Does Being Hungry Mean You’re Losing Weight? (Unexpected)

Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD
Published by Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD | Medical Doctor
Last updated: January 26, 2024
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During my years of medical practice, I once stumbled upon a video by a popular fitness influencer. They passionately argued that staying hungry boosts the body's fat-burning mode. It intrigued me, and I decided to delve deeper.

From my extensive research, I've realized that the relationship between hunger and weight loss is more intricate than it appears on the surface.

After consulting with a fitness trainer and based on my professional knowledge, we've debunked some common misconceptions about hunger and weight loss.

Quick Summary

  • Being hungry does not necessarily mean you're losing weight; it's a signal that your body needs nutrients.
  • Hunger is a biological cue rather than an indicator of fat burning, which is a common misconception.
  • Statistically, a caloric deficit of 3,500 calories is required to lose one pound of fat.
  • In my opinion, effective weight management is more about balanced nutrition and consistent exercise than simply tracking hunger.

Does Hunger Mean You’re Losing Fat?

A woman starving for food

Not quite. Hunger simply signals a need for more nutrients, not that you're specifically burning fat.

The misconception that hunger leads to fat burning can lead to unhealthy practices like intense fasting workouts, which may not be beneficial.

From my countless hours of research and discussions with fitness trainer, I've often pondered: if not fat, then what exactly does our body burn when we're hungry?

To better understand this, let’s take a closer look at how hunger and weight loss work.

How Does Hunger Work?

After you eat a regular meal, your digestive system breaks the food down into smaller components.

Carbohydrates from your food break down into glucose. Protein converts to amino acids. And fats convert into fatty acids.

When all these nutrients get into your bloodstream, insulin from your pancreas signals the cells to absorb them [1].

Once your cells have absorbed most of the nutrients, you begin to feel hungry again.

An intriguing aspect of hunger is the role of the hormone ghrelin, often termed the 'hunger hormone'. As we shed pounds, our stomach releases more ghrelin, intensifying our feelings of hunger.

This natural response can sometimes seem counterintuitive, especially when we're trying to lose weight. Understanding this can help us better navigate our weight loss journey and manage our hunger cues more effectively.

When you’re hungry, your glucose (or blood sugar) levels are low.

As a response, your body releases glucagon, a hormone that triggers cells to release nutrients into your bloodstream [2]. The first of these nutrients is stored sugar.

So, in other words, your body begins to burn stored sugar when you're hungry.

Blood sugar hunger is a sign that your body is no longer getting energy from the food you have eaten and has moved to extract energy from the glycogen (a form of stored glucose) in your muscles and liver.

When the body runs out of sugar, it starts burning fat. This tends to happen when you’re starving yourself to lose body fat or on a low-carb diet to lose weight.

While we often use the terms interchangeably, it's crucial to distinguish between hunger—a physiological need for food—and cravings, which are more about a psychological desire for specific foods. Recognizing the difference can be a game-changer in our weight loss journey, helping us make more informed food choices.

However, we’re not talking about starvation in this article.

“There’s a subtle difference between hunger and appetite. Appetite is a desire to eat, which is often increased by seeing or smelling delicious foods. By contrast, hunger tells your body that it needs food now, from any source that can provide it with energy.”

- Franziska Spritzler, CDE, RD

How Does Weight Loss Work?

Fit woman using measuring tape

Fat loss equates to burning more calories than you take in.

So, if you’re trying to burn fat faster, you just have to eat less and exercise more to lose weight.

From my professional knowledge and interactions with fellow fitness enthusiasts, I've learned that the "calories in, calories out" mantra is just the tip of the iceberg. Factors like meal timing, food quality, and even the type of food play a pivotal role in the weight-loss equation.

But on the level of basic thermodynamics, this still actually works, and there’s no way around it.

One pound of fat is equivalent to 3,500 calories, so burning that amount results in a pound of fat loss.

If you're consuming 2,000 calories daily without losing weight, you'll need to create a caloric deficit to lose fat over time.

