This article has been Fact-Checked by Kendall Kennedy MS, RD, RYT
In today’s diet world it feels like you have to be hungry to lose weight. Is that the case? Does being hungry mean you are losing weight?
Weird diets, juice cleanses, excessive exercising, and crash diets can make you feel hungry but they are not the only ways to lose weight. They are often actually the worst things you can do for long-term weight loss.
You might get hungry every once in a while you’re losing weight, even with a good plan. However, being hungry does not mean you are losing weight. There are plenty of things that make you feel hungrier but make you lose less weight.
What causes hunger?
How hungry you feel is determined by many different signaling processes going on inside of your body. For example, the levels of certain hunger hormones influence how much hunger you experience.
There is a certain overlap between losing weight and hunger but one can happen without too much of the other. In the case of hunger, it’s possible to feel more hunger while losing less weight.
One of the most important hormones that signals hunger is “ghrelin”. Injections of ghrelin in humans and animals have been shown to increase food intake (1). Ghrelin is produced by cells in your gastrointestinal tract. This hormone is also involved in other important processes.
The right levels of ghrelin at the right times is beneficial for your health. However, often people eat and do things that cause abnormal levels of ghrelin at the wrong times. This is not useful when you’re trying to lose weight.
Ghrelin is just one example, there are many more hormones that influence hunger one way or another.
What causes weight loss?
Weight gain happens because you absorb more energy from your food than you use. Your body stores the excess energy to be used for later. In prehistoric times this was useful because energy-dense food wasn’t always around.
These days you can find energy-dense food everywhere. This makes it easy to take in too many calories. This leads to excess body fat. Excess body fat is harmful to your health which is one of the reasons why people try to lose weight.
The way you lose this excess body fat is by using more calories than there are coming in from the things you eat and drink. Your body needs more energy than is coming in from food so it starts using the energy you’ve stored. This is known as a calorie deficit.
There is no rule that says you have to be hungry to lose weight. A calorie deficit can leave you hungry but it’s no requirement.
5 ways you can feel hungry but not lose more weight
Now you know that hunger doesn’t always mean you’re losing weight. What are then some examples of situations where you feel hungrier but you are not necessarily burning more calories?
By reading these 5 examples of situations where you can feel hungrier but not lose more weight it becomes clear that hunger and losing weight are not synonyms.
1. Lack of sleep
Not sleeping enough is associated with higher levels of ghrelin, more hunger, in humans and animals (2, 3, 4, 5).
This may be one of the reasons why a lack of sleep is also associated with a higher body weight (6, 7, 8).
The increased levels of ghrelin could also be the result of the damage lack of sleep does to your body. In any case, having quality sleep is useful when you’re trying to lose weight.
2. Low blood sugar
Low levels of blood sugar and increased levels of hunger are interconnected (9, 10). It’s basically your body telling you “please eat more, we’re running low on energy”. Even when you actually have a lot of stored energy in the form of body fat.
Low blood sugar is not always the result of burning large amounts of calories. Certain foods cause dips in blood sugar soon after you’ve consumed them. On the other hand you have foods that keep your blood sugar levels stable without adding many calories to your diet.
The best example of this is a processed carbohydrate like for example a bottle of soda. It’s very easy for your body to get the sugar from the drink into your bloodstream fast. This leads to a big increase in blood sugar levels with all kinds of negative effects.
Your body compensates for the big spike in blood sugar by releasing a lot of insulin which brings down your blood sugar levels. So much insulin that it overcompensates your blood sugar levels. The result of this is a blood sugar dip when you stop drinking the soda.
This blood sugar dip then causes hunger even though you just absorbed a large amount of calories into your system.
By consuming the wrong foods and drinks, like soda, you get more hungry while actually losing less weight. You might even gain weight and feel hungry at the same time.
Not all humans are exactly the same. There are differences in genes that affect daily life. These different genes can affect the way you process food and, relevant to this article, the amount of hunger you feel.
For example, there is the “Prader-Willi syndrome”. One of the things that people with this condition feel is increased levels of hunger (11). It’s not likely that you have this condition. Most people are easily diagnosed due to a variety of other symptoms. This condition just shows you that big differences in feelings of hunger are possible due to differences in genetics.
There are also genes that are associated with feeling more hunger (12). You can get a dna-test to see if you have these kinds of genes but in the end you will have to live with them anyway. Knowing that you have these kinds of genes is not that helpful.
The main point is that 2 people could feel different amounts of hunger while losing the same amount of weight.
4. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
Premenstrual syndrome or PMS in short involves all kinds of hormone changes for women. PMS can also increase appetite and cravings (13).
Currently, there is no relation found between premenstrual syndrome and an increase in calorie burning. That means that one woman can feel hungrier while losing the same amount of weight as a different woman who has no PMS.
Extended periods of elevated stress can increase the amount of cortisol in your body. Cortisol in turn can increase the amount of hunger and cravings you have (14).
You might have a few stressful weeks at work. The hunger that results from that stress does not mean that you’re losing more weight.
Does being hungry burn calories?
Being hungry is the result of signals your body sends your brain. These signals are not necessarily because of burning more calories. You can be hungry and not burn extra calories. You can burn extra calories without being hungry.
Is going to bed hungry good for weight loss?
More hunger does not mean more weight loss. Things that cause the hunger, like not eating right before bed, can help weight loss. Eating right before bed can mess with your sleep which in turn messes with weight loss.
Does being hungry mean you burned all your calories?
No. Low blood sugar may increase hunger but even when your blood sugar is low you most likely have calories stored as body fat and glycogen.
Is feeling hungry good for weight loss?
Not necessarily. There are many different reasons you may feel hungry that don’t help weight loss. In some cases, these things do reduce weight loss.
Are hunger pains a sign of fat burning?
Being hungry is not automatically related to burning more calories or burning fat vs sugar.
Does hunger mean you are in a calorie deficit?
No, hunger is the result of signals your body sends to your brain. These signals are not always the result of a calorie deficit.