How to Control Your Hunger Hormones to Lose Weight Fast, According to Experts
One of the most incredible systems in our bodies is hunger. We have a built-in system that involves multiple parts that tell us when we're hungry and signals when we're full.
"The system that regulates body weight is complex and involves the brain, stomach, intestines, and more," says Hannah Kittrell, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at Mount Sinai's PhysioLab. "Hunger hormones are hormones that interact with these different parts of the body and have a significant impact on body weight and appetite in response to energy balance."
And while it may seem like we're not in control of hunger when you get a whiff of McDonald's, there are ways to be in control of your hunger hormones, and ultimately, your hunger.
What are hunger hormones?
The two most well-studied hunger hormones are ghrelin and leptin. Both have a long-term influence on appetite and are related to energy balance.
- Ghrelin ("I'm hungry" hormone): "Ghrelin is produced in the stomach and signals to your brain that your body's food and sugar storage is low so you need to go find and eat food to replenish your stores," says Kittrell.
- Leptin ("I'm full" hormone): Leptin, on the other hand, does the opposite. "Leptin, mainly produced by fat tissue, is an anti-hunger hormone," says Kittrell. "When released it signals to the brain that the body has enough fuel for now and you don't need to go find food."
How ghrelin and leptin work to control your hunger.
Ideally, both leptin and ghrelin work together in balance to ensure your body has the fuel it needs to survive. "In a healthy individual, leptin and ghrelin work together to maintain energy balance and weight," says Kittrell.
However, the cohesive relationship between ghrelin and leptin begins to unravel in people dealing with obesity or diabetes. Similar to how individuals with obesity and/or diabetes develop insulin resistance, they can also develop leptin resistance.
Leptin resistance means the "body is still producing leptin but does not react to it properly," explains Kittrell. When your body doesn't acknowledge the "I'm full" hormone, your brain doesn't get the message that your fuel stores are full. The result? You overeat. Overeating due to leptin resistance can exacerbate your weight gain and obesity, making it even more difficult to lose weight fast.
In fact, leptin is closely related to insulin, so resistance to one hormone goes hand-in-hand with resistance to the other.
"To exacerbate leptin resistance, insulin will also stimulate the release of ghrelin in response to very low blood sugar levels," says Kittrell. Low blood sugar levels are common in uncontrolled diabetes and obesity. The ghrelin then signals your brain to search for food, despite having plenty of fuel storage available within the body.
Are hunger hormones responsible for food cravings?
Despite their connection to hunger, hunger hormones don't play a role in food cravings. Rather, brain hormones regulate food cravings.
"While hunger hormones like ghrelin and leptin contribute to appetite regulation, brain hormones like dopamine and serotonin are the main regulators of food cravings," says Kittrell. "Both dopamine and serotonin interact with the reward and pleasure centers in the brain, areas responsible for making us feel good."
Sugar is the biggest food component that leads to further food and sugar cravings. "Your body learns to associate eating sugar with feeling good and starts to crave the euphoric feeling associated with eating sugar. The same is true for high-fat foods, though to a lesser extent," says Kittrell.
"Tolerance for highly sweet and high-fat foods builds up over time, meaning we need more and more of them to achieve the same good feeling. Thus, you create a vicious cycle," she adds. Once you've identified you have sugar cravings, you don't need to fear: there are ways to retrain your sugar cravings to banish them for good.
How are hunger hormones connected to your microbiome?
Gut health isn't just a trendy wellness fad. It really does impact your hunger hormones.
"Gut bacteria can affect the production levels of ghrelin and leptin. This could alter your appetite and impact body weight," says Nancy Farrell Allen, MS, RDN Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The trillion bacteria in our gut are involved in the digestion of our foods and beverages. This, in turn, can then impact body weight.
"When gut bacteria digest foodstuffs, such as insoluble fibers, certain body compounds are released enhancing weight loss," says Farrell Allen. "There are companies out there that can evaluate your specific gut microbiome (through a stool sample) and then propose the foods that are best for you to specifically eat/digest. [This can] help to manage your insulin levels and weight better."
The gut microbiome plays a role in inflammatory responses. "Inflammatory diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are often associated with an elevated dietary fat and sugar intake," says Farrell Allen. "These, in turn, would influence blood insulin levels. Requiring more insulin to digest foodstuffs can equate with excess body weight. So, managing inflammation would be wise [if you want to get hunger hormones in control and lose weight]."
How can you regulate your hunger hormones and encourage weight loss?
There are actually numerous ways that you can help manage your hunger hormones from lifestyle changes to mental tips to medical intervention.
Here are 13 expert-recommended ways you can control hunger hormones to lose weight fast.
