Changing your eating habits is tough: You’ve gotta tweak your routines, distract yourself from chocolate or carb cravings, and—potentially the most difficult—be OK with eating smaller portions and fewer calories. Just one of those things takes discipline, let alone all three.
But don’t get too gaga with all this discipline. When you’re in diet mode, it’s tempting to feel a rumbling tummy and take it as positive feedback for your dieting efforts, but feeling hungry is not a sign of being a “good dieter.” You might actually be taking your calorie-cutting efforts too far and sabotage your weight-loss goal in the process.
Losing weight requires calorie consciousness, but you should never restrict to the point of feeling starving between meals. Blood glucose levels naturally dip a couple hours after a meal. Glucose is essential for fuel, especially for the brain and red blood cells, so if you don’t have enough, the body then turns to glycogen from the liver for energy. When that supply runs low, the body is going to want more food—fast.
This is why your body craves the carbiest of carby foods when you’re hungry: It’s the fastest way to deliver glucose to the bloodstream. What you might shrug off as a potato chip addiction or a chocolate craving might be your body’s way of signaling that you’re low on fuel. Yep: Nourishing yourself throughout the day might prevent Oreo cravings later at night.
Enter science: A study of 2,886 people who have lost at least 30 pounds and had kept it off an average of over five years found that some of their common strategies included eating breakfast regularly and maintaining a consistent eating pattern seven days a week. In other words, skipping snacks or entire meals may result in immediate weight loss, but those who maintain long-term weight loss eat regular meals.
Of course, it’s not just when and how much you eat, but what you’re eating. Make those calories count. Diets rich in fiber (from whole grains, fruits, veggies, and legumes) will help keep you full for longer, and these foods tend to be naturally lower in calories. (Here are more details on how to choose healthy carbs and non-starchy vegetables to eat more.)
A 2011 study found that people who had maintained weight loss for at least five years reported eating fewer calories a day than overweight adults, but they ate a greater quantity of food overall, particularly of low-cal, fiber-rich choices like vegetables and certain whole grains.
It’s okay to feel a little hunger two or three hours after a meal, but starving in the name of discipline can skyrocket your risk of derailing your diet. Learn more dieting myths that might be getting in the way of your weight loss here.