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Should I Eat When I’m Not Hungry? How to Answer This Popular Client Question

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“Should I eat when I’m not hungry?”

“I know I was under my protein macros all week, but I was just so full at the end of the day.”

“The numbers you gave me are just SO much more than I normally eat - I can’t imagine eating all that food and still losing weight!”

If you’ve been coaching clients for a while, you’ve likely heard something similar to one of these statements.

Unlearning Undereating

Our world is full of messages telling your clients that eating less is the fastest way to lose weight. Although this is sometimes the case, it isn’t always the magic answer they believe it to be.

Most of your clients have likely heard and internalized these messages for so long, they are unaware of the effect these thought patterns have on their relationship with their body and the foods they eat.

Subsequently, you may find yourself asking clients to eat more than they’re used to. This can be scary because it runs counter to what they may be used to hearing. Most people will be very hesitant to believe that eating MORE will help them lose weight in the long run. In fact, psychology even has a term for the discomfort that happens when you’re confronted with contradictory information to a long-held belief: “cognitive dissonance” [1]. 

Maybe you remember this feeling from when you first started learning more about nutrition and learned something new that contradicted what you long believed. It can be difficult to “unlearn” something you thought to be true!

This is why it’s so important to prioritize creating a trusting relationship with your clients - they have to trust you if they’re ever to step out of their comfort zone and try something new. Building trust is one of the foundations we build from in the WAG Coach Certification because it is just THAT important.

When working with clients who are reluctant to eat more or find the amount of food you’ve prescribed overwhelming, you can help build trust by explaining to your client some of the science behind why undereating can stall progress.

How Undereating Can Stall Weight Loss

Explaining why eating a bit more could help your client reach their goal will ensure you’re both on the same page. I mean, if someone just told you to “eat more, trust me!” you likely wouldn’t comply, right?

When you’re both confident in the plan and they feel it was a joint decision, they’re more likely to stick with what you recommend and enjoy the process.

Below are some key facts you can share.

  • Undereating may affect hormone balance. This can lead to water retention, unwanted fat storage and/or longer-term health [1]. Remember to refer your client out to their primary care physician, OBGYN or other health professionals if they believe they are dealing with hormonal imbalances. This is outside of most nutrition coaches’ scope of practice.

  • Undereating may affect energy levels. You’re less likely to feel energized during workouts or performing daily tasks. This leads to less calorie expenditure.

  • Undereating may decrease metabolism. When you’re under-fueled, your body actually burns fewer calories throughout the day - both because your body is digesting less food, and because your body will naturally start to down-regulate the energy it expends to conserve as much as possible.

  • When a client has been undereating for a long period of time, their hunger signals may not be trustworthy. Sending hunger signals requires energy so if your client has been chronically dieting and ignoring those signals for a long time, the body can stop sending those signals to conserve as much energy as possible. They’ll need to “relearn” how to listen to what their body is telling them.

You may also find your client undereating on some days and overeating on others. Help your client see this pattern and explain that this can lead to large swings in hunger and a roller coaster of eating over the course of a week. Plus, large fluctuations in day-to-day caloric intake can make it difficult for them to learn what works best for their body.

Think of it like a science experiment - for a conclusion to be considered valid, it needs to have been repeated multiple times under the same circumstances. If you keep changing the “input” (macros!),  the “output” (their results!) can’t be reliably measured. Overall, consistency serves them best!

Want a few more ideas? Check out this series: “How to Coach Clients Who Are Undereating Part 1 & Part 2

Should I Eat If I’m Not Hungry?

Once you explain why it’s important for your clients to eat more you may still have clients asking, “Should I really eat if I’m not hungry?”

This can be tricky to answer because an essential part of building a healthy relationship with food is listening to the body. So an answer like, “Yes! Ignore that you feel full and keep eating.” may not feel quite right or in line with what you want to teach.

