Hunger, Hormones, and Real Food

Where “Dieting” Falls Short

Chances are you’ve tried – and given up on – some sort of diet program at one point or another in your life.  Most diet programs work to restrict the quantity of food that you eat.  This seems straightforward since we’re carrying around plenty of energy for our body to use instead of food.  Why, though, do we so often fail or quit?

happy couple eating french fries together

Hunger and hormones

Why do we get hungry even when we’re carrying around plenty of extra energy in our bodies?  What drives us to eat even when the food is likely to be stored away as fat?

While the answers to these questions are complex, and to fully explore them would require discussing everything from human physiology to emotions and past experiences, we can get off on the right food by talking about two (amongst many) hormones – ghrelin and leptin.

Vegetable salad with cheese

Hunger Hormones – Ghrelin and Leptin

Ghrelin is secreted when the stomach is empty.  Think of ghrelin as the guy responsible for that short term, “I’m hungry”, feeling.  When ghrelin levels rise your body is saying, “I haven’t eaten lately.  Feed me”.  When ghrelin levels fall, your body is saying, “I’m good for now.  No need for food.”

Leptin is secreted by fat cells and acts somewhat as a “thermostat” for how much fat our body stores and/or burns.  When everything is working properly, fat mass increases, leptin increases, we eat less and spend more energy; fat mass decreases, leptin decreases, and we eat more and spend less energy.

When leptin levels are high your body is saying, “Things are good.  I can eat a little bit less and use some of this fat for energy.”  When leptin levels are low your body is saying, “I don’t have enough fat.  Let’s get our grub on and spend less energy to save the fat we do have.”

Leptin resistance – or the inability of our brains to properly recognize leptin levels – is one of the reasons we become overweight yet still yearn for more food.  We keep eating even though we’re gaining more body fat than we need and our leptin levels continue to rise.  Leptin resistance is understood to be caused by inflammation, elevated fatty acids in the bloodstream, and chronically high leptin levels caused by obesity (a vicious cycle).

For long term weight loss success, we’ll need to keep ghrelin levels at an appropriate level and normalize our leptin signaling to accurately reflect how much fat mass we are or are not carrying and how much we’ve actually eaten or not eaten.

A picture of a woman trying to make a decision between cupcake and apple over white background

How Do I Manipulate Ghrelin and Leptin For Sustainable Weight Loss?

A good place to start is by removing refined carbohydrates from your diet.  This will help stabilize blood sugar levels and allow your body to recognize the hormones that say “I’ve had enough”, while also training your body to accurately recognize when it needs – or doesn’t need – more energy.  Reducing intake of refined carbohydrates and sugar has also been shown to lower blood triglycerides – one of the factors suspected in leptin resistance.

You might trade foods such as bread, pasta, and other baked goods for potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans (if you tolerate them), and berries.  Lots of people see success by “saving” their carbs to be eaten in the evening, allowing their bodies to become adapted to burning the fat that’s already on them throughout the day, no longer resorting to that “hangry” feeling we get when we haven’t eaten in a couple of hours.

Eating more protein will keep ghrelin levels at bay.  Many of us – even those of us who aren’t struggling with our weight – aren’t eating enough protein as it is.

You’ll see the best results with animal sources – rich in vitamins, other nutrients, and a killer amino acid profile.  Of the three main macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and fats – protein is the most satiating.  One or two palm-sized portions with each meal is a good place to start.  Popular choices are salmon, beef, chicken, pork, lamb, eggs, and tuna.

Fresh picked Brussels Sprouts arranged on a metal cooking sheet. Horizontal format.

For even better success you can load up on non-starchy veggies, packed with hunger-killing fiber, and healthy fats that keep you satisfied for longer.  Roasted Brussels sprouts drizzled with olive oil or red, yellow, and green peppers sautéed in coconut oil are a couple of great combinations that pack a nutritional punch and mind-blowing flavor.  Combinations like these accompany protein quite well!

You can start by making small changes here and there.  Trade the croutons on that salad for roasted chicken.  Swap out the crackers for jerky or almonds when you need a quick snack.  Make sure that each meal has a good serving or protein, some healthy natural fat like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, or real butter, and plenty of leafy, colorful veggies.

Sleep also plays a critical role in hormone and hunger regulation.  Practice good sleep hygiene, setting aside 7-9 hours to get some rest and avoiding bright lights and electronic screens for at least an hour prior to your scheduled bedtime.  Take some time to relax for a bit and get ready to rest.

Take Action Today

In a nutshell, you can get amazing results by eating real food and prioritizing sleep.  These two steps have been shown to go a long way towards reducing inflammation, improving blood lipids, and fighting obesity – all factors in leptin resistance and hormone disregulation.  Once your hormones are working properly and your hunger levels are where they need to be, you’ll naturally eat an amount that gets you leaner and healthier for the long run.

Getting to and maintaining a normal weight doesn’t have to be a miserable process!

About Rob Arthur

Rob is an online nutrition and lifestyle coach living in Richmond, VA who helps chronic dieters overcome yo-yo weight loss and regain for long term results.  Rob is a NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Precision Nutrition Certified Level 1 Coach, and Primal Blueprint Certified Expert.  For more tips and strategies to find success in your weight loss journey, you can visit his website and follow him on Facebook.