Managing your hunger while staying within your macro targets can be a challenge.
This is especially the case if you’re not focused on the type of nutrients you’re eating and when you’re eating them.
Below, I’ll share the main reasons why you may be hungry, my top tips to manage hunger, and what to do if you’ve already met your targets for the day but are still feeling hungry.
- Feeling hungry is a natural sensation that indicates your body needs energy. If your hunger is constant and extreme, it could be an indication of inadequate calorie or nutrient intake.
- Protein and fiber-rich foods promote satiety, so including these at every meal will help prevent or minimize hunger, which can easily be accomplished within your macro targets.
- Drinking enough fluids throughout the day and a glass of water before meals can help keep hunger at bay.
What My Clients Say About Being Hungry When Tracking Macros
As a dietitian, I’ve worked with many clients over the years and I have realized that there are recurring themes that emerge with clients that tend to be hungry despite hitting their macros.
Here are some general experiences that clients have shared about feeling hungry and trends that I’ve noticed when looking at a clients food log:
- Those who hit their macros using processed foods tend to be more hungry than those who prioritize whole foods.
- Those on a calorie deficit that hit their macros and still feel hungry often end up indulging in high-calorie foods and choose to “give up” on the day.
- Some have found themselves constantly thinking and obsessing about food and the balance of macros at every meal, finding it hard to shift the attention away from food.
- Clients that eat the majority of their protein in one sitting, rather than spreading it evenly throughout the day tend to be more hungry.
- Those that eat meals too far apart tend to feel more hungry once macros are met.
- Some clients that try intermittent fasting (eating within a restricted time frame) find hunger easier to manage, whereas others feel ravenous at the end of the day.
Does Hunger Mean Something Is Wrong?
Feeling physical hunger is a natural physiological signal to tell you that your body needs more energy. It is a normal sensation and not necessarily an indication that something is wrong.
Signals that your body needs energy can be physical sensations such as tummy rumbling or psychological sensations like an inability to focus on the task at hand.
These signals happen because your stomach produces the “hunger hormone” (ghrelin) which is known to increase appetite to encourage you to provide it with more fuel. This is entirely normal.
However, if hunger is continuous or extreme, it can be a sign of an imbalance in your diet like inadequate calorie or nutrient intake, or a sign of an underlying health problem.
It is important to not confuse this type of hunger with emotional, psychological hunger, which tends to occur when one eats for reasons other than physical hunger.
When this happens, it’s not because of physical hunger, but due to food pleasure, boredom, stress, or anxiety.
Related9 Hunger Hacks While Fasting
5 Reasons You’re Still Hungry Counting Macros
There are 5 main reasons why you may still be hungry despite hitting your macro targets:
Reason #1: Inadequate Calorie Intake
If you are tracking macros and consuming fewer calories than your body needs to support its energy requirements, it can contribute to feeling hungry.
When you consistently consume fewer calories than your body requires to maintain its weight, it goes into a state of energy deficit. In response, the body initiates hunger cues to signal the need for more fuel because your body wants to maintain its weight.
If your goal is to lose weight, then you will need to be in an energy deficit (calorie deficit) but the size of your deficit matters. The larger your calorie deficit, the higher the potential to experience hunger.
To keep hunger in check and to achieve more sustainable results, I encourage a calorie deficit of 250-500 calories.
If your goal is to maintain or gain weight, then ensure you’re eating enough to do so. If your body weight is decreasing over time, then you’ll need to increase your calorie intake accordingly.
Reason #2: Low Fiber Intake
Low intake of fiber refers to not consuming enough dietary fiber; a nutrient that is not digested by our gut but encourages better digestion.
Fiber helps you feel more satiated when tracking macros because fiber adds bulk to your meals, slows down digestion, and promotes satiety. When your diet lacks sufficient fiber, meals can be less filling, leading to quicker feelings of hunger.
To solve the issue of low fiber intake and manage hunger, it’s important to incorporate fiber-rich foods into your meals, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts/seeds.
Aim to meet the recommended daily fiber intake, which is around 14 g dietary fiber per 1,000 kcal, or 25 g for adult women and 38 g for adult men (American Dietetic Association).
For example, a few easy ways to add fiber to your meals are:
- Fill half of your plate with vegetables
- Add 1 teaspoon of chia seeds to yogurts or porridge
- Add 150g of legumes to any dish (salad, soup, curry)
- Eat most fruits and potatoes with their skin on
Reason #3: Over-Restricting
Over-restricting foods when tracking macros refers to having strict limitations on food choices or rigid adherence to specific macro targets.
This can contribute to feelings of emotional hunger because we generally crave the things we aren’t allowed to have. If you’re feeling deprived, then you won’t feel satisfied with what you’re currently eating.
To overcome over-restricting foods and calories when counting macros, it’s important to adopt a more flexible approach, thus striving for moderation and flexibility while still meeting your macro goals.
If you’re craving less nutritious foods (i.e. chocolate) then find a way to include them in your targets. You can pair these less nutritious foods with a balanced meal to make it even more satisfying.
Reason #4: Drastic Changes
Sudden and significant adjustments to your calorie intake and physical activity levels can contribute to feeling hungry when tracking macros because the body requires time to adjust and adapt to new energy levels.
Examples of this would be drastically decreasing the number of calories consumed from one day to the next (e.g. from 2500 calories to 1900 calories = 600 calories), or suddenly training 6 times a week.
These rapid and extreme changes can disrupt hunger and satiety cues, leading to increased feelings of hunger.
