When Is It OK to Ignore Hunger?

Confession time. When I gained 40+ pounds in college, I knew I needed to get back on track. Unfortunately, I went about it the wrong way: I fasted until lunch.

POPSUGAR Photography

Restricting my calorie intake like this just made me crave food all the time, and it was a big reason why I was running and not losing weight. Ignoring my hunger pangs wasn't easy, and by lunchtime, I was so bonkers-hungry, my meal choices weren't exactly the healthiest. Which is why dietitians Stephanie Clarke, RD, and Willow Jarosh, RD, of C&J Nutrition, do not recommend disregarding hunger signals, skipping meals, and waiting until you're famished to eat. Aside from messing with your metabolism, "it could put you into 'extremely hungry' territory and make it more difficult to make a balanced decision regarding food quality and quantity at meal time," they said. Although I didn't consume any calories all morning long, I made up for it (and then some!) the rest of the day and ended up gaining weight when I was trying to lose it.

While skipping a single snack won't have a major effect on metabolism, Willow and Stephanie warn that "not eating until you're totally famished can lead to eating the first thing in sight — and a lot of it — when you do eat." On the other extreme, "eating every time you feel the slightest bit hungry could mean eating way more than you actually need." So how does hunger play into weight loss? While you definitely don't need to feel hungry all day long to lose weight, a moderate level of hunger is important in order to signal to your body when it's time to eat. If you eat because of other signals like certain times of day, when you're doing certain activities (like watching TV), when you're bored, or when other people are eating, you're at risk for overconsuming calories and gaining weight.

So yes, it's OK to ignore beginning signals of hunger such as low energy or a gurgling belly, but you definitely don't want to get to the point where you're so starved you're lightheaded or nauseous, can't concentrate, have a headache, or get hangry. Learn to welcome these early hunger cues, because they're your body's way of telling you when to eat. The key is to eat every three to four hours and to eat just enough until you're satisfied but not stuffed so that you feel moderately hungry just before your next meal or snack. If you're eating the right amount of food to feel full and content, then you should experience hunger three to six times a day, depending on how many meals (three) and snacks (zero to three) you eat.

If weight loss is your goal, eating three meals and two 150-calorie snacks a day may seem like a lot, but snacking between meals usually means eating less during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Since you're not starving at all during the day, you end up consuming fewer total daily calories, which is the key to creating the calorie deficit you need to drop pounds.