Is Hunger in Our Head?

by Dr. Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., CSCS*D

March 1, 2018


I can remember growing up as a teenager I idolized the bodybuilders of the old days. Elite bodybuilders with symmetrical frames who were incredibly dialed in like Kenny Waller, Serge Nubret, and of course Arnold. The signature of these athletes was a dialed in and conditioned look that has yet to be replicated. I always had the hardest time leaning out though. Partly because I have an endomorphic metabolism, but also because dieting just plain sucks. Being constantly hungry and preoccupied with food constantly is an awful feeling. A key component of being lean is the ability to control our hunger as well as our satiety and satiation.

So what are hunger, satiety, and satiation? The first is an actual need and the desire that follows to eat. Satiety and satiation refer to when you feel full and how long you feel full respectively. Today I am going to cover 6 different topics on how you can improve your hunger and satiety. My goal is to make losing fat not as much of a head game.

We Don’t Just Eat Because We Need to Eat!


It’s important to understand that we do not simply eat because we need food. If that was the case we would be perfectly content with broccoli and chicken breast every single meal. In fact, several studies have compared subjects given highly palatable meals to ones less palatable (Nasser et al. 2001). They typically always find that subjects eat way more calories with the palatable meal. For this reason, it is important to make dishes that are highly palatable lower in calorie density. For example, you can substitute stevia for sugar or whip fatty toppings before spreading them.

Can you Trick Your Mind Into Thinking It’s Full?


If you can override your hunger and satiety cues by increasing palatability can you trick your mind in other ways to think its fuller than it really is? The answer may be yes. The key, however, seems to be setting expectations. What do I mean? Well, one study with some clever scientists either told subjects that a shake they were getting was high or low calorie even though both shakes were the same calories (Crum et al. 2011). Guess what? Turns out that when subjects thought the shake was higher calorie that their bodies decreased hunger hormones more! Thus, try and have positive perceptions of how full a meal will make you prior to eating it.

Variety – Is it the Spice of Life?


There’s a saying that variety is the spice of life. The reason for this is that, new things that are pleasurable trigger our minds to pay attention more. This paying attention response is set off through the release of a neurotransmitter in our brains called dopamine. However, even things that are fun because boring if you keep doing them. This may be because dopamine stops being released after continued exposure. Why? Because when things are new we have to pay attention, particularly if there is a chance for danger. But once our bodies have adapted and the threat of novelty wears off then this response no longer occurs.

So what does this have to do with food you ask? Well, it turns out that studies show that variety within a single meal predicts how much you will eat. Have you ever been to a Brazilian Steak House before? It’s amazing. You go there and you have a little paper circle with green on one side for go and red to stop. Waiters then come by with 5 different types of steaks, chicken, pork, and lots of things covered in bacon! By the end of the meal, you have eaten several lbs of meat compared to maybe 6 to 8 ounces in a normal sit down meal. This is because the variety triggers the dopamine response mentioned above. The take-home message is to limit variety within a single meal if you want to avoid overeating (Raynor et al. 2001). On the other hand, those trying to gain weight may want to increase variety.

Cheat Clean..No Really!


Lots of people ask me if cheat meals are good for them. I typically respond, “why not cheat clean?” What do I mean by this? Well, it turns out that if you can make a meal that tastes good and is healthy at the same time that you will not get as much of a dopamine response when faced with a bad version of that food. In fact, we did a pilot study in our lab showing that healthy peanut butter cups lowered the desire to eat unhealthy versions of these! It’s also important to understand that individuals who always eat chicken and broccoli are bound to binge when exposed to foods like cheesecake. This means that cheating clean can actually help you to avoid disasters in the future!

Can Your Diet Be Making You Fat?


It seems rather counter-intuitive, however, dieting can have a negative effect on your body composition. Allow me to explain. If you go very long periods with calorie restriction, it may cause you to increase your hunger hormones. Not to mention the fact that if you go on an extreme diet, eating less than 1000 calories/day, you could cause a malfunction in your hunger hormones (leptin & ghrelin). This will cause your perceived hunger to be much higher than normal and the effects can last for up to a year!

Sumithran et al (2001) demonstrated this in their study where subjects crash dieted for 8-weeks. A year after the 8-week diet, the subjects hunger was still higher than before they dieted! This means you should not crash diet to achieve a weight loss goal because in the long term, it could make you eat more! Not only does crash dieting make you more hungry in the long term, it can also ruin your metabolism long-term (Fothergill et al., 2016).


In this life the more tools you have and the better you are at using them the more successful you can be when given a challenge. As we all know dieting can be extremely challenging. Using the methods and tools we discussed in this article will equip you with the necessary knowledge to not only maximize your diet but also maximize your lifestyle. It is my hope much of the sting that comes about from optimizing your physique can be alleviated taking this research into action.