THE PROBLEM OF EVENING HUNGER
Let’s be honest. Lots of people cheat on their diets. Even those with some pretty strong willpower can succumb on occasion to the extreme hunger pangs of very low calorie diets. And while hunger can strike at most any time, the vast majority of those running low calorie diets to lose fat will experience their worst hunger in the evening, usually when they are relaxing at home. These evening hunger pangs can lead to episodes of binge eating that can both slow or stall progress and make the diet all-around more miserable.
So is this situation just one that has to be accepted as a cost to fat loss dieting? Is evening hunger just something that everyone who wants to get lean has to push through? To a certain extent, yes. No remedy will completely eliminate hunger. However, the science of diet design can help reduce evening hunger in several major ways, with the result being a drastic reduction of cravings and a huge drop in the likelihood of falling off the wagon. Let’s take a look at the phenomenon of evening hunger and then see what steps we can take to reduce it while still dropping body fat.
As usual, it’s important to be very clear on definitions before discussing a subject in depth. What we will refer to here as “evening hunger” is the specific phenomenon of experiencing night-time food cravings pre-bedtime, usually during the window between 8pm and 12am for most people. Does hunger hit you at other times of the day? For sure. But there are several reasons why evening hunger is particularly pernicious during fat loss diets:
- Most people have higher stress hormone levels in the early morning and daytime and lower stress hormone levels (such as cortisol) in the evenings. Stress hormones actually suppress appetite, so most people tend to be hungrier in the evening when these hormone levels are lower.
- Most people are busy with work or school responsibilities in the mornings and afternoons. Sure, you can be hungry during this time, but the demands of workday tasks can keep you distracted from the hunger sensations to quite a large extent. In addition, even if you wanted to cheat on your diet during the middle of the day, oftentimes it’s just logistically hard to do. You’re at work or at school and very busy. Just dropping out for 2 hours in the middle of the day to go to the Chinese buffet might not be realistic. But when you’re back at home in the evening, you have all the fridge contents, delivery menus, and free time to make some serious cheat meals happen.
- For many people, if they can’t relax while eating lots of tasty foods, they are not nearly as prone to choose to cheat. Since they have to go back to work or school after lunch, they are less likely to be relaxed enough to really start the cheating party. However, evenings are usually more relaxed times where you settle down to watch your favorite TV shows or hang out with family and friends. Not only are you no longer focused and distracted from hunger, but you’re engaging in the kinds of activities (TV watching and/or socializing) that are highly associated with eating lots of delicious food. Your family and friends may already be eating such foods in front of you, further making your consistency difficult to pull off.
- For those who drink caffeinated beverages (coffee, tea, diet sodas, energy drinks), morning and afternoon hunger is a much smaller issue. Because they are under the effects of caffeine at these times, the powerful hunger-suppressing effects of this substance make cravings much less likely. However, most people taper their caffeine use towards the evenings so that they can fall asleep at night. And just as caffeine use tapers, the hunger it was masking comes back in full force, sometimes just when you’re trying to relax or fall asleep.
- If you’re hungry during the day, you can get through by sheer willpower. But if you’re hungry at bedtime, can you will yourself to sleep? Unfortunately, “willing yourself to sleep” is an internal contradiction. Falling asleep requires relaxation, which is the opposite of wilful effort! Those who experience a lot of hunger at bedtime can have a very hard time falling asleep, and being very hungry through the night can cause not only less sleep to occur, but can reduce the quality of sleep as well. This interference with sleep can lower the energy you have for training, and can directly alter hormone and recovery levels in the negative direction. In fact, sleep loss has repeatedly been shown a powerful effector of both muscle loss and fat gain/retention.
Basically, a bunch of us simply don’t experience our highest hunger during the morning and afternoon, and we can grind through or overwhelm with caffeine the hunger we do experience. But evening hunger is very well aligned to pose a serious problem for temptations to fall off the diet and eat everything in sight
What are the big downsides to such cheating episodes? At least a couple are worth noting:
- By eating a high amount of calories when cheating several times or even only one time per week, results in fat and weight loss can slow down to a great extent, with many instances of total stoppage of weight and fat loss with just several mega-cheats per week.
