Hunger is the physiological need for calories, salt, and water driven by a number of factors including diet, sleep quality, activity levels, hormones and emotions. It is normal to experience an increase in appetite after going hard in the gym or during your menstrual cycle, pregnancy or breastfeeding but if you feel like a bottomless pit, something might be up! Below are some of the more common reasons you may experience constant hunger.
1. Going too long in between or skipping meals. When your stomach is empty for too long your body will release more ghrelin, an appetite stimulating hormone, resulting in feeling ravished. Let this go on for too long and it’ll typically leads to overeating. As a rule of thumb consume a meal or snack every 3-4 hours. Also, have a go-to snack on you, like a protein bar or piece of fruit, for when you run into situations where you’re tight on time.
2. Dehydration. Not only will dehydration decrease your metabolism and affect energy levels but it may also cause you to feel constantly hungry. Our thirst and hunger cues both come from the hypothalamus in our brain making it difficult for us to know the difference. Best way to avoid this is to stay on top of your fluid intake throughout the day. Aim for at least 64oz. /day and more if you’re working out! Keep a water bottle on you at all times and make it a point to drink it! If we wait until we feel thirsty, we’re already dehydrated.
3. Lack of quality sleep. If you’re a restless sleeper or don’t log enough hours, you may experience constant hunger throughout the day. Your sleep cycle is closely linked with your two appetite hormones ghrelin and leptin. Sleep deprivation causes a surge in ghrelin, stimulating your appetite, and a decrease in leptin, making it more difficult to feel satiated. Lack of sleep can also affect your cognitive function causing you to feel a “brain fog” and metabolism causing you to burn less calories during the day. You may also experience intense sugar or carb cravings especially in the morning. This is because your body is in need of a quick fuel source, glucose, which we interpret as sugar.
4. Low-protein or low-fat diet. These two macro-nutrients can help you feel fuller longer. Consuming healthy fats will delay gastric emptying, meaning food will stay in your stomach longer keeping you satisfied longer. Protein has also been shown to be appetite suppressing. Make sure at every meal and snack you are incorporating lean protein sources and sprinkling a few healthy fat sources in throughout the day like avocados, nuts and seeds, cheese, and oils.
5. Eating too much carbs and sugar. If your diet contains lots of refined flour or sugary products like pasta, white bread, crackers, bagels, cereal, candy, chocolate, donuts, pastries and desserts you may find it close to impossible to feel satisfied! This is due to the quick blood glucose spike and crash that is experienced after consuming simple carbs or sugar. Your glucose will rise at first giving you a burst of energy and then crash rapidly causing your body to crave more fuel. This is a viscous cycle that can only be broken by reducing the amount of simple carbs and sugars you consuming and replacing them with high fiber and protein choices.
6. High stress. Increased stress levels cause an increase in adrenaline and cortisol levels making your body think it’s under attack and needs fuel. This simulates the “fight or flight” response to get your body ready for battle, and that means food intake! The best way to avoid stress eating is to learn how to manage or reduce stress overall.
More answers to the biggest questions about hunger:
Q: Is feeling hungry all the time a sign you’re not eating the right things?
A: Yes, feeling hungry can absolutely be a sign you’re not providing your body with the right nutrition. Whether that means not getting enough calories overall or your nutrient intake is unbalanced. A diet lacking protein, fiber and/or fat or high in sugary and carb selections is common with feeling hungry or unsatisfied. Each individual will have different nutritional needs based on current habits, diet restrictions, health concerns and goals. Talking with a dietitian can help give you knowledge on what your personalized diet should look like.
Q: What foods or ingredients should you be eating to feel satiated?
A: Protein and fat sources can help suppress your appetite in the moment. Food that combine the two are your best bet. For example 2% Greek yogurt or cottage cheese, eggs, nuts and seeds or nut butters. Combining these food with a fiber source like fruits and vegetables is also helpful.
Q: What are other tips or tricks to stay fuller for longer?
A: Eat full meals and snacks rather than grazing throughout the day. Your body responds to both the type of food and volume of food consumed to feel satisfied. If you graze on little things throughout the day you may never reach that 100% full feeling. Also, remove distractions and take your time when eating. There are many steps in the eating process for you to feel physically and mentally full. If you eat when distracted, like watching TV or on your computer, your brain has a harder time recognizing the full meal you just had and could result in you craving more.
Q: Can eating mindfully help? What are some of the biggest mistakes we make that distract us?
A: Eating mindfully is something I don’t see many people do well. Eating mindfully means that every bite you take is a conscious decision and you’re engaging all of your senses. Mastering this skill will allow you to take nutrition into your own hands and help eliminate mindless binges or getting to the bottom of a chip bag asking how did that happen? Healthy or unhealthy it forces you to take responsibility for your food choices. As you become more aware of your eating habits you might start to identify and change aspects you’re not particularly proud of rather than just ignoring them. Some of the more common mistakes include eating in front of the tv/computer, eating while driving, grazing while socializing without realizing it, looking to food as entertainment “something to do” when you’re bored, eating as fast as you can to get something in your stomach, among others.
Q: How much can the people around us influence the amount we eat?
A: There’s a belief that ‘you’re most similar to the 5 people you hang out with the most.” As far as food choices this tends to be true, especially if you haven’t mastered mindful eating practices. Here are a few scenarios where this is common...
When you go out to eat, you weren’t planning on ordering an appetizer until someone mentioned wanting to share a few.
You’re out for dinner but not quite sure what to order so you ask the others “what are you ordering?” You knew the bacon cheese burger probably wasn’t the best choice, but since someone else is getting it you feel better about it and go for it.
Dinner comes to an end and the server comes around with a dessert menu. You’re not hungry but your husband needs his sweet tooth satisfied so the two of you split the special that the servers says is “to die for.”
You decide to go out for lunch with a co-worker to have some social company; she had her eyes set on pizza so you go with it.
You’re at a party with a plethora of appetizers and dishes everyone would like you to try, and you don’t want to be rude so you eat them even though you aren’t even hungry anymore.
Q: Any other cues that might be prompting us to feel hungrier?
A: The cues to tell us to eat are endless. A common one is simply the time of day. Noon rolls around and you aren’t necessarily feeling hungry but we’ve trained our brain to know that it’s lunch time. There is also endless advertisements tapping into our psyche to tell us to order the item being marketed. Have you ever got a craving for a frozen yogurt or pizza after seeing an advertisement or simply walking by the shop? There are also emotional cues where we crave satisfaction or comfort from food. Feeling sad, bored, or angry can have us reaching for food, particularly sugar, to “fix” the feeling. Sugar intake releases dopamine in the brain giving us a rewarding and satisfying feeling. Over time our brain learns this reaction and sends signals to crave sugar when feeling a negative emotion.
Q: Are there any conditions or disorders that could be causing you to feel hungry?
A: There are a number of conditions that have been associated with increased appetite including diabetes, depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder, bulimia, Grave’s disease, hyperthyroidism, AIDS, cystic fibrosis and any mental conditions effecting the endocrine gland.
Q: Will people with a higher metabolic rate naturally be hungrier more often?
A: There is some truth to this but it’ll depend on the individual. If you maintain a constant metabolic rate whether it’s high or average you won’t see much of a difference in hunger levels. However, if the individual were to increase their metabolic rate but increasing muscle mass for example, then it would be common to experience a temporary increase in appetite.