Even after you’ve shed major pounds, keeping the weight off can be a huge struggle. One reason? Your body constantly feels hungry, according to a new study from the American Physiological Society.
For the study, researchers had 40 obese volunteers — which was defined as having a body mass index greater than 40 — attend five three-week long weight loss sessions over the span of two years. During the sessions, the participants were coached through daily exercise and eating healthy.
The researchers did a blood test to measure their hunger and satiety hormone levels after four weeks, one year, and two years into the experiment. They also recorded the participants’ self-reported feelings of hunger and fullness during these times.
All of the participants lost weight — but even though they were able to keep most of it off after two years, they felt hungry: At the one and two-year periods, the researchers discovered that their feelings of fullness dipped, while feelings of hunger significantly spiked.
It might be an evolutionary reaction: When you lose a lot of weight, your body sees it as a threat to your survival, so it boosts your hunger hormones to signal that you need to eat. However, the patients in the study saw an increase in both their hunger and satiety hormones. Yet, the hunger hormones seemed to override the ones associated with fullness.
And that ravenous I-need-more-food feeling is a huge problem when you’re trying to maintain weight loss.
“This study shows what is known in the obesity clinical setting. Most people will fail diet and exercise programs for weight loss,” explains obesity specialist Spencer Nadolsky, D.O., author of The Fat Loss Prescription. “There are multiple reasons for this, but appetite is one of the biggest ones.”
That doesn’t mean your diet is necessarily doomed to fail: This study had the participants eat more often — five to six times a day instead of three — which could have skewed appetite and hunger ratings if they weren’t used to chowing down so frequently. “It may prime them to want to eat more often,” says Dr. Nadolsky.
The good news is, despite their desire to eat more, the study participants did manage to keep off most of the weight they lost, says Dr. Nadolsky.
Battling that appetite can be difficult for the long haul, though, especially if you’re going at it alone. Here are a few things Dr. Nadolsky has his patients do when all they can think about is wanting more food:
OPTIMIZE YOUR MEALS
Protein and fiber are your best friends here. Both slow down digestion, helping you feel fuller for longer. When hunger strikes, increase your protein intake by roughly 10 grams at each meal and double the amount of non-starchy vegetables on your plate.
Make your fiber-packed carbs high in volume and low in calories. Foods like melon, berries, and legumes may help, says Dr. Nadolsky. “Tinker with how many meals per day you eat,” he adds. “You may feel you do better with fewer but larger meals.”
DRINK PLENTY OF WATER
Glug water before and during your meals, says Dr. Nadolsky. Your stomach can only contain so much at once, so when it’s partly full of water, you’ll feel fuller faster and leave less room for extra food.
In fact, overweight people who downed about 17 ounces of water 30 minutes before their meals for 12 weeks lost three more pounds than those who didn’t, party due to the fact that water just made them feel more full, according to a study published in the journal Obesity.