- Breaks in your willpower can demotivate you, even if they don’t slow results much. People like to be in control in most elements of their lives. Having a feeling of control over your surroundings is actually one of the biggest markers of psychological health and happiness. When you’re constantly succumbing to cheating, you can start to see yourself as weak and fickle, and at the mercy of your instincts instead of the master of your own fate. If this is the experience you get out of fat loss dieting, your chances of switching gears and choosing to maintain or gain weight instead rise significantly.
- If you’re dieted down pretty far and you have a cheat meal, what’s the most likely thing you’ll want tomorrow? Yep, another cheat meal. When you haven’t had tons of tasty food at once in several weeks, you tend to have fewer cravings instead of more. Boring, blander food can make you almost forget what seriously delicious food tastes like. When you cheat, your brain goes into relapse mode and wants MORE of the same. The next couple of days after a cheat meal (never mind the psychological pressure of seeing the scale weight shoot up from water retention) can be very difficult… much more so than if you hadn’t cheated at all. This doesn’t happen to ALL dieters, but it does to many, and this relapse effect usually gets more pronounced the longer you’ve been dieting. If you want to be miserable and slow or stop your fat loss, cheating can be the way to do it.
- In the end, the biggest problem with succumbing to evening hunger and cheating is the loss in results and via lowered consistency. The best diet does nothing if you don’t follow it, and even the most advanced diet can be slowed or stopped by cheating too much. As many coaches and researchers have noted, consistency is the THE biggest variable in diet success, because it allows all of the other variables (such as a calorie deficit and proper macronutrient amounts) to affect your body. Without consistency, either the 15lbs you were planning to lose over 3 months can turn into only 5lbs, or the 3 months you were planning to take to lose 15lbs can stretch into 6 months. Any way you slice it, (especially unplanned) cheating is a bad deal.
What Can be Done to Help?
For many dieters, evening hunger can be a great hindrance to both diet progress and mental sanity. Luckily, science can help. There are no less than 7 different diet manipulations you can employ to make your fat loss diet much less susceptible causing to bouts of evening hunger. Make any or all of the following changes to your diet, and your evening hunger problems will decline.
- More protein
Of all of the macronutrients, protein is the most satiating. That’s right, per unit of calories, protein fills you up the most and keeps you fuller, longer. Does this mean we all need to be eating as much protein as humanly possible? Not quite. Some minimum levels of fats are needed for proper body and hormonal functioning, and carbs are very effective at supplying training energy and preventing muscle loss during dieting. However, increasing protein as much as you can without dipping below minimal fat levels and still having enough carbs around to train pretty hard can go a long way to reducing hunger. With the usual recommendation of protein for body composition dieting being around 1g per pound of body weight, trying around 1.5g of protein per pound per day might be a good start to an effective anti-hunger measure. The big caveat to this is of course that calories must still come first.
- More greens and fruits
Not only are greens and other low-calorie veggies stocked full of vitamins, minerals, and fibre, they are also incredibly filling. If you eat enough of them, in fact, they can make a meal be downright hard to finish! That’s one hell of an awesome problem to have on a fat loss diet! By subtracting some of your daily carbs from grains and other sources and adding them instead into veggies, you can feel much fuller from the same calorie amount. Try eating 2 to 3 cups of veggies with each meal… it’s tough! Fruits can also be consumed more at the expense of breads and grains. 60g of carbs from white rice or whole grain bread can go down the hatch in a flash, but that’s four apples, pears, or peaches… gonna take some serious chewing and leave you pretty full.
- Bigger meals at night
If you’re hungrier at night than you are in the morning, one of the easiest methods to help with this is to simply eat bigger meals at night (in the evening). Keep your morning meals to mostly protein and veggies, and then save more of your daily fats and carbs for the later meals. Just when you’re most prone to be hungry, you have your biggest meals of the day to eat. As usual, total daily calories still have to be the same as they were, just more of them in the evening and fewer in the morning.