October 2, 2015

Food for Thought Friday: Yes, You *Are* Hungry

One of the frequently repeated claims about low carb and ketogenic diets goes something like, “I don’t get hungry anymore.” Many people find that being in ketosis suppresses the appetite. In some cases, the higher the ketones and/or the free fatty acids, the less desire there is to eat. But is this really true? If you follow a low carb diet, will your appetite go away completely? Will you never be hungry? I find this hard to believe, so let’s dissect this claim, shall we?

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while (and if so, I thank you!), then you know I’ve reserved these Food for Thought Friday posts as my place to do a little ranting, albeit in a humorous way. I hope I’m not becoming too negative, though. It’s just that I get pretty hung up on language, and I don't like us playing fast and loose with how we say things. It’s probably the writer in me. So I got a little annoyed the other day when I was catching up on Robb Wolf’s podcast, and I heard Perfect Health Diet author Paul Jaminet say something about this phenomenon of magically disappearing hunger.

Before I launch into the rest of today’s rant post, let me make it clear that I have nothing but respect for Paul and his wife, Shou-Ching. I recently read Perfect Health Diet (PHD), and I definitely learned a thing or two (or twelve). It’s made me rethink a few things about my own diet, and I had more than one “a-ha” moment. (Can’t believe I just used that odious phrase. Ugh. But what can I say? It works.) There’s no denying that the PHD approach has given people results when all else fell short: low carb, keto, strict Paleo, GAPS™, and more. Dr. Jaminet was describing the Perfect Health Retreat, which is a two-week total immersion in the Perfect Health Diet lifestyle. You hang out at their beach house in North Carolina, eat PHD-compliant meals (and also learn how to cook this way), do some fasting, and participate in your choice of exercises, meditation, and educational lectures. You regulate your circadian rhythm, and return home with a much better handle on how to make this work in your life.

Here is what Paul said, verbatim, from the transcript of the podcast:

“One of the things people often find at our retreats is you know, that hunger disappears. You know and they just don’t have any hunger. Fasting becomes really easy and they’re surprised at how little they can eat and be totally hunger free.”

Really? Really? Hunger disappears? They’re never hungry? Never, ever? They’re “totally hunger free?” Upon adjusting to PHD, these people completely lose the physiological urge to consume food? Wow! Where do I sign? (I could save some pretty good money if I never had to buy food!)

Obviously, this isn’t quite what Dr. Jaminet meant. (I will call him Dr. Jaminet since “Paul” feels too informal, but for those of you who aren’t familiar with him, please know that he is not a medical doctor. He earned a PhD in physics. This isn’t reason to respect his advice any less; I’m just doing my due diligence. I wish the admins on Chris Kresser’s blog would do the same. I am a huge fan of Chris and have learned a great deal from him, but it really irks me when people leave comments and call him “Dr. Kresser,” and his admins don’t correct them. When it comes to natural medicine and alternative health, I am confident he knows way more than most doctors, but that does not actually make him a doctor.)

Okay, back to the topic at hand. If people following the PHD, or a low carb or ketogenic diet “don’t have any hunger,” then what ever—ever—makes them sit down and have a bite to eat?

Let's clarify what we mean. We do get hungry. Hunger, as a physiological drive, doesn’t “disappear.” What does disappear—at least, most of the time—is hanger. Irrational and illogical hunger go away. What do I mean by this? Illogical hunger is when you feel hungry an hour and a half after a meal. It’s illogical because it makes no sense that, assuming you ate a normal-sized meal, the food wasn’t enough to keep you sated for a whopping 90 minutes. (Of course, if you understand just a little basic biochemistry and physiology, then you know that this actually is logical, but only when this hunger is driven by blood sugar swings.)

See, it’s not that we never get hungry. That’s actually pretty ridiculous, when you think about it. A much better description of this phenomenon is: when we are no longer riding the ups and downs of the blood sugar rollercoaster, we rediscover how to interpret the signals our bodies give us, and we are able to have a proper response. What these dietary strategies do is normalize the biological signals that tell us it’s time to put some fuel into our bodies. We start feeling a little hungry when it’s been several hours since we last had something to eat, rather than because we’re crashing at the bottom of the aforementioned endocrine rollercoaster, thanks to the donut and fat-free latte we consumed.

Like I said, we feel hungry, rather than hangry. We’re not shaky, irritable, light-headed, or nauseous. We don’t feel like we’re going to murder somebody—our spouse and/or kids included—if we don’t get fed in the next fifteen seconds. We’re not going to gnaw our own arm off if someone doesn’t hand us a cookie, pronto. We have no cravings for something sweet while we prepare our real meal. We’re hungry, but we can wait a while if need be. We could even do a workout if we had one planned; we’ll simply work up even more of an appetite when we’re finished.

When hunger eventually comes on—and it does—it is hunger for whole, unprocessed, nourishing foods. A steak. A fatty pork chop. Lamb meatballs. Brussels sprouts with bacon. Roasted broccoli with garlic. We’re hungry, and we want real food. We recognize that our bodies are asking for nourishment, and we’re attracted to foods that will provide it. We’re not at all interested in shoveling in whatever’s handy, because whatever’s handy is typically loaded with sugar and refined grains.

