Here’s the irony of weight loss: One of the hardest ways to cut calories is to … cut calories.
As a physique coach, I’ve seen it over and over again with my clients. If someone believes he’s eating less food, he’ll complain that he’s always hungry, even if his data shows he’s eating more than he needs to maintain his current weight. Miraculously, the hunger is gone as soon as I show him the numbers.
Nutrition research backs this up. If people think they’re eating less at one meal, no matter how virtuous it makes them feel, they’ll be hungrier and eat more at the next one. This is a big reason why calorie counting is such a challenge.
Fortunately, it also works the other way. Research on people who don’t know they’re dieting often shows that they don’t notice, which matches my coaching experience. If I don’t tell them they’re cutting calories, they’ll get leaner but not necessarily hungrier. There simply isn’t a strong relationship between appetite and energy balance—calories in vs. calories out.
The trick, as you may have guessed, is to find ways to change your energy balance that don’t end up making you hungrier. The following five strategies are backed by solid research, along with my own experience training myself and my clients.
Strategy #1: Pump Up the Volume
When it’s empty, the stomach is basically a mass of wrinkled tissue, with an empty space that could hold about two ounces, or one-sixth of a can of soda. As soon as you start eating or drinking, however, those wrinkles unfold, easily accommodating 20 times as much volume.
But something interesting happens as it expands: The stomach’s stretch receptors—sensors that measure how full your stomach is—send satiation signals to your brain. The more pressure your meal puts on those sensors, the stronger the signal to stop eating. How many calories are in the food doesn’t matter. In fact, the fewer calories per ounce of food, the more satiating it is. Knowing this gives your clients enormous control over how satisfying a meal can be.
(For a visual representation of which foods have the most and least volume, you can share this page with your clients.)
There is, however a limit to the power of volume. Filling up with water, for example, or low-calorie broth, may slake your appetite in the moment. But as this study shows, it won’t work for long-term satiety. You’ll get hungrier sooner, and probably eat a lot more at the next meal.
Real food works much better, especially if you …
Strategy #2: Bulk Up with Fiber
Bulky foods like fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains are typically high in fiber. Although there are lots of different kinds of fiber, which work in different ways, most of them will act to slow down the digestive process.
Consider soluble fiber, which you’ll find in beans, apples, and oatmeal. The fiber is fermented in the gut, a process that directly triggers the sensation of fullness. Research shows that, on average, each 14 grams of fiber decreases your overall food intake by 10 percent. (The effect is smaller for leaner people, alas.)
This strategy, as you may have guessed, works best for those who really like their vegetables and starchy carbs. If that’s not you, you can always …
Strategy #3: Make It Thick
The thicker a food is, the stronger the satiety signal it sends. So while water takes up a lot of space in your stomach, its lack of viscosity works against it. Milk, for example, is more satiating than water. Yogurt is more satiating than milk, and cottage cheese is more satiating than yogurt.
Or consider apples. A whole apple, the kind you have to bite into and chew, is more satiating than applesauce, which is more satiating than apple juice, which is more satiating than water, as shown in this study.
But, yet again, we’re talking about foods that appeal to people on higher-carb diets. What if you prefer something meatier? You’re in luck.
Strategy #4: Beef Up the Protein
It’s common wisdom in fitness culture that protein is more satiating than carbs or fat. Just about every weight-loss article you’ve read in the past 10 years has told you as much. The more protein you eat, the less hungry you’ll be.
There is some truth to this. Because your body depends on protein for many vital functions, and because it can’t be stored for future use like carbs or fat, your body is acutely aware of its protein intake, just as it’s sensitive to sodium and water. The desire for protein is thought to drive appetite until you’ve consumed enough.
But what is “enough”?
We can’t say for certain. (If you’re curious, I compared dozens of studies in this document.) But in theory, the satiating effect should level off when you’ve eaten the maximum amount of protein your body can use to build and repair muscle: about 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, or 0.8 grams per pound. That would be about 160 grams per day for a 200-pound man or 112 grams for a 140-pound woman.
Eating more protein than that is unlikely to make your client less hungry for any other type of food. Which brings us to the final appetite-management strategy.
Strategy #5: Savor Flavor
I’ve been talking about all these factors like they exist in isolation. But they don’t. We don’t sit down to eat protein or fiber. We don’t go into a restaurant and order volume or viscosity. We eat food. We order meals. And what do we enjoy about meals? The flavor.
Appetite, in fact, is flavor-specific. You don’t really become “full” when you eat. You simply lose your desire to keep eating specific flavors. This is why you always have room for dessert. You may have satisfied your appetite for steak or fish or lentils, but if a piece of cheesecake or bowl of ice cream appears in front of you, you’re suddenly hungry again.
Each flavor you add—sweet, salty, bitter (coffee), sour (citrus), umami (meat, fish, and many vegetables)—triggers a new appetite for that flavor, no matter how much food you’ve eaten already.
Thus, the best strategy to recommend to your clients is to limit the variety of flavors in each meal. If you crave something sweet, for example, don’t add it to a meaty main course. Wait until you feel hungry again, and then have a couple of apples by themselves.
The Bottom Line: Acceptance
All these strategies work together. For example, a meaty stew or thick vegetable soup fills your stomach. The stew satisfies your drive for protein while the soup’s fiber slows down digestion. But you can undermine your plans in a heartbeat if you top off the meal with a creamy cappuccino or slice of chocolate cake.
One final piece of advice you can offer your clients:
No one is perfect, but people who successfully get lean and stay lean typically create a mental list of “worth it” and “not worth it” foods. It takes a long time to get to a point where you can honestly say, “As much as I enjoy ice cream, the calories just aren’t worth it to me,” and be totally fine with that.
That’s what I call true acceptance. Once you achieve it, the process becomes easier than you ever thought possible.