The Problem of Evening Hunger
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist |
Jan 28, 2018
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.
The Evening Hunger Problem
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 nighttime 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 willful 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, including the fridge itself and even the family pet fish.
Even if you spare the pet fish, 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. For more details on the relationship between tasty food and cravings, check out this article.
- 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.
Sounds pretty bad, but let’s not freak out yet. Modern nutritional and behavioral science can help us reduce evening hunger (and thus the chances of cheating and falling off the wagon) in a big way.
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.
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. When you raise your protein, you have to lower fats and/or carbs by the concomitant calorie amount to keep losing weight on the same pace. If you keep your fats above the minimal amounts, there is no issue there, but lowering carbs, especially when calories are restricted, can in fact hurt your muscle retention and fat loss potential on a diet. If we say that macronutrient amounts account for around 30% of the effect of a diet (as detailed in the Renaissance Diet), then carb amounts affect results perhaps by around 10%. If you cut carbs even halfway to what they should optimally be to make room for more protein, you might lose up to 5% of the effect of your diet. A small price for enhancing consistency by a great margin.
Not only are greens and other low-calorie veggies stocked full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, 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.
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.
Not only can you eat bigger meals in the evening, but you can space your evening meals closer together so that you get a bunch of food in a short time. This fills you up and keeps you full so that cheating might end up being the last thing on your mind. If you normally eat with about 4 hours between each meal, try eating your morning meals with more like 6 hours between each meal and your evening meals with more like 2 hours between each meal. Just when you start to get hungry again towards bedtime, you’ve got the biggest meal of the day coming your way! The combination of bigger and more frequent meals at night can have a very positive effect on the daily motivation to succeed with your diet. You know in advance that the hardest part to every day is at the beginning. The longer you go each and every day without breaking your diet, the easier it is to keep going. This realization can be a powerful psychological advantage. If you know that the evening will be the toughest, you can spend much of your day dreading its arrival. But if you know the easiest times are ahead, you can more easily gather the daily willpower to muscle through. Eating more of your food when you’re relaxing by yourself or with family and friends can also make you a lot more social, relaxed, and pleasant on a diet. And lastly, because you go to sleep each night on a full(er) stomach, your sleep quantity and quality will improve as will your fat loss and muscle retention results.
Psychological research on dieting practices has revealed a very interesting and useful fact. Especially when people are on low calorie diets, eating tasty foods makes people… want more tasty foods. It sounds counterintuitive at first, but just like scratching an itch can make it come back 10x worse in mere seconds, having delicious foods can make you crave them that much more for the next meal or the next day. These higher cravings can of course steer you into bouts of overeating. However, when low-palatability foods (foods that are not the best tasting) are eaten, people just don’t tend to want as much of those foods to begin with, or to have more of them later. If you eat half a cheeseburger on a diet, you might feel like you could kill someone for the other half. But eat the same calories and macros in unflavored oatmeal and egg whites with olive oil, and you’ll be happy when you’re done with the meal so that you don’t have to chew that mess anymore! Does this mean you have to eat disgusting food during your diet? No. But it can mean that you should ease up on the tasty sauces, spices, and cheeses that make your food both high in calories and super tasty. Choose foods that are high volume (literally a large portion of food for the same calories) and not winning any taste awards for the foreseeable future, and you’ll find staying fuller and hunger-free to be much easier. The more you struggle with hunger, the blander your average meal should get. Eat your largest meal of day before you go to sleep and make that meal a combination of several cups of raw broccoli, egg whites, bland grilled chicken and oatmeal, and you might find it hard to even finish the meal, let alone eat anything extra.
- Reducing or eliminating shakes
Drinking your meals is a much easier way of getting in calories than eating them. Chewing a bunch of food can be a pain in the ass, and solid foods (especially the high volume foods high in fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, and veggies) can keep you fuller much longer than liquid foods. Bodybuilders have known this for decades and have tricked themselves into eating more by having shakes between meals when they have to eat enough calories to gain weight, which can be a challenge when you’re already very big. You can do the opposite by having fewer shakes, and, keeping calories equal, having more solid food. If your hunger is bad enough, you can cut out all shakes altogether. Do you lose some effect of the diet when you can no longer have whey and glycemic carbs post-workout and casein at night? Yes. But because the total effect of supplements on your fat loss results is so tiny (around 5% or less as detailed in the Renaissance Diet), the increase in consistency of dieting is often times very much worth the slight loss in possible results. How slight? If you notice the lack of shakes in the mirror, you’re gifted for spotting the difference of no more than several hundred grams difference of fat and muscle on your physique, and you should consider being a bodybuilding judge!
- Putting the workout window on the back burner
If you work out in the morning or afternoon, your best performance and body composition will likely result from eating most of your daily carbs before and in the hours just after your workout, tapering the carb intake after training with each successive meal. While very effective, if you train in the morning or early afternoon, this strategy can lead to a low carb and low calorie meal structure in the evening, just when hunger hits you the hardest. By removing carbs from your workout window and putting more of them toward the evening meals, you can drastically quell your evening hunger. Will this have a negative effect on potential fat loss and muscle retention? Yes. Nutrient timing accounts for roughly 10% of your total results during a fat loss phase. About 5% of that can be attributed to eating multiple meals of high protein through the day, which you’re still doing. So the lack of carbs in the workout window might cost you something like 5% missed potential for fat loss and muscle retention. However, if your consistency doubles as a result, to say this tradeoff is worth it is a huge understatement.
The Way Forward
If we implement every single one of the changes in the section above to our normal fat loss diet, we might lose as much as 15% of the potential effects of the diet. So if we started with the goal of losing 15lbs of fat in 3 months’ time, perhaps at the end of that time we’ve only lost 12.5lbs. But what’s better, losing 12.5lbs successfully while maintaining your sanity, or either losing 15lbs and never wanting to diet again or falling off of the wagon at month 1 and only losing 5lbs?
By using any number of the strategies above to your advantage, you can make your own tradeoffs and reduce your evening hunger cravings as much as you can and feel you need. After all, the best diet in the world is useless if it makes you so miserable that you can’t even stick to it.