1. Eat on a schedule or decrease your eating window with intermittent fasting.
This can help prevent large swings in levels of circulating hunger hormones, which can cause extreme hunger and over-eating. A recent study from the Louisiana State University's Pennington Biomedical Research Center found that meal timing strategies such as intermittent fasting or eating earlier in the day appear to help people lose weight by lowering appetite, rather than burning more calories.
Participants followed two different eating schedules: (1) eating three meals between 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM, or (2) eating the same amounts and types of foods between 8:00 AM and 2:00 PM. Those who ate an earlier dinner (ate between 8:00 AM and 2:00 PM) had lower ghrelin levels and improved appetite
2. Get enough sleep.
"Some research is coming out indicating that ghrelin helps to promote sleep," says Farrell Allen. "Lack of sleep, less than 6 hours of sleep a night, increases ghrelin (hunger hormone) and decreases leptin (the satiety hormone). Kind of like a double whammy. This suggests that to help us manage weight, we need to consistently get at least 7-8 hours of sleep/night."
3. Eat a protein-packed breakfast.
"A high protein breakfast may be best at suppressing the naturally higher ghrelin levels your body experiences after fasting overnight," says Kittrell.
4. Eat plenty of fiber and protein.
"In general, a diet high in fiber and protein suppresses ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and hence the desire to eat," says Farrell Allen. "Science has recommended for years that choosing to follow a high fiber diet is best for weight management and now we are understanding it is best for gut health, too."
To eat more fiber to control hunger hormone, consider:
- Aiming for more servings of produce (whole vegetables and fruits)
- Eating more whole grains with greater than 5 grams of fiber per serving
- Adding more high-fiber foods to your diet, such as beans, nuts, and seeds
- Paying attention that you're meeting dietary recommendations for fiber intake
5. Eat more prebiotic and probiotics foods.
Prebiotics feed healthy gut bacteria. Probiotics—sources of good gut bacteria—are naturally found in fermented foods (pickled beets, sauerkraut, etc), yogurt, and kefir, suggests Farrell Allen.
6. Cut down on processed foods.
"Eating highly processed foods that contain additives and preservatives will decrease diversity of the microbiome and promote inflammation, negatively impacting hunger and overall health," says Kittrell. "Emulsifiers like carboxymethylcellulose and carrageenan, artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose, and antibiotics and hormones used in dairy and meat products can all negatively impact the gut microbiome."
7. Avoid purchasing foods that are tempting.
If you keep them in your house, you're more likely to eat them.
8. Don't go grocery shopping when you're hungry.
It's true…people who grocery shop when hungry buy more junk, according to a 2013 study.
9. The Keto Diet may be worth a try.
There has been a lot of research on the ketogenic diet (high fat and very low carbohydrate) and the beneficial effect it may have on hunger hormones. "Essentially, ketogenic diets impact brain signaling as ketones become the main source of energy (as opposed to glucose)," says Kittrell. By following a keto diet, you may reap potential benefits like increased insulin sensitivity. The body typically increases ghrelin levels during weight loss in response to decreased caloric intake, as it wants to bring you back to the amount of food you were eating. By following a keto diet, that increased insulin sensitivity leads to increased leptin sensitivity, which can offset the increase in ghrelin.
10. Change your routine to avoid food triggers.
"For example, enter your home from the front door (rather than the garage door) to avoid walking through the kitchen," says Farrell Allen. "Head right upstairs without stopping to find a snack in the kitchen as you enter the house."
Keep food snacks off the counter or office desk. That means say no to candy and nut bowls. Research has found that humans eat more if they are exposed to food, whether they're actually hungry or not.
11. Leave the room when food commercials come on the TV.
A study found that just hearing tempting food words activates a simulation of actually eating food. "Try to do 10 jumping jacks or 10 sit-ups for each food commercial," suggests Farrell Allen.
12. Look into medication.
Most hunger-hormone-regulating medications are still in the experimental phase. However, there is one FDA-approved medication on the market: Saxenda. "Saxenda is essentially a synthetic version of one of the appetite-decreasing hormones GLP-1. It works to reduce food intake by decreasing gastric emptying," says Kittrell. "This means that food takes longer to leave the stomach during the digestion process, making you feel fuller for longer. While the FDA approved this medication for safe use, remember that it is always best to take a food-first approach."
13. Bariatric surgery.
"The most notable improvement after bariatric surgery is increased GLP-1 levels and sensitivity," says Kittrell. "After the surgery you don't eat as much food and sugar. [A lower] overall calorie intake leads to better insulin sensitivity and better leptin sensitivity (since the two are related). Increased GLP-1 levels promote better insulin sensitivity as the body needs GLP-1 to make insulin."