By Tom Rath

The hungrier you are, the harder it is to resist unhealthy foods. When your stomach is empty, your blood sugar levels drop. This increases your desire for foods like burgers, pizza, brownies, and ice cream. When researchers used functional MRI brain scans to study why this happens, they discovered that the body focuses on feeding itself high-calorie foods to get blood sugar levels back to normal.

An empty stomach also makes you more likely to start your meal with the wrong foods, even when you have a variety of choices. One experiment found that students who were asked to fast from dinner until lunch the next day were more than two times as likely to start their meal with a roll or french fries, compared with a control group that ate normally. In contrast, most of the people in the control group started by eating a vegetable.

Perhaps you have experienced this before. You haven’t eaten in a while, and you are starting to get hungry. As time passes, almost any food is appealing, healthy or not. If you give in to temptation, you eat more than normal. I know my willpower falls apart if I have not had anything to eat for several hours. This leads me to eat about anything I can find. I also consume more and at a faster pace when my stomach is running on empty.

Several years ago, I realized this was taking a toll on my health. If I got hungry on a long drive, I stopped at the nearest fast-food restaurant. When rushing through an airport, I would grab a sandwich or energy bar for my flight. Anytime I was hungry and in a hurry, it resulted in a bad choice.

To keep myself from going into starvation mode, I decided to keep a standby pack of mixed nuts in my work bag. This homemade snack pack now goes everywhere with me, just in case I am stuck with no healthy options nearby. Not only does this help satisfy cravings, it also serves as a backup when I attend meetings or events with limited food choices.

When you are away from home, take small bags of nuts, fruits, or vegetables with you in case you get hungry. Keep these healthy snacks nearby to satisfy a mid-afternoon craving. When you plan for healthier choices in advance, poor last-minute decisions are easy to avoid.


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For direct links to any studies referenced in this article, see the Eat Move Sleep Reference Explorer application.

Adapted from the book Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes by Tom Rath (Missionday, 2013).

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