So you’ve determined you want to lean out a little bit.
The problem is that you know that this will probably mean dealing with hunger.
Fortunately, leaning out doesn’t have to mean starving yourself or being miserably hungry all the time.
There are steps you can take to minimize hunger and keep your sanity while letting your body draw energy from its fat stores.
Keep reading for ten steps you can take to manage hunger while losing weight.
1) Prioritize protein
Of the three macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and fat – protein has been shown to have the strongest satiating effect in the short and long term, induce greater energy expenditure during digestion, and promote retention of lean mass during weight loss (1).
That last point is an important one, as it’s not simply “weight” you want to lose, but specifically fat.
You’re going to want to hold on to as much muscle and other lean mass as possible.
So, if your goal is to improve your body composition and not just shrink to smaller version of your current self, protein will play an important role.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand recommends a minimum of 0.64 and 0.91, but potentially as high as 1.36, grams per pound of body weight a day for (5).
If you weigh 160 lbs., for example, you would aim for at least 100 – 150 grams, but potentially as high as 220 grams, of protein per day.
Splitting this up over several meals isn’t only recommended, but might also make hitting your daily target a bit easier.
Eating 160 grams of protein over three meals, for example, would necessitate eating a half a pound of beef, chicken, or fish with each meal.
To eat that amount in one sitting would require eating about a pound and a half at once.
If you’re not looking to weigh or measure your food or want a quick method for eyeballing how much protein to eat, you might aim to have two palm-sized servings of protein with every meal, or about six totally palm-sized portions per day.
This “palm” method will scale up and down with our overall body weight, for the most part.
Larger individuals will have larger palms while smaller individuals will have smaller palms.
Animal sources like fish, beef, poultry, shellfish, and game offer the highest protein and other nutrients including essential vitamins and minerals per calorie than plant-based sources.
Be mindful also of the fat content of your protein source.
If weight loss is your goal, you might have better success with leaner cuts, depending on what your overall diet looks like.
2) Fill up with fibrous vegetables
While the role of dietary fiber in reducing appetite is questionable, there are several mechanisms through which increasing fiber intake can promote satiety, including physically filling and stretching your stomach, slowing the rate at which food leaves your stomach, and influencing appetite hormones (6, 7).
Both fruits and vegetables are high in water, fiber, and vitamins relative to their energy content, making them great choices for getting the nutrients you need while losing weight (8).
Since vegetables are generally less energy-dense than fruits – that is, they take up more space and provide more fiber and water per calorie – you might prefer them over fruits if your goal is weight loss.
Examples of nutrient-dense, fibrous vegetables are kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, broccoli, eggplant, carrots, cauliflower, chard, peppers, onions, asparagus, cabbage, and mushrooms (technically fungi, but considered vegetables from a culinary perspective).
Build on your two palms of protein with each meal by adding three or four fist-sized servings of vegetables.
Over the course of a day, you might aim for a total of six to nine servings, although there’s really no upper limit so far as you’re not experiencing any digestive distress or other adverse effects from eating too much fibrous vegetables.
3) Use carbs and fats wisely
You might find that you need more than just protein and vegetables to feel satisfied and energetic while working to lose weight – especially if you’re very physically active or eating leaner sources of protein.
If you feel like you’re running out of gas, or if you’re experiencing cravings, you might try incorporating more energy-dense sources of fat or carbohydrate into your diet.
You’ll benefit from focusing on minimally-processed sources that offer protein, fiber, water, and other vitamins and minerals with their carbohydrate and fat content to give you the most nutrition and satiety bang for your caloric buck.
Sources of carbohydrate you might consider are potatoes, sweet potatoes, berries, and fruit.
Sources of fat you might consider are nuts, seeds, avocado, or fattier cuts of meat or fish for your protein.
You might also consider cooking your food with saturated fats like coconut oil or pastured butter, lard, or tallow, or dressing your food with unsaturated fats like extra virgin olive oil.
Start with three or four thumb-sized servings of fat per day to cover your baseline nutritional needs.
From there, dial your fats and carbs up and down according to your energy, appetite, and how your body composition is changing.
If you’re not very physically active or regularly in low-intensity physical activities like walking, hiking, or jogging, you might prefer fat as your fuel of choice.
If you are very physically active or regularly in engage in higher-intensity physical activities like soccer, lifting, or Crossfit-style training, you might prefer carbs as your fuel of choices.
Prioritizing protein, filling up on vegetables, and emphasizing minimally-processed carbs and fats may go a long way towards not just filling you up with protein and fiber, but also increase the nutrient density of your diet, which may also promote satiety (9).
4) Minimize hyper-palatable foods
Just as prioritizing certain foods can help increase satiety, minimizing certain foods can help prevent being driven to eat when you aren’t actually hungry.
Hyper-palatable foods processed to be unnaturally high in salt, sugar, and fat combined can trigger addiction-like behaviors and drive compulsive eating and over-consumption (10).
Foods that fall under this category include the kinds of foods that we tend to eat even when you aren’t hungry, or that you’re “in the mood for”, or that you crave – baked goods like cookies, cakes, potato chips, candy, trail mix, and even foods we often think of as benign, like dried fruit or salted nuts.
While minimizing the role foods such as these play in your diet might not necessarily qualify as “managing hunger”, it does align with the end goal of minimizing your drive to eat while working towards leaning out.