To solve the issue of changing habits overnight and managing hunger, it’s important to make gradual adjustments to your calorie intake or activity levels.
Reason #5: Unbalanced Meals
Unbalanced meals refer to not getting the right proportions of macronutrients (protein, carbs, fats) in your meals. This can contribute to feelings of hunger when tracking macros because certain nutrients promote satiety while others fuel performance.
When meals lack nutrients (protein, carbs, or fats) they are less satiating. Protein is the main satiety nutrient because it suppresses your hunger hormone (ghrelin), fat is the most satisfying nutrient because it adds flavor, and carbs provide energy and fiber.
If you have a meal that focuses on one nutrient, like pasta which is primarily carbs, hunger can occur despite reaching your macro targets by the end of the day.
To ensure macros are spread evenly to promote satiety, divide your daily macro and calorie targets by the number of meals you will have (e.g. 5 meals).
This will split your macros evenly which might help you portion your meals and snacks into more balanced meals.
How To Manage Hunger While Tracking Macros
Here are some tips and tricks to consider when trying to combat hunger while hitting your macro targets:
Eat More Filling Foods
Include foods that will help you feel fuller for longer such as protein and fiber-rich foods. All of these foods should ideally be paired with fruits and vegetables, which add extra volume to the meal.
Some estimated average portion sizes of protein and fiber-rich foods are:
- 2-3 eggs
- 170g Greek yogurt
- 100-140g of cooked fish, chicken, or lean pork
- 150g of cooked legumes
- 80-100g of raw whole-grain pasta
- 2 slices of Ezekiel bread
- 50-60g of raw quinoa.
If you include these food groups at every meal, rest assured that you will feel more satiated.
Allow For Flexibility
You might have heard about the 80:20 or 90:10 approach to eating.
This means that 80-90% of your meals might consist of whole foods like lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fats which add more volume to your meals.
The other 20% can include occasional treats or less nutrient-dense foods, like a small dessert, a chocolate bar, or a favorite snack which provide fewer nutrients and less volume but can be important for adherence.
Have More Frequent Meals
Aim for small and frequent meals throughout the day to help prevent energy crashes and reduce the likelihood of overeating by preventing moments of extreme hunger.
Instead of having 3 large meals, try having 5-6 smaller meals, spacing them out to around every 3-4 hours.
Make Meals & Snacks More Exciting
Try varying the content of your meals and exploring new recipes.
This can make meals look more appealing and increase enjoyment during eating, which can help reduce emotional hunger.
Think of a bowl of porridge with Greek yogurt. On its own, it might not seem appealing, but with a mix of berries, almonds, sunflower seeds, and a drizzle of chocolate one day, and apple, chia seeds, walnuts, and a drizzle of honey another day, it’s a different story.
Drink A Large Glass Of Water Before Your Meal
While it is important to meet your fluid intake (approximately 2900ml for men and 2200ml for women in a day) for general health, drinking fluids (~500ml) immediately before a meal can help increase satiety from the meal.
How Do You Address Hunger When You’ve Already Reached Your Macros For The Day?
If you’ve hit your macros but are still hungry, you have two options:
- Stick to your macros and try to fill up on liquids (best for low-to-moderate hunger).
- Go over your macros but stick to low-calorie, high-volume foods (best for extreme hunger).
Zero Calorie Liquids
Some examples of zero (or close to zero) calorie liquids include:
- Sparkling Water
- Diet Soda
- Gatorade Zero
- Sugar-Free Energy Drinks
Low-Calorie, High-Volume Foods
Some examples of low-calorie, high-volume foods include:
- Veggie sticks like carrots, cucumbers, and peppers
- Chopped apple (skin on) or berries with 170g Greek yogurt
- 150g cottage cheese with crackerbread or ryvita
- Crackerbread or ryvita with sliced turkey breast, tomato, and cucumber
- Oats (~50g) with skimmed milk and berries
- Roasted edamame beans with spices
- Roasted fennel wedges with salt/pepper
- Grilled 150g chicken or turkey breast (no skin) with steamed cauliflower or broccoli
- Plain popcorn 30-40g
All of these options contain some protein and fiber which are known nutrients that provide satiety while being low in calories.
Fiber in particular provides bulk and slows the digestion of other nutrients, creating a sensation of fullness.
If you have to go over your macros consistently due to extreme hunger, then you probably need to adjust your macro targets.
If it only happens once in a while, then going over your targets won’t drastically affect your rate of progress.
Crockett AC, Myhre SK, Rokke PD. Boredom proneness and emotion regulation predict emotional eating. J Health Psychol. 2015 May;20(5):670-80. doi: 10.1177/1359105315573439. PMID: 25903253.
Kleiner, S. M. (1999). Water: An essential but overlooked nutrient. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 99(2), 200-206. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-8223(99)00048-6
Corney RA, Sunderland C, James LJ. Immediate pre-meal water ingestion decreases voluntary food intake in lean young males. Eur J Nutr. 2016 Mar;55(2):815-819. doi: 10.1007/s00394-015-0903-4. Epub 2015 Apr 18. PMID: 25893719.
About The Author
Giulia Rossetto is a qualified Dietitian and Nutritionist.
She holds a Masters in Human Nutrition (University of Sheffield, UK) and more recently graduated as a Dietitian (University of Malta).
Giulia aims to translate evidence-based science to the public through teaching and writing content. She has worked 4+ years in clinical settings and has also published articles in academic journals.
She is into running, swimming and weight lifting, and enjoys spending time in the mountains (she has a soft spot for hiking and skiing in the Italian Dolomites).