Does Calorie Deficit Make You Hungry? (Explained)


A calorie deficit means you’re eating fewer calories than your body uses for daily energy expenditure. And depending on how much calorie deficit you’re in, you may or may not feel hungry. So, does calorie deficit make you hungry?

In general, calorie deficit does make you hungry because it is regulated by food intake. Eating less food creates a negative energy balance, which triggers the hypothalamus to release a hunger hormone called ghrelin to begin the eating process.

In this article I will explain everything there is to know about being hungry on a calorie deficit and what can you do about it.

Does Being Hungry Mean You’re In A Calorie Deficit?

In general, being hungry does mean you’re in a calorie deficit because food intake regulates hunger signals. Stomach emptiness and negative energy balance stimulate the hormone ghrelin through the vagus nerve to start initiating the eating process.

What is a negative energy balance? A negative energy balance is when your energy expended exceeds energy intake. Eating fewer calories than your body needs creates a metabolic shift where the body starts to use fat as the main energy source.

Why negative energy balance is important in weight loss?

Negative energy balance is important in weight loss because it is the main reason why the body is losing weight. With lesser calories, to maintain all necessary functions, the body needs alternative food energy sources so is taking the calories from fat.

One of the indicators that inform you you’re in a calorie deficit (negative energy balance) is hunger. Hunger signals are only related to the lack of food. When the body doesn’t have any more food (stomach emptiness) it starts two things:

  • It starts to break down the fatty acids to get more energy right now. As a result, we lose weight.
  • It initiates the process of eating by signaling hunger. This way it protects us from eating ourselves.

This is a simple protective mechanism. Your body runs on energy regardless if you’re moving around or not. Imagine for a moment what would happen if you’d never feel hungry? You probably wouldn’t eat at all. So where would you get all the energy for your body needs like breathing, blood flow, or cognition?

Very likely from fat, muscles, and other tissues. Sooner or later that would lead to starvation. So naturally, the body is preventing from that happening by signaling hunger.

Does hunger reduce belly fat? Generally, hunger does reduce belly fat because it’s an indicator of emptiness in the stomach, which is related to lowered calorie intake. Feeling hungry throughout the day is also an indicator of being in a calorie deficit, which over time leads to reduced belly fat.

Does being hungry mean you burned all your calories? In general, being hungry doesn’t mean you burned all your calories. Being hungry is a signal coming from your gastrointestinal tract that indicates emptiness and lowered blood glucose levels. The signal comes from the hunger hormone ghrelin to initiate the eating process.

Is It Normal To Feel Hungry When Trying To Lose Weight?

In general, it is normal to feel hungry when trying to lose weight. Hunger usually comes several hours after the last meal, and if you reduce food intake or the frequency of meals this will facilitate greater hunger signals, increase your appetite, and desire to eat.

There is no need to worry if you’re wondering why am I so hungry on a calorie deficit. Feeling hungry while dieting is normal because hunger is regulated by food intake and it’s a necessary protective mechanism against negative energy balance.

Evolution doesn’t work in the favor of fat loss. Because it is much more fun and rewarding for the brain to eat and stay feed rather than not to eat and stay hungry. Especially today when food is being chemically engineered to the extent that it can override the hypothalamic system that regulates energy balance.

What is a hypothalamic system and why is it important?

The hypothalamic system is the connection between the nervous and endocrine systems. It regulates the majority of the hormones and neurotransmitters. The hypothalamic system is important because it signals to the body when we’re hungry and when full.

The problem is when we eat food stimulating food that is highly palatable, genetically modified, high of sugar and fat it can override the satiety signals and make us continue to eat, despite being full.

As you can imagine, this creates overeating, drives positive energy balance and makes us gain weight. This means that our body is super sensitive to negative energy balance, and is quite tolerant for positive energy balance. Good for survival. Not good for fat loss.

Does Eating Less Calories Make You Hungry?

Generally, eating less calories does make you hungry because hunger is influenced by food intake. It is also influenced by factors like how much water, fiber, and protein was in the food, how fast or how slow have you eaten, and more.

In other words, the level of hunger will not only be infuenced by when was your last meal, but also by what did you eat. Foods that have more fiber, protein and water generally keep you full for longer.

  • Dietary fiber lowers post-meal hunger because it physically traps the nutrients and reduces the rate of absorption of those nutrients from the food. It also slows down the transport of enzymes to their substrates like bile salts to fat for emulsification (Eastwood 1992).
  • A high protein diet helps to increase satiety through something which is called protein-induced satiety. This happens because of increased energy expenditure and elevation of the anorexigenic hormones (Belza, et al. 2013).

But there are several other factors that will dictate your hunger levels. In the table below you can see some of the most relevant.

FactorsExamples
What you eatMacronutrients composition
Water and fiber
How fast / slow you eat last meal
Hormone levelsTestosterone
Menopause and menstrual cycles
Breastfeeding
Pregnancy
Stress hormones
Biological rhythmUsual eating times
Sleep
Travelling / Jet lag
Working shifts
PsychologicalFood smell
Food appearance
Stress
Anxiety
Social norms
Sadness
Boredom
Habits
IndividualBody fat percentage
Exercise and activity levels
Age
GI health
Medications
Body temperature
Nutrient deficiency
List of things that influence hunger

Does Your Body Burn More Calories When Hungry?

As a whole, your body doesn’t burn more calories when hungry because hunger doesn’t increase metabolic rate. Being hungry means your body switches from using food into using internal sources (body fat), but the amount of calories burned doesn’t change.

Do you burn more fat when hungry? As a general rule, you do burn more fat when you’re hungry because hunger is triggered by lower food intake. It is a signal of emptiness in the stomach and an indicator of negative energy balance when the body starts using stored fat for energy.

Are Hunger Pains good for losing weight? As a general rule, hunger pains are good for weight loss because they signal you when you’re in a calorie deficit, without calculating calorie intake, measuring your food portions, or counting points. Listening to the body hunger signal is a good indicator you’re losing weight.

Are hunger pains a sign of fat burning? In general, hunger pains are a sign of fat burning because for the body to feel physically hungry it requires not eating for 5-8 hours. The longer you stay without the food, the body shifts to burning stored body fat as the main energy source.

Is going to bed hungry good for weight loss? In general, going to bed hungry is good for weight loss, however, it may not be sustainable for most people. Eating less in the afternoon initiates hunger at night, which helps to create a negative energy balance. But it also can interfere with sleep.

How To Be In a Calorie Deficit Without Being Hungry?

The best way to create calorie deficit without being hungry is by eating foods that are protein-rich, high or fiber and water. It is also important to eat slowly, and mindfully.

Several more strategies can help you stay in a calorie deficit without being hungry, which I won’t be covering here. I’ve already covered that in “how to be in a calorie deficit without being hungry“, which I recommend you read.

Conclusion

Generally speaking, it is absolutely normal to feel hungry when trying to lose weight. Hunger signal is an indicator of reduced calorie intake and is in place to regulate energy balance. When you feel hungry, your stomach is empty and your body starts to use stored fat for energy.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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