Welcome to Keto Sister. Now that the summer is over and my girls are back in school, I can focus on writing about a few burning topics that have come up frequently among my clients and in the Facebook groups I help to manage. This week’s topic goes hand in hand with diet and fat loss strategies, but not in the way you may think it should.
Let’s talk about hunger.
Many people think that hunger is a trick of some kind. When people feel hungry, they tend to ignore it if they are dieting to lose body fat. The entire goal of their diet strategy is to be hungry because they think that hunger means they are burning fat and getting skinny. That may be true initially, but there are consequences to ignoring hunger for too long. If you are eating the right diet for your body and the right amount of food, hunger should not be an issue. You should actually feel pretty good most of the time while you are losing body fat. Say what?
What is hunger?
According to Ciampolini and colleagues (2013), “[hunger] is an internal stimulus that is influenced by food intake” (p. 466). When blood glucose levels drop, the body experiences what is termed Initial Hunger, defined as a spontaneous hunger sensation (2013). Initial Hunger is often felt before eating a meal. It is an awareness characterized by sensations in the mouth and stomach that tells us we want some food.
More than just wanting a bite to eat, the drop in blood glucose sends signals to the brain that say, “we are going to die if we don’t get more fuel in the form of food.” That may sound dramatic to you, but consider what happens at a physiological level. We eat food for nourishment and to maintain enough energy for all the body’s processes. By the time we feel hungry, the body has determined that it needs vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fats, glucose, or water.
What hunger signals mean
Hunger is not a trick. It’s a sign that your body needs fuel to keep all the functions of your body going. Ignoring hunger makes it feel stronger, and not responding to hunger signals tells the body that you must not have access to food. Why else wouldn’t you eat when you are clearly hungry?
What people often do not realize is that ignoring hunger sends powerful signals to your body to down regulates its processes. The two primary hormonal processes of the body are endocrinological (reproductive hormones) and metabolic (energy use). Down regulating endocrinological processes means your reproductive functions are going to be reduced in response to starvation. This sometimes shows as changes to a women’s menstrual cycle, because a period is the ultimate sign for a woman’s health (for women of reproductive age). Your periods may come more frequently, less frequently, or stop altogether. They may become heavier or lighter, or any number of changes. In essence, the changes are a sign that your body may not be a safe place for a baby because you are in a famine. For men, this often shows as a reduction in sex drive and testosterone. Men who undereat often find themselves uninterested in making a baby because the body thinks either they will not have the energy to care for the child or there will not be food to feed that child.
See how smart your body is?
Down regulating metabolic processes means your body is going to slow down how quickly it burns body fuel. When energy is sparse, the body quickly gets rid of the things it considers to be unnecessary for survival. This can include hair loss, dry skin, having cold hands, feet and colder body temperature in general. If it goes on too long, it may even switch from fueling itself with fat to fueling itself with muscle, since muscle is more expensive to maintain. If you are at the start of a famine, you do not need muscle to survive and muscle takes more energy to maintain. Fat, on the other hand, is your body’s precious reserves to fuel essential functions. The body would sacrifice muscle to retain its fat stores for as long as possible.
Ever hear that ketosis is a protein sparing diet? This means that the body is trained by the presence of ketones to burn fat for fuel and spare muscle. However, in the case of ignored hunger (which is the same as starvation to your body), all bets are off. Starvation is a stressful state, and the body’s stress response is to increase cortisol. Cortisol’s job is to make glucose, and if cortisol is high it is because there is not enough fuel coming into the body. If you were eating enough fuel in the form of glucose or protein, then it would signal insulin to be released and insulin tells the body to stop breaking down its stores. Insulin and cortisol exist in opposition. When we eat, we release insulin and our stress levels come down. When insulin is low for too long, which is what happens while we sleep, cortisol becomes elevated to break down our fuel stores until we break our fast with some food.
Am I hungry?
Hunger is the most basic human need and yet many people lose touch with in the modern world. Most of the time, people eat so much food at mealtimes and snack in between that we never experience true hunger. At the same time, stomach-growling, energy draining hunger should not be the time when you finally eat a meal. Especially for those eating a low carb diet, hunger cues can change quite a bit because eating a high fat diet can be very satisfying. Still, it is important to know when to eat and to eat enough when you do. For those who are uncertain, these are a few signs that you might be hungry:
- You are thinking about food. (This is the first sign of hunger. If you eat at this point, you can avoid the other symptoms.)
- Your weight loss is stalled even though you think you are doing everything right.
- You lift weights and are struggling to gain muscle.
- You do not sleep well at night.
- You have dry skin and dry eyes.
- Your hair is falling out.
- You are cold all of the time.
- Your stomach is grumbling.
- You feel dizzy, lightheaded or weak.
- You have a headache.
- You are tired.
- You are cranky.
- You cannot concentrate.
- You feel nauseous.
- You have no sex drive.
- Your menstrual cycle is very irregular or stopped altogether.
- You drop things or have a weak grip.
- You do not have the energy to exercise, walk up the stairs, or care for yourself.
If in any of these cases, you think you might be hungry but you are purposefully trying not to eat because you think eating will keep you from getting the body you want, listen up Buttercup. A body that thinks it is slowly starving to death (eating 1,100 calories a day qualifies) is not going to release its fat stores. Instead, it is going to hoard every calorie it can to survive this famine. Even if you begin to eat again after restricting calories for a long time, your body may hoard extra calories to be sure that the famine is really, truly over. In time, if you continue to eat enough, your metabolism can heal and will decide that releasing body fat stores is a safe thing to do. Now do you understand why dieting never works in the long run?
Want to convince your body that you are living in plentiful times and that it is safe to drop the extra stored body fat? Eat healthy, nourishing, filling meals and eat enough so that your metabolism knows food is plentiful. If you set a small deficit (10-15% reduction in calories is my preference, but 20% is the largest deficit I would suggest) rather than a large one, then your body will not worry about releasing its fat stores. Read my post on how to set a proper calorie deficit for details. Even if you set a small deficit, it is a good idea to increase calories every six to eight weeks because the body will always try to adapt to the level of energy it receives. If you eat extra, your body raises the metabolic furnace and burns more fat. If you eat less, it will lower your metabolism so you don’t burn through your fat stores too quickly.
Your body is a brilliant, sophisticated, fat burning machine. When you think you are hungry, the smart thing to do is to eat some food. If you are truly not hungry, you can always stop eating. But if you ignore hunger, you run the risk of doing much more damage than gaining or losing weight. Thanks for reading.