How you manage this will depend upon your weight loss goals and current fitness levels.

For beginners, aim for a healthy rate of losing no more than 1–1.5 pounds per week.

How to Lose Weight Without Being Hungry?

Having enough sleep and drinking water

Now that we’ve established that hunger and burning fat aren’t necessarily tied to each other, let’s look at how you can lose weight without succumbing to hunger.

You can achieve this through one or more of the following ways:

  • Drink lots of water
  • Eat a filling diet
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Reduce stress levels

While doing these won’t directly burn fat, they’ll help your body shed pounds in the long run.

Drink Plenty of Water

If you’re trying to lose weight, drinking more water is non-negotiable [3].

Water can:

  • Boost your metabolism
  • Increase your energy levels
  • Help you manage stress
  • Build muscle tone

What’s also great about water is that it helps you stay full, thereby helping you avoid snacking between meals.

Many test studies have shown that consuming water before a meal can change your subjective sensation of hunger [4].

​​A 2013 study found that drinking two cups of water half an hour before breakfast, lunch, and dinner (without any dietary changes) could lead to a reduction in body mass and index and body composition scores [5].

Eat a Diet That Fills You

Eating a bowl of salad

You have two options here: eat a high-protein diet and eat foods that suppress your appetite.

Protein and healthy fats (monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats) will keep you more satiated compared to carbs [6] [7].

While fiber is part of a healthy diet and can help you feel fuller, it doesn’t have the same benefits as protein in gaining muscle mass.

Many calorie-suppressing foods come with the downside of extra calories, which can be counterproductive to losing weight.

Get Plenty of Sleep

While you don’t burn fat during your slumber, sleeping can help you lose weight by regulating your appetite.

A 2013 study found that sleep deprivation may alter appetite-regulating hormones and increase your rate of caloric intake [8].

Reduce Stress Levels

Stress is a little complicated in that it can lead you to skip meals or overeat.

Stress is notorious for affecting your food choices. When you’re stressed, you're more likely to eat junk food.

That's because physical or emotional distress affects your hunger and hormone levels, causing you to choose “comfort foods” [9].

Under stress, people tend to emotionally overeat high-fat, salt, and sugar, but not vegetables or fruits [10].

On the other hand, stress management could lead you to eat fewer calories or at least healthier calories [11].

FAQs

Is It Okay to Exercise When Hungry?

No, it might not be okay to exercise when you're hungry, but it depends on the individual and situation.

This is because your body might burn valuable energy sources, resulting in less stamina, lightheadedness, and nausea.

Does Exercising on an Empty Stomach Make You Burn More Fat?

No, exercising on an empty stomach does not make you burn more fat.

Fasted exercise might cause your body to use fat for energy, but research doesn't show that it leads to significantly greater fat loss.

Will Intermittent Fasting Make Me Feel Hungry?

Yes, intermittent fasting might make you feel hungry if you don’t do it right.

There will always be some level of hunger when fasting. However, if you load up on foods high in protein, fat, and fiber, your hunger pangs might not be as severe.

What the Science Says

From the challenges I faced during my weight loss journey, I can vouch that while extreme hunger might seem like a shortcut to burning fat, it's not a sustainable or healthy approach.

Supporting exercise with natural fat burners is a better, healthier, and more efficient way to lose weight and regulate your hunger.

These lists contain products that our patients trust the most:

They can help you burn fat stores, control your cravings, boost your metabolism, and speed up your weight loss journey.

Check out the list and find the one that best suits your fitness goal.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8232639/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279127/
  3. https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-water-health
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6209729/
  5. https://hub.jhu.edu/at-work/2020/01/15/focus-on-wellness-drinking-more-water/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18296329/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53550/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3763921/
  9. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22254109/
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2727271/
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About The Author

Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Kristy June Dayanan, BS, MD is an author with a BS degree from University of the Philippines and an MD from University of Perpetual Help System. Her ability to simplify medical science complexities and dietary supplement jargon for the average reader makes her a valued medical fact checker and reviewer.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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