Instead, consider these answers:

“Let’s see if we can find some ways to increase your appetite.” or “I wonder if we could try some strategies that could increase the macros you eat while not making you feel like you’re having to eat more food.” 

Ultimately you need to make sure your client knows that listening to hunger cues is great AND that there are shifts that can be made to ensure they are getting enough fuel while honoring those cues.

Encourage your clients to continue to listen to and learn from their hunger levels while trying some of the strategies below to ensure they are well-fueled every day.

Tips for Dealing with Low Hunger

Here are some ways to support clients who you believe need to eat more, but have low hunger levels:

  • Opt for denser macro sources aka “low-volume” foods - If clients are quick to feel full, emphasize foods that are denser in macros so they can eat a lower volume of food for the same (or more) calories. For example, if a client still has extra carb macros to eat at dinner, adding some rice along with veggies can help take up more macros without making them feel stuffed.

  • Pre-plan macros - Often clients will “get behind” on their macros during the day because they get busy or don’t plan ahead. Then, they find themselves stuck with a ton of food at the end of the day. Give them specific examples to help them space their macros out throughout the day and avoid feeling like they have to overeat and ignore hunger signals at night.

  • Monitor hunger levels and eat when hungriest -Have clients note their hunger levels throughout various times of the day for a week. Encourage them to eat more during the time of the day they are naturally hungry.

  • Experiment with meal size & timing - Some people prefer to eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day and others feel more balanced with larger, less frequent meals. Help your clients to experiment with different schedules to see what works best for them.

  • Slowly increase the amount of food over time - If the amount of food you’re asking your clients to eat is a dramatic increase from what they are used to, consider slowly increasing their amount over the course of a few weeks rather than asking them to ramp up all at once. This will help their daily goal feel more manageable, and help slowly add more food. Remember, the “perfect program” is the one that your client feels confident they can stick to!

  • Increase sleep quality and quality - Research shows that lack of sleep and/or low quality sleep can decrease activity in the area of the brain responsible for hunger cues and affect the hormones involving appetite regulation [2,3]. Encourage your clients to assess their sleep to see if improving them could help increase their appetite. Then, work with them to create a bedtime routine to help optimize sleep quality and quantity.

  • Drink macros - Adding macros in liquid form can be an easy way to get in more calories. Suggest things like swapping water for milk in their protein shake or adding some protein or collagen powder to their morning coffee. Coconut water, kombucha, electrolyte drinks, and sports drinks can help a client get in more carbs!

Overall, hesitancy to eat more is a common struggle for many clients. Meet your clients where they’re at, establish trust and work through the mental discomforts that may arise as they learn new eating habits while exploring what works best for their body.

Building up to ideal intake over time is going to lead to more long-term success for your clients, rather than forcing them to start too high and breaking that trust.

Remember what it feels like to try something new - especially something like eating more to lose weight that may go against everything your client has been taught to believe. Don't be afraid to explore this mindset with them and help them move through it confidently!

Join Team WAG

Love what you learned but still want more guidance and support? Hire a 1:1 coach who will get to know you, your lifestyle and your unique needs and create results that you can sustain long-term. If you're not quite ready to go all-in on hiring a coach, check out our Macro Calculation Cheat Sheet & 18 Tracking Tips and Tricks for macro counting!

  1. Hollins-Martin, C. J., Akker, O. B., Martin, C. R., & Preedy, V. R. (2014). Handbook of diet and nutrition in the menstrual cycle, periconception and fertility. Wageningen Academic. 
  2. Cherry, K. (2020). What is cognitive dissonance? Very Well Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cognitive-dissonance-2795012 
  3. Greer, S., Goldstein, A., & Walker, M. (2013). The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature Communications, 4(2259). doi:10.1038/ncomms3259
  4. Taheri, S., Lin, L., Austin, D., Young, T., & Mignot, E. (2004). Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med, 1(3). doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062
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Posted by Meghan Pierce
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Meghan Pierce is a WAG Certified Coach.

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