So it’s not that the biological drive to eat goes away. What goes away is the false “hunger” that is not actually the body needing food, but merely the hormonal response to a rapid and precipitous drop in blood glucose. Rather than saying people following low carb, ketogenic, or Perfect Health Diet approaches never get hungry, it’s a better description to say that our hunger signals are driven by the actual physiological need for energy and nutrients. (Probably nutrients more so than energy. Remember, even a lean person has thousands of calories of energy stored in adipose tissue.)

But I know, I know. That isn’t anywhere near as catchy as saying hunger disappears. (I’m on a one-woman mission to quash sensationalist headlines and claims in the nutrition and health worlds. Told you I was bad at marketing…)

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Great "rant," as usual. Something for people to really understand. Instead of "do not feel hunger," what about saying, "do not suffer the pangs of hunger"? Anyone who has suffered the hunger pangs of hypoglycemia knows full well what it means.

    We have been on a low-carb/keto diet for 20 or more years, have learned to eat lots of butter (for energy as well as taste), and never seem to feel "hungry." At mealtime, we look forward to and enjoy our food, but if something came up to delay our meal, we would not expire from lack of food or even feel uncomfortable.

    Maybe its a matter of definition. Maybe when you know it time for a fill up, you look with pleasure to eating - and with even more joy when it's a "fatty pork chop" - maybe that is hunger.

    Looking forward to part 3. A&F

  2. I have found that the sensation of hunger is very different on a low carb diet. Instead of intense pain and discomfort, it is very vague. Sometimes I will see junk food and think "I want that". I have learned that when I think that, I should stop and ask myself how long it has been since I have eaten, and whether I am therefore hungry. I usually find--somewhat to my surprise--that I am hungry, but not ravenous. I only truly recognize the hunger when I start to eat--I'm often surprised to have an appetite.

    I'm bombarded by processed food and food images all the time--around the house, in the office, in stores, on the internet, in the newspaper, on the radio and t.v., but the only time II even notice all that is when --as it turns out--I'm hungry (for REAL food).

    Quite a change from the blood sugar roller coaster, when I had to eat approximately every two hours to avoid the blood sugar crash! I used to have to plan my day around where I could get something to eat or drink keep my blood sugar up. Life is so much more pleasurable when it's not constrained by the need to constantly eat.

    1. Same here, Jan. I very rarely crave sweets, but when I do, it's usually been several hours since I've eaten. And if I can manage to eat a real meal, the desire for the sugar goes away. When I'm well fed and off the BG rollercoaster, I can walk past a tray of donuts like it's not even there. I have no interest in it whatsoever. It's really mindblowing how much things come into balance. That's not to say I *never* eat junk. because I surely do, but overall, I understand my body's signals far more than I did 15 years ago, when I could not even comprehend the notion of having a piece of chocolate cake in front of me and *not* wanting to devour it.

  3. I have had a binge eating disorder most of my life. My hunger cues are way out of whack. I've done everything; meds, counselling, distraction,meditation, 3 square meals a day, keto, eat ad-lib, eat more, keep kryptonite foods out of house, keep them in house but eat in moderation blah blah. Everyone thinks they have the simple answer. The only hack that controls this turd of a disease is IF; it restores the feeling of true hunger and brings peace/self control. Some people think that IF is bad for binge eaters, they will starve and then eat the house out. I find it doesn't work that way for me. I have no doubt what I have is a brain disorder or mental illness but am still amazed at the power of IF. Sorry, I know this wasn't about IF.

    1. Don't apologize for a good comment. I think IF is a great strategy for many people. Some don't do so well with it, but it certainly seems to be the missing piece for others. I guess the kicker is how much easier it is to fast (even for half a day, if we want to think of that as a "fast") when one is fat-adapted and the blood glucose isn't screaming out to be fed constantly. There are people who can't imagine *not* snacking all day long, and if they have to fast for a day for religious reasons or maybe a medical test, they can hardly stand it. Being able to go long-ish stretches without "needing" to eat is liberating, but most of us wouldn't be able to do it so easily if we were having a bagel and OJ in the morning. ;-) LCHF really helps kill the hormonal hunger.

  4. I would say hunger does not disappear, but fades considerably, when you shut down sugars and cereals (my way of saying low carb...). And I'll definitely go with the comment on IF. Great tool and habit to put the desire to eat where it should probably always be, subdued and under control of the beholder.

