The Important Role Macronutrients Play in Controlling Hunger

The Important Role Macronutrients Play in Controlling Hunger

Are you having trouble taming the hunger giant? What you’re eating and how often you’re eating it could be part of the problem. Skipping meals and making the wrong food choices leads to a constant battle with hunger. The composition of your diet–the type of foods you choose to eat–affects hormones that control your appetite. The best known of these hormones are leptin and ghrelin. Other hormones produced by cells in your intestinal tract, including GLP-1, CCK and peptide YY, also help with hunger control. The situation is clouded further by the fact that hunger and appetite isn’t the same thing. Confusing the two is one reason some people overeat.

Hunger versus Appetite

Hunger is the physiological need for food. Hunger is what causes your stomach to rumble and moan when your body is running low on energy. In contrast, appetite refers to the desire to eat. You can have a strong appetite without being physiologically hungry. Have you ever eaten a meal and felt like you couldn’t eat another bite? Then dessert is brought out and it’s German chocolate cake. Suddenly you want a piece of cake even though you were satiated three minutes earlier. That’s appetite, not hunger. The sensory qualities of the cake, the way it looks and smells, make you want to eat it.

You may have noticed that sometimes when you eat a meal, you feel full for 4 or 5 hours. Other times your stomach begins to growl after only an hour or two. Why does this happen? The foods you’re placing on your plate aren’t keeping you full and satisfied. Certain macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates and fat – help to satiate hunger more quickly and keep you full longer.

Macronutrients: Protein and Satiety

Protein ranks supreme among macronutrients for controlling hunger. Research shows protein keeps hunger in check better than carbohydrates and fat. When trying to lose weight, people who eat a higher protein diet are generally more successful, partially due to protein’s satiety benefits. In addition, consuming more lean protein helps preserve lean body mass so you don’t end up “skinny-fat.”

In one study, men who ate a high-protein breakfast of eggs consumed 112 fewer calories at lunch compared to men who ate a bagel for breakfast.  They also felt more energetic. Based on current research, eating a lean source of protein with every meal helps with appetite control when you’re trying to lose weight.

 Macronutrients: Carbohydrates

In general, carbohydrates are less satiating than comparable amounts of protein. This doesn’t mean you have to adopt a very low-carb diet to get hunger under control. Instead, reduce the amount of rapidly absorbed carbs (high-glycemic carbs) like those in most processed foods. When you do eat a high-glycemic carb, eat it along with a source of lean protein.

When you consume a high-glycemic carbohydrate, you get a more pronounced blood sugar and insulin response and insulin hangs around in your system longer, causing your blood sugar to fall as quickly as it spiked. When your blood sugar drops, you get those gnawing hunger pangs that send you running to the kitchen to “fuel up” with more carbs. For some people, this scenario plays out over and over again. They fill up on processed carbs and wonder why they always feel so hungry and have constant sugar cravings.

The best carbs for hunger control are high in fiber and come from whole food sources. Fiber helps reduce the blood sugar and insulin response to a meal. As a result, your blood sugar is more stable without the spikes and dips that trigger hunger and carb cravings. How does fiber exert its hunger-control magic? A fiber-rich meal draws water into your digestive tract. This stretches your stomach. Stretch signals the brain to slow down emptying. As a result, you feel full. Fiber also stimulates the release of gut hormones that subdue appetite. Lean protein and fiber-rich protein is a good combo for controlling hunger.

Macronutrients: Fat

Fat is another macronutrient that slows down the rate of stomach emptying. When your stomach empties more slowly, you feel full for a longer period of time. People who adopt low-fat diets usually feel hungrier than those who eat a diet with moderate amounts of healthy fats. Fats have been exonerated to some degree from a health standpoint, but people trying to lose weight still cling to the idea that eating fat makes it harder to lose weight. Although fat is more calorie dense than carbohydrates or proteins, without at least a modest amount of fat in your diet, you’ll feel hungrier. Plus, foods that are low in fat are usually higher in sugar and carbohydrate fillers.

An example of fatty food that tames hunger is the venerable pine nut. Pine nuts are rich in a fat called pinolenic acid. According to a study, pine nuts increase feelings of satiety by up to 36%. Pinolenic acid boosts production of appetite-suppressive hormones like cholecystokinin (CCK) and GLP-1. That means you stay fuller when you sprinkle a salad with pine nuts. Pine nuts are also a good source of vitamin E and magnesium.

Another type of fat that’s heart healthy and satiating is monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fat is abundant in avocados, olive oil, and nuts, especially macadamia nuts. Ever notice how much more filling vegetables are when they’re sautéed in olive oil? A study published on Medical Daily showed olive oil was more satiating than canola oil, lard or butter. Don’t be fat phobic – choose the right types of fat.

The Bottom Line?

Balancing the composition of your diet can help keep hunger at bay. Choose fiber-rich carbs, lean protein and a healthy source of fat at each meal. Stay away from processed carbs and added sugar. Don’t drink your calories either. Liquid calories aren’t as satiating as those from whole foods. Lastly, don’t skip meals. Eat something healthy every three to four hours to keep hunger in check.



WebMD. “Your Hunger Hormones”

Food Navigator-USA.com. “Protein, Fiber and Flavor Key to Producing Satiety” Mar 2013.

Medical Daily. “Olive Oil Health Benefit: Makes You Feel Full, Boosts Mood”  (March 2013)

Obesity (2010) doi:10.1038/oby.2010.203.

Eurekalert.org. “Higher-protein diets can improve appetite control and satiety” July 2011.

Am J Clin Nutr July 2005 vol. 82 no. 1 41-48.

Lipids Health Dis. 2008; 7: 10.


Related Articles By Cathe:

4 Types of Appetite-Suppressing Foods That Control Hunger

Does the Order in Which You Eat Your Macronutrients Matter?

5 Ways to Naturally Curb Your Appetite That Are Backed by Science

Reasons You’re Not Full after a Meal

Eliminate These Three Foods to Prevent Food Cravings

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