Worst Diet Advice: 'Only Eat When Hungry'

Why you shouldn’t let hunger drive your dietary decisions

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Could the world's oldest and most common dieting advice, "wait until you're hungry to eat," also be the world's worst?

Yoni Freedhoff
Yoni Freedhoff
The fact is: Hunger always wins. You may be the most motivated, intelligent, and committed person on the planet, but if hunger's hanging around, you can forget about rational thought. When you're physiologically hungry, your body's desires will undoubtedly trump your brain's best intentions, and your hunger-influenced choices will often be larger in both quantity and calories than ones made while content.

Don't believe it? What happens when you go to the supermarket hungry? Well you shop differently, of course, coming home with items you'd have never purchased on a full stomach. And what happens when you sit down to a meal hungry? Well you're still shopping of course, only this time you're shopping from your plate, your fridge, your cupboards, your freezer, or worst of all, from a menu.

We choose differently when we're hungry. No surprise there, given that in the grand scheme of things, our genes have been forged through hundreds of millions of years of extreme dietary insecurity. For the vast majority of human existence, hunger was death; satisfying hunger was life.

Our miraculous bodies have many mechanisms in place to ensure that we don't forget to eat, and that if we're hungry, and if food is plentiful, that we eat more than our fill. But with hormones, neuro and gut peptides, feedback loops, and inhibitory pathways to contend with, the physiology of hunger is a complicated process, affecting people in different ways.

And hunger doesn't just influence the actual foods we choose, but also our emotional interpretation of dining. For instance, imagine you're planning a night out with your absolutely favorite indulgent meal, the one that under no circumstances could be described as nutritionally wise or healthy. Now imagine that you show up to that meal famished, and yet rather than order that heavenly meal, you instead opt (bitterly) for a "healthy" choice (and possibly even mutter "stupid diet" under your breath). Now consider how you might have reacted to making that same "healthy" choice had you not been hungry. You might well be able to replace the word "bitter" with "proud."

Taking this all a step or two further, when do you struggle most with your dietary demons? For the vast majority, the answer will be somewhere from late afternoon onward. Could the only difference between your ease of dietary discretion in the morning and your struggles at night be hunger? More importantly, could effectively managing your physiologic hunger help you stay in control all night long?

There's an easy way to find out. If it's evenings that seem to trip you up, consider trying this straightforward recipe for hunger-prevention :

1. Eat a breakfast of between 350 to 450 calories within an hour of waking up, ensuring it includes a minimum of 20 grams of protein.

2. Snack every two to three hours between meals; each should include 100 to 150 calories and at least 10 grams of protein.

3. Enjoy a lunch and dinner of at least 350 to 450 calories with 20 grams of protein.

4. For every 45 minutes of exercise, add an additional 150-calorie snack either right before, during, or immediately afterward.

5. Try to craft your day such that you're never without food for more than six hours.

One important caveat to this recipe: Don't drink your calories. Liquid calories do not have the same impact on fullness as solids, so topping your breakfast off with juice or milk isn't going to have the hunger-preventing impact you're looking for.

While this recipe may not work for everyone, give it a try and you may just understand why I often tell my patients: "Willpower is simply the absence of hunger."

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and is also easily reachable on Twitter. Look for Dr. Freedhoff's book on the fallacies and future of modern-day dieting to be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in spring of 2013.