  5. Many thanks for the article Amy. I feel a relief that as a consumer of "real food" I now have permission to feel hungry and to think about food! I wondered what I was doing wrong that I could not go indefinitely without food, without getting hungry, and without thinking about food. 5-6 hours after a good feed of fatty lamb chops and a bucket load of veggies, I'm thinking about the next meal, planning what I'll cook, what flavours I will construct in a certain dish....and in between times I'm planning the next week of cooking, shopping etc. I can easily go 14-16 hours without eating and with a workout thrown in for good measure, I feel a bit hungry, rather empty in the tummy and I think about the next meal......but I had been lead to believe that I shouldn't have these feelings or thoughts....I should be able to go indefinitely without hunger or thoughts of food. Ha! Yes, I get hungry, and Yes, I think about food; and now I understand that this is how it should be! Thanks Amy!

    1. Right -- we shouldn't feel guilty, or like we're "doing it wrong" if we get hungry. If we never, ever had to eat, then you'd have to wonder why we have such a complex digestive system! ;-) The beauty of low-carb is that, by tapping into stored body fat as fuel, we can easily go many, many hours without eating, and without feeling any discomfort. Some people do better with intermittent fasting than others. I suspect this might have some genetic components (in the same way I suspect an ultra low-carb diet is not the best way for *everyone.*)

      Sounds like you're a foodie, with planning future meals and thinking about what you'll go shopping for. Nothing wrong with that. Low-carbers can absolutely be foodies; we just think of different ingredients than the average SAD eater, when we picture our own "food porn." ;-)

  6. Excellent rant Amy. I believe more people would consider examining our way of eating if it were not for the,"sensationalist headlines and claims in the nutrition and health worlds"!

  7. Thanks for the article Amy! I was doing LCHF for 2 years and now I've been ZC (no plants) for a month. I do feel hungry and want and crave real food (like a good steak, or some grilled slice of fat, or cheese and butter sandwich (minus the bread), etc.), however, it's nothing where I would start getting nauseous unless I eat something in the next few seconds. I can have 3 meals a day, but usually 2. I can eat every 4 hours, or if I am busy with some interesting project and I do not want to take a break, and I've had a good breakfast in the morning, I can go for 12 hours (I lived like that for days this summer when I was working on a DIY project, with breakfast at 8am and dinner at 7-8pm), and I would be hungry, but it's nothing that I can't push away until a bit later, when I am finished for the day and ready to eat. Without sugar running your life, you control when you eat instead of hunger pains controlling you. I do need to adjust my circadian rhythm and have my meals at regular intervals, but so far I just go by how I feel, and on some days I'll have breakfast and dinner, on other days just lunch, but when I eat, I am usually hungry for my food and I enjoy it.

  8. Excellent points. That said, I found even after 2 years of being 'primal', I still had psychologically induced moments of 'hanger.' It takes a long time to break those emotional knee-jerk reactions to stress by using sugar to self soothe. Or, at least for me, it has been the case.

    1. Oh, absolutely. Still happens to me once in a while...usually when it's been many hours since I last ate and am sitting in the horrible, horrible DC traffic and wanting to kill everyone in sight. "Road rage" doesn't even begin to explain the rage. I guess it's not hanger so much as just straight-up anger. ;-) Usually a very small bit of alcohol takes the edge off almost immediately. (After I get home, of course!) Not a great solution, obviously, but better than continuing to stew in my fury. And it only happens once every few months.

      As for sugar cravings, those still happen, too, but I can satisfy them with something small and not have a major binge.

      I don't think anyone is "doing it wrong" if they still crave now & then. Many people selling the most popular "Paleo" and low carb cookbooks, and who have popular blogs, are constantly sharing recipes for healthified junk. This isn't justification for it; I'm just pointing out that plenty of the real food "celebrities" make no secret of the chocolate, maple syrup, dates, coconut sugar, etc., that they use.

  9. People who haven't experienced it probably don't understand that there are qualitative as well as quantitative differences between "normal hunger" and the "must eat NOW or I will fall over" carb cravings.

    I spent most of my life dutifully eating "low fat", starting my day with a "heart healthy" high carb breakfast. Whenever I went for a long walk or did other prolonged exertion I would need to carry sandwiches, chocolate, Kendal mint cake and a flask of sugar-sweetened coffee and carb up every two - three hours or I would crash both physically and mentally.

    For more than a decade now I've been eating low carb. I have a small high protein moderate fat low carb breakfast and routinely go 6 - 8 hours, and often 8 - 10 hours, before even thinking of eating again. I have my main meal any time between late afternoon and late evening, by which time I generally start thinking "I ought to eat something before long!" Then I have a snack-sized meal later at night.

    Some days I eat more. Other days I eat less. I don't particularly worry about that any more. I still notice though that if I eat out and have more carbs than usual not only do some of my symptoms return but so does the hunger.

  10. I am "never hungry" literally because I eat at regular intervals (every 12 to 18 hours) and don't experience hunger in between. Anyone who talks about never being hungry is describing that. No one is claiming you simply don't ever, ever get hungry if you don't eat. Have you ever fasted for a week? Were you hungry? I'm betting you were, but not in that SAD way (hangry). The lack of that frequent extreme hunger is simply what people are referring to when they say they are "never hungry". It seems like you are choosing to be so literal in your interpretation in order to facilitate making a post, no one is confused by what anyone means by saying "never hungry".