger cues while dieting
There are two hormones that are responsible for hunger, or lack thereof, and those are leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is commonly referred to as the satiety hormone because of its role in, you guessed it… satiety! Leptin is actually mediated by your fat cells meaning the more fat you have, the more leptin you have. Conversely, the less fat you have, the less leptin you have. This is part of why when your body fat has dropped you have what many would describe as an insatiable hunger.
Ghrelin is commonly referred to as the hunger hormone because it actually influences your hunger. Ghrelin is secreted in the gut when it senses a lack of food. And for good reason! Our bodies have gone through many thousands of years of evolution. If we didn’t have a mechanism to tell us ‘you need to eat’ we would have become extinct long ago.
Understanding these two hormones, we can better understand how a calorie deficit will produce hunger. A deficit will typically be a combination of lower caloric intake (i.e. your diet) and a higher caloric output (i.e. cardio, NEAT and potential training changes). That deficit will trigger ghrelin to rise, creating more hunger signals, and while body fat goes down, leptin will drop too; meaning you’ll be less satiated.
So are we totally f***ed or what?? Not totally. But understanding that hunger is a normal part of a diet is crucial.
Consuming more fluids (through water, coffee, teas and flavored drinks) as well as increasing the volume of your food (think more vegetable or lower calorie substitutes) can manage hunger in the short term. But to be honest, the best ‘hunger hack’ is to accept that it’s a part of the process and actually lean into the hunger.
It should go without saying that competition levels of leanness will make hunger much, much worse. Anyone who has ever prepped will tell you that the last few weeks you have this deep, insatiable hunger. The leaner you get means that leptin will drop even lower and the deficit you’re creating to reach that stage ready look will inevitably increase hunger. This is why we as a team promote taking long offseasons to normalize hunger and your relationship with food (more on that later) so that when we do decide to diet, clients are fully ready to embrace the hunger and other diet side effects they typically feel.
It’s not comfortable, but wishing or hoping that it will go away won’t help and will actually put more emphasis and distress towards your hunger. If you listened to either of our podcasts on anxiety (Part I, Part II) you’ll learn that wishing to be ‘anxiety free’ is not only not possible, but damaging. Hunger works the same way! The more you focus on it, the worse it will feel.
Hunger cues immediately post diet
Immediately post diet, you’re not going to be satiated regardless of how much you’ve eaten. This will be exasperated by competition levels of leanness. Remember, the leaner you are the lower your leptin levels since it is mediated by body fat. Even though your diet is technically over, the next several weeks will still a challenge.
How many weeks does ‘several weeks’ actually mean though? It will depend on each client but typically we see the first 4-12 weeks post diet to be the weeks where you are recovering from a diet. The leaner you are, the longer the recovery will be. Of course, there are exceptions but generally speaking recovery is once again, body fat mediated.
A few ways to manage hunger during this time are to immediately bring up your calories. You still want to do this in a controlled manner, but only adding something small like 10g of carbs of 5g of fat here and there won’t do much to actually signal recovery from a dieting phase; especially a harsh dieting phase. Another thing to keep in mind are the habits you developed during your diet. If you’ve been on track with prepping a few meals in bulk, getting in over a gallon of water and being on a proper sleep schedule while dieting, don’t throw that out the window just because you’ve finished your diet. This is the time to continue to those quality habits!
The last thing to understand during this period is that you will still be hungry. Yes, this sucks. Yes, this is annoying. Why on earth should hunger stay high post diet? Because #biology – sorry, blame the cavemen. Like I mentioned before, embracing this as part of the process doesn’t take away the hunger but it certainly makes it easier to manage.
Hunger cues removed from a diet
After you’re removed from a diet and the immediate post diet period, normalizing hunger signals is crucial. It’s common for people to say things like “I’m always hungry” when they’ve had an extensive dieting history. And while yes, some clients will have larger appetites than others no matter what they do, there are often reasons why your hunger cues are dysregulated.
First, a history or disordered eating or very strictive bouts of dieting can virtually eliminate normal hunger signals. Even if the bouts of dieting are followed by bouts of overeating, not having consistency will keep your body in a state of distress.
Something that we see far too often is clients trying to stay too lean. Too lean, for you as an individual, means your body still senses that you’re not in a comfortable place and signals to your body that you need to gain fat. This means you’ll experience things like fluctuating energy levels, dysregulated hormones, lack of recovery from training and you guessed it… increased hunger.
Diligently tracking macros 24/7 can also create problems in some clients. Overly neurotic tracking can destroy hunger signals if you only eat to fill macro targets. Many people will stop eating meals and instead graze and plug in food as they go. This leaves many clients out of touch with their hunger signals.
Lastly, and potentially most importantly, not giving yourself enough time out of a deficit to actually normalize your hunger signals. This is a continuous process that you need to work towards that will take longer for people who have dieted most of their life.