The hardest part of dieting is not the self-control or reduced calories that are part of any weight-loss plan. It’s the seemingly cruel way that your body fights against you to make you hungrier than ever and push you towards the foods you’re trying to avoid.
As you reduce calories and — more importantly — lose weight, things start to change in your body and brain to make you feel hungrier. While super-restrictive diets are a big reason many diets fail, other plans that might be perfectly good also feel impossible because of this hunger signaling.
The answer isn’t to quit on weight loss (if that’s your goal), instead, it’s to be aware of the inevitable hunger increase and make sure your diet is loaded with foods that will fill you up. When that happens, and especially when those filling foods are lower in calories, you can crack the diet code and experience weight loss without all the frustration (and endless hunger).
What Foods Fill You Up?
Let’s say your daily calorie intake is about where it should be for weight loss. That means you’ll be in a caloric deficit, the scale should be changing, and — as that happens — your hunger will inevitably increase.
In that case, we’d look to incorporate more foods that enhance your feeling of fullness. Research to date has found that there are three keys to achieving it. (Sadly, none of them are ice cream, pizza, or cheesecake.)
Three things that can help you feel full are protein, fiber, and water. Surprisingly, certain carbohydrates also keep you incredibly full (more on that in a moment).
If you’re trying to ensure mental sanity, adding more protein, fiber, and water will make your life a lot easier.
So, how do you make these diet changes easier? Here’s a simple way to make it happen and feel fuller and more in control of your diet (and hunger) than ever.
High-Protein Foods That Fill You Up (And Are Lower in Calories)
Research consistently shows protein is the most filling macronutrient, so it’s great to have a serving of it at each meal. If you want to take it a step further, you could set a goal.
“We recommend approximately 0.8-1g of protein per pound of target bodyweight if you are active,” says Born Fitness nutrition coach Natalie Sabin. (Note: Target body weight is what you want to weigh, not necessarily what you weigh currently.)
“Not only is protein satiating, but it’s also muscle-sparing — meaning you’re more likely to hold on to your lean mass when you are in a calorie deficit.”
Meat, eggs, and dairy are all good sources of protein. If you’re trying to stay lower in calories, you’ll want to focus on leaner sources of protein, which means you’ll have less fat. While fat isn’t bad, it is calorically dense, with 9 calories per gram of fat (compare that to just 4 calories per gram of protein). Fattier proteins include things like ribeyes, salmon, and whole eggs.
To stick with lower-fat protein options, you can include more poultry (like chicken or turkey), low-fat fish (most of the white fish options will work), seafood like shrimp, scallops, or crab, leaner cuts of beef (like sirloin or filets), or egg whites.
If you are a strict vegetarian or vegan, then rice and beans, quinoa or tofu are all go-to options.
Choose Carbs That Reduce Hunger
According to the satiety index, fresh fruits and vegetables are ideal additions to your diet because they leave you satisfied for longer. Foods like potatoes (yes, white potatoes or sweet potatoes), beans, and oatmeal are all proven to quell hunger longer, which makes sense since all are rich sources of dietary fiber. So are fruits.
Researchers at Penn State University found that when subjects consumed a 125-calorie apple before lunch, they ate 200 fewer calories in the meal that followed. They also reported a greater feeling of fullness.
Add Nuts To Help You Stick on a Diet
You might think that with high concentrations of calories and fat, nuts wouldn’t be a great idea for dieters. But, nuts are a surprising success story when it comes to weight control.
According to obesity researcher and writer Stephan Guyenet, Ph.D., nuts “are less calorie-dense than they might seem because some of their calories pass through the digestive system unabsorbed.”
Basically, he means: When you eat a serving of almonds, which is about 162 calories, your body won’t necessarily take in all of those calories. Some will just pass right through you, a phenomenon that researchers attribute to the nut’s hardness and high fiber content.
This doesn’t mean you should go crazy and gob down handful after handful. There’s a big difference between “not all of the calories get absorbed” and “calorie-free.” (And let’s be clear: nuts are definitely not calorie-free.) Enjoy, but watch your serving sizes here.
Drink More Water Before You Eat
Numerous studies show that consuming water before a meal reduces calorie consumption and increases the feeling of fullness. Many people have heard the “8 glasses a day” rule, but few actually do it.
From wherever you’re starting, see if you can add three glasses to your daily regimen: one before (or during) breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
If you opt to drink during the meal rather than before, try taking a sip between bites.
If you’re doing all of these things, but still feel like you barely make it to lunch without gnawing your arm off, switch up one more thing: how often you eat.
Some people prefer to eat several smaller meals and snacks per day, while others find they do better by eating just 2 or 3 bigger meals.
As we’ve explained before, so long as your calorie total is the same, neither option is better or worse. It’s simply a matter of preference.
If you’re looking for more personalization and hands-on support, our online coaching program may be right for you. Every client is assigned two coaches — one for nutrition and one for fitness. Find out more here.
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.