Have you made a New Year’s resolution? One of the most common resolutions, of course, is weight loss. If you’re thinking about cutting back on unhealthy foods, adding more fresh fruits, veggies, and whole plant-based dishes, kicking up your fitness routine, we’re in support of all those positive actions! If, however, you’re feeling intimidated by that edginess of hunger that inevitably accompanies weight loss (or maybe feeling just a little edgy even now, reading this), I completely hear you.
The truth is, no matter how sustainable and healthy your weight loss plans are, in the process of trimming down, you will absolutely feel hunger more than usual. Although I haven’t actively tried to lose weight in years, any time my weight goes down due to being more active and not having the time or the mental space to eat a lot, I do feel hunger more sharply; conversely, when I don’t feel hungry throughout the day, for a week or more, my weight goes up. And years ago, when I was actually trying to lose substantial amounts of weight, I used to go to bed feeling really hungry and almost weak. This resulted in slimming down, but even to this day I have an aversion against going to bed famished. (This is what juice fasts feel like, you guys!)
But the prospect of hunger doesn’t have to be so daunting and discouraging. While I still don’t recommend going to bed hungry, there are studies that show feeling hunger throughout the day has unexpected benefits. Here is what you should know about the upside of hunger for health and wellness.
1. Being hungry before eating keeps you healthier: According to a recent Cornell study, being actually hungry before a meal keeps your blood sugar levels lower even after the meal, than otherwise. When the researchers measured the subjects’ blood glucose levels after eating, the subjects who were “moderately hungry” before the meal had lower glucose levels than those who were “not particularly hungry.” (If you ever get super hungry and eat a rich meal, and feel satisfied yet relatively light rather than bloated and uncomfortable, this is why). Raised glucose levels is detrimental to your cellular health and has long-term health risks.
2. Hunger helps you make better decisions: It’s often assumed that being hungry (or in another physically triggered “hot state”) is detrimental to making smart choices. But it turns out that the opposite is true: in a recent study by the University of Utretcht researchers, moderately hungry people performed better at complex tasks designed to test their ability to choose long-term benefits over short-term gratification, including tests of how they choose among decks of cards with rewards. The theory is that, instead of making you impulsive, hunger actually sharpens your gut instincts to the point where it helps you make good choices even when the outcomes are not immediately clear. Personally, I find that having an empty stomach helps me think and behave a little more sharply, which is why I like to do important work before meals or without mindless snacking.
So what does this mean in reality? I don’t mean to glorify hunger or suggest that it’s the right condition for everyone–or for anyone to experience for prolonged periods of time. If you are young and still growing, pregnant or nursing, or otherwise have high nutritional needs, you should by all means avoid hunger. And if you have a history of struggling with body image issues and eating disorders, you shouldn’t take this to mean starving yourself is actually beneficial. But there are ways that accepting hunger as a part of your life can actually promote healthy and balanced eating style.
Use hunger as a signal to know when to eat: This means that you not only hold off on eating until you actually feel hungry, but that when you do feel hungry, you eat properly. So much of our disordered eating styles and food anxieties come from reversing this natural rhythm: eating for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger, and then trying to make up for it by skipping meals to the point of being famished. These other, incorrect cues include eating because it’s a certain time of day; boredom; stress and anxieties; social reasons; and even simply because it’s fun. Instead, try to make hunger your first cue for food.
Lose the fear of hunger and know that you can control/respond to it: there is a certain phobia of hunger in our culture, leading us to think that if you’re on a healthy weight loss/maintenance regimen, you shouldn’t ever feel hungry, or that if you’re hungry all the time, you’re about to gain a lot of weight. But neither of those things are true–hunger is just another message that your body is sending you, and giving it what it needs lets you be in control of your health.
Know what kind of eating pattern works for you: I’m a staunch believer in not going to bed with an empty stomach because it causes me to wake up in the middle of the night–and studies indeed confirm that hunger hormone ghrelin can disrupt your sleep. On the other hand, I like to start off my morning very light, usually with just a coffee–for the same reason hunger wakes me up at night, it makes me feel more awake in the morning! But what feels good for my body and mind might not work for you. Listen to your body to find a routine that makes you feel light and satiated throughout the day.
Don’t take it too far: The studies that have shown hunger to be beneficial for health or mental clarity have had subjects report “moderate,” rather than “severe,” hunger. Feeling a manageable amount of hunger before meals is good for tuning into an intuitive eating pattern; but don’t take it to the point of having hunger pangs, dizziness, irritation, weakness, etc.
Do you eat based on your hunger cues? Does anyone else prefer having an empty stomach for certain hours of the day/ tasks? I’d also love to hear if you disagree. 🙂
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Photo: oston Public Library via Flickr