Hungry on a Vegan Diet?

Based on a definition in Merriam-Webster, the adjective hungry describes “feeling an uneasy or painful sensation from lack of food: feeling hunger; characterized by or characteristic of hunger or appetite”. The second definition suggests that the word also means “strongly motivated (as by ambition)” or “not rich or fertile”.

With this in mind, why do so many people that try veganism for the first time complain about feeling hungrier eating only plant foods than on a diet with animal products? The broad umbrella answer is relatively clear: most animal foods are richer in fat and protein, two of the most satiating macronutrients found in any edible compounds. They also tend to be higher in calories per gram, depending on which category of apples to apples you want to compare.

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For example, take a look at this food showdown: a 100 gram serving of tofu will offer you 62 calories, 2.4 grams of carbs, 2.7 grams of fat, and 6.9 grams of protein. On the other hand, the same amount of chicken breast yields 197 calories, 0 grams of carbs, 7.79 grams of fat, and 29.8 grams of protein! In my personal experience, I could totally eat two whole blocks of tofu in one sitting, and maybe three chicken breasts in one sitting (have you seen me at an Indian buffet??)! P.S. I love this website. It’s a great way to compare different foods together by a basis of 100 grams. If you want to look at a simple nutrient profile for any plant food to see what are the best sources of fat and protein on a vegan diet, I cannot recommend it enough!

For the most part, newcomers often forget that fruits and vegetables, an integral part of a vegan diet, are lower in calories and higher in fiber, water, and micronutrients, all of which are incredibly healthy. However, in order to reach the same amount of satiety from FAT and PROTEIN, the volume of food usually needs to increase. Say if you need 20 grams of protein in a meal, instead of a palm-serving of steak, you’ll need around 2 cups of black beans or any beans for the same amount of protein. With this, you’ll be reducing your fat intake drastically, eliminating any cholesterol consumption, and skyrocketing your fiber and iron intake by storm! Bonus, much?

But what most people fail to consider is the placebo. Societal guidelines have designated this idea that meat, dairy, eggs, seafood, or anything of that sort, are BUILDING foods–they help grow muscle, provide energy, and propel strength. Steak is man’s favorite comfort meat. Whey protein shakes are the ultimate post-workout replenishment. And who could forget cheesy pasta for carb-loading? Fruits and vegetables are known as the “diet” foods. Salads, smoothies, soups, juices, and crudités. Honestly. Name ONE diet plan that doesn’t recommend lettuce as a staple.

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Okay, if you are reading this and you have been thriving–we’re talking the perfect levels of energy, cognition, stress, happiness, physiological functionality, etc.–on the way you’ve been eating, then ignore this section and keep doing what you’ve been doing. Amazing work, that is wonderful. On the contrary, if you’re thinking: “But I can eat a whole can of beans, five cups of rice, a head of lettuce, and a whole avocado for every meal and still feel hungry!”, then it’s probably time that you re-evaluate your lifestyle. Have you been cutting out an entire food group? Do you struggle to get enough sleep at night? What is your workout routine like? Are you pregnant/breastfeeding? Is it stress or boredom that prompts you to eat and eat all the time? If you have answered yes to any of these questions, then fortunately, there are clear solutions.

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Say you’re on a certain diet that doesn’t allow a food group for non-allergenic purposes, like gluten, wheat, or grains. Not only is it incredibly difficult for you to find certain nutrients found in whole grains such as barley, farro, spelt, and sometimes oats, but it can be challenging when you go out to eat with friends because of lurking gluten in soups, sauces, stir-fries, sides, or even salad! More often than not, you can develop a fear towards these “no” foods and eventually binge out of control on them, making yourself feel even worse and possibly propel a vicious restrict-binge-and-purge cycle. Don’t think of any plant food as something to avoid. There are definitely some that you should have in moderation, such as refined sugars, oils, sugar alcohols, vegan junk food, just anything that is almost void of nutrients. The opposite case can happen in which you eat mostly processed and refined vegan foods, depriving your body of vital micronutrients. Again, consume more vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, seeds, nuts, pretty much all wholesome foods your body can tolerate.

Food is not the only subject of hunger. Exercise, sleep, stress, immunity, physiological makeup, and your environment can affect how much you should eat. If you exercise moderately or vigorously on a regular basis, you may need to eat more calories, carbohydrates, fat, protein, and water to suffice physical recovery. Too little sleep can also stimulate the hunger hormone ghrelin and suppress the satiety hormone leptin, which causes you to eat more unnecessary foods without absorbing the nutrients sufficiently since you’ll be short on healing from sleep.

Of course, stress also messes with hunger and satiety hormones, but it also initiates some people to turn to food for comfort and emotionally eat. Most of the time, they’ll choose foods that have little benefits, such as cookies, vegan ice cream, cake, crackers, or any heavily refined and energy-dense products as well. When you’re extremely sick, you may feel a suppression in appetite, but this is actually counterproductive because your body needs more calories to recover and heal itself. Obviously, focus on whole plant-based foods rather than reaching for the ice cream, so try to consume a lot of rich, warming vegetable and bean soups or fruit smoothies that pack in as much nutrients as possible. I find that something warm and soft to chew are the easiest to down when I’m a little under the weather.

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If you have a naturally lean body that struggles to put on muscle, consider focusing on a higher-carb and higher-fat diet to maintain a healthy body weight. Avocados, coconut flakes, chia seeds, almond butter, peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, beans, dates, walnuts, tempeh, peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and raisins are some of many examples of high-energy-dense vegan foods that still pack in plenty of nutrients as well as carbohydrates, fats, fiber, protein, or a combo of several. Most of them are very easy to eat a lot of without feeling too stuffed!

Lastly, cold weather forces your body to work harder to maintain a homeostatic temperature, hence you burn slightly more calories than in warmer weather. On top of that, an environment that requires a lot of walking for transportation increases regular physical activity and stimulates hunger without much conscious effort. In this case, if you’re not trying to lose weight, embrace your hunger signals, be mindful, and practice compassion towards your body. Eat until you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and don’t deprive yourself of any foods that might change your relationship with your diet.

It’s so common to fear the sensation of hunger, because we feel that being hungry means that we might lose weight or feel and look better. I used to see hunger as a sign of victory when dieting–it meant that my body was in a deficit to achieve my physique goals and that I’d look better. In reality, hunger is a physiological signal that basically warns you that something is off: your body needs more nutrients (of course, hunger is not the only sign of this circumstance). Instead of fearing hunger, ask yourself if you are already nourishing your body with the best foods until it is comfortable, if your body is at a healthy state, if your mind is satisfied with how much and what you’re eating, and if your environment only radiates positive energy for you.

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In short:

  • Remember that plant foods have a naturally higher water and fiber but lower calorie content, which means you may have to eat a larger volume of food to suffice your daily nutrient intake
  • Assess your current body state and how your diet is affecting it
  • Re-evaluate your relationship with food if something is wrong

Don’t worry too much about hunger if you are completely at peace with your body and its needs. So as long as you’re maintaining a sane mindset and lifestyle, everything will fall into place and veganism can work.

What was your hunger and appetite like when first diving into veganism? Ever had any interesting experiences with hunger signals?

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