5) Lose the liquid calories
Our appetite and satiety signals don’t respond to calories in liquid form the same way they respond calories in solid form (11).
Juices, sodas, beer, wine, and even smoothies might be providing easily digested and absorbed calories without promoting the satiety signals that those same calories would encourage if consumed in solid foods.
You’ve got to drink something, though, so focus on calorie-free beverages like water, coffee, tea, or alternatively sweetened beverages (like those sweetened with stevia).
You might find working towards not having to hear choirs of angels every time you drink something to be freeing.
It’s okay to just drink water.
6) Eat slowly
You can start by chewing your food (15).
You might find this to be a necessity once you start taking some of the next steps we’ve already covered, as minimally-processed, whole foods typically necessitate more chewing than the more processed foods we’re used to.
Slowing down and chewing your food presents a wonderful opportunity also to consider the flavor, texture, and quality of what you eat.
Focus on what you’re eating – the flavor, the colors, the textures – free of distraction (16).
You may find that food no longer becomes an afterthought, and eating becomes a more intimate activity, as you reflect on each meal and what it brings to the table (pun 100% intended).
Sleep deprivation causes an increase in the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, and a decrease in the hormone leptin, which inhibits appetite (17).
Oh, and you aren’t going to be driven to eat salmon and broccoli.
One study showed that sleep deprivation promoted the drive specifically to eat “high-calorie” food, and while I couldn’t find a list of which foods were classified as “high-calorie” in this study, I doubt they are referring to almonds (20).
Start by determining a bed time and sticking to it as consistently as you can.
In the hours leading up to that time, avoid artificial lights, stimulants (including intense entertainment and/or the news), and adopt a “sleep ritual” to signal to your mind and body that it’s time to wind down and go to bed.
Creating a cool, dark, quiet sleep environment will also help improve the quality of your sleep, if not the quantity.
If you’re looking to keep hunger at bay, sleep is going to play a critical role.
8) Manage stress
Stress is shown to increase your drive to eat appetite, weight gain, insulin resistance, and the desire for hyperpalatable foods, particularly during times of deliberate calorie restriction (21).
You might start by assessing what factors in your life are contributing to your stress levels and work to minimize or eliminate those factors.
Can you look into changing jobs or careers?
Can you cut off toxic relationships?
Can you hand off responsibilities to somebody else?
Realistically, though, it’s not always possible to change our circumstances – particularly careers, relationships, and responsibilities – especially in the short-term.
If you’re not able or ready to take the steps necessary to distance yourself from the factors causing you stress, you might take some steps to minimize how they affect your mental, emotional, and physical health.
Once of the most effective steps you can take to improve your ability to manage life’s stressors is practicing mindfulness meditation.
Set aside as little as two minutes a day to sit in silence with your eyes closed to focus on nothing but your breath.
The intent is not to silence or eliminate your thoughts and feelings, but rather to practice the ability to notice them and acknowledge them without letting them elicit a reaction.
This step might not only help you manage stress, but also recognize thought patterns and emotions that make you want to turn to food to distract yourself from whatever it is that you’re dealing with.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
9) Minimize sitting
The effect of structured physical activity on appetite isn’t straightforward, and depends on a variety of factors, but there is data that suggests that its overall effect is negative energy balance and improvements in overall health (22, 23, 24).
That being said, there is evidence to suggest that prolonged sitting might facilitate a reduction in energy expenditure without a correlating reduction in appetite (25).
So, even if structured exercise doesn’t play a major role in hunger management, it should still play a role in your efforts to get lean, strong, and healthy.
Furthermore, minimizing prolonged periods of sitting with regular breaks for movement throughout the day, might help keep your appetite in line with your needs and goals.
If you work at a desk, consider acquiring a standing desk to better accommodate fidgeting and switching positions.
If a standing desk is out of the question, schedule regular breaks throughout the day – every hour, more or less – to get up and go for a short walk or even stretch.
10) Get comfortable being uncomfortable
Finally, sometimes hunger is just something you have to deal with.
Hunger is most often a signal, not an alarm, and there’s nothing wrong with being a little bit hungry, especially when making a conscious effort to lose extra weight.
There’s much to be said with accepting this reality and working to understand that, so long as you aren’t overly restricting your overall intake, you’re going to be just fine.
Use this opportunity to explore what levels of hunger and satisfaction work best for you.
Keep a food journal and record how hungry you feel before eating, what you eat, and how satisfied you feel after eating, as well as how your body composition is progressing.
Some see success letting their hunger get to a 3 or 4 out 5, with 1 being not hungry at all and 5 being irritably ravenous.
You might also play around with different levels of satisfaction, aiming for “80% full”, with 0% being not full at all and 100% being absolutely stuffed.
Since these are largely subjective, you might need to figure out what a hunger level of 3 or 4 and a fullness level of 80% feel like to you.
If tracking your calories and finding an amount that accommodates steady without being miserable works better for you than these subjective measures, that’s totally cool, too.
Regardless the approach you choose, it’s completely normal to feel a little bit hungry, especially when shedding excess pounds.
Oh, and remember that there’s more to life than food, weight, your size, your shape.
You’re doing this to enhance all the other experiences in life that bring you joy.
No number on the scale or size on a clothes tag will make you happy.
Only your friends, family, community, and living a life of purpose can do that.
Never lose sight of these things that truly matter.
You’ve got this.