On Your Health

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Eleven Reasons You Always Feel Hungry

There are many reasons you might be feeling hungry almost all the time, and only one of them is actual hunger. If you’re really and truly hungry, you’ll notice that anything sounds good – an apple sounds as terrific as a pizza. If your feelings of hunger are driven by something else, you may be thinking ‘only barbecue potato chips will do.’ 

Feelings and physical sensations that come with true (physical) hunger are low energy, an empty-feeling stomach and even fatigue. The longer it’s been since you last ate, the more noticeable the sensations will be.

But if you’re not physically hungry, here’s what might be going on:

You’re actually thirsty. Many of us don’t drink enough water throughout the day. If you’re mildly dehydrated you may have a headache, fatigue, difficulty concentrating or feel light-headed. These dehydration symptoms are the same as hunger symptoms. Before you grab a snack, try this trick: drink a large glass of water and then wait ten or fifteen minutes. If it was thirst, the symptoms will go away. If they don’t subside, you may really be hungry. If it’s been a few hours since you last ate, it may be time for a snack. 

Stress. The stress hormone (cortisol) can wreak havoc on your blood sugar levels, causing hunger and cravings. Stress causes your body to think you need more food than you actually do.

Boredom. Hyperpalatable foods can woo you like a siren when you need something to do. Boredom-driven eating can become a habit quickly, in part because the foods we choose when we are bored are often dopamine-producing, highly processed foods or sweets with delectable combinations of fat, sugar, carbohydrates and sodium. You eat them, feel a little rush of feel-good chemicals (dopamine and/or serotonin) and next time you’re bored, you do it again. Vicious, meet cycle.

Mindless eating. When we snack throughout the day without really thinking about it, we may not really tune in to how much we’ve eaten. Your brain doesn’t register that you’ve taken in calories because your focus was elsewhere (hello, Netflix). When we eat without paying attention, our brains think we haven’t eaten at all and signal hunger. Snacking while bingeing is fine – just pay attention to portion size and nutritional value. No need to binge and binge and still end up feeling hungry.

Poor sleep. Sleep helps regulate the hunger hormone (ghrelin). If you are not sleeping enough, or if your sleep quality isn’t where it should be, you may feel like you’re hungry when you’re actually sleepy. If you are not sleeping the recommended seven to nine hours a night, you may be setting yourself up for false feelings of hunger, overeating and preventable weight gain.

Not enough protein. Consuming protein helps you feel sated, AKA full, because protein lowers your hunger hormone (ghrelin) levels. A study published in a scientific journal (the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) sought to answer one single question: what effect does protein have on fullness? Researchers reviewed thousands of studies wherein fasting people were given protein-rich foods in a lab environment and then monitored to see how long they felt full. “Our paper did show that indeed, higher protein intake led to greater sensations of fullness,” says study co-author Richard Mattes, distinguished professor of nutrition science at Purdue University. 

Too many refined carbs, not enough fiber. High-fiber foods (vegetables, fruits and whole grains) take longer to digest and are also bulky – they literally fill you up. A diet rich in high-fiber foods will allow you to feel fuller while consuming fewer calories.

Low fat diet. A diet too low in healthy fats can make you feel hungry, even hangry. When we lack healthy fats in our diet, we crave high-sugar, high-carb foods. To thwart this, add healthy fats in moderation to your meal plan. Try eating salmon, tuna, walnuts, avocado (bonus – avocados are also high-fiber foods) or flaxseed regularly.

You’re not. It’s something else. If you eat regular (reasonably nutritious and filling) meals, and you feel like you’re hungry shortly afterward, you may not be physically hungry. There’s a probability that you are psychologically hungry. This may mean that you’ve developed an emotional attachment to a certain food due to environmental cues, stress and/or habit. Do you always grab a little pastry with your coffee whether you’re hungry or not? What about that 3 pm trip to the vending machine? That’s a developed habit, not a response to actual hunger. Take note: when you are specifically craving sweets or crunchy, salty foods it’s probably emotional hunger.

It’s a medical issue.  Nonstop hunger could be linked to medical conditions like pregnancy, depression, diabetes or hyperthyroidism. A rare condition whose primary symptom is insatiable appetite is Prader-Willi, a genetic condition thought to affect one out of 10,000 to 30,000 people. Damage to the hypothalamus is another (albeit rare) possibility. The hypothalamus is part of the brain that helps regulate feelings of appetite and satiety. If it’s damaged, it can cause uncontrollable hunger.

Overeating has become a habit so now you’re always hungry.  The more we eat, the more we want to eat. Harvard Medical School Clinical Instructor Dr. Monique Tello explained in an interview: “The more people eat, the larger the stomach gets…it’s a distensible organ. Well, if you’ve got a huge stomach from eating so much so often, the minute your stomach is empty, it’s signaling you to eat and you’re going to eat more.”  

Your medications are the cause. Anti-seizure drugs, some anti-depressants, oral contraceptives and steroids can up your hunger sensations. Could this be the case for you? Double check with your doctor.

Overcoming constant non-physical hunger can be tricky. Here are some tactics to try:

Give it a minute. Or, more specifically, three. When hunger pangs start, and you know you’ve eaten recently, just…wait. Distract yourself. Do the Wordle. A delay of just three minutes can be enough to get past a craving.

Write it down. Keeping a food journal can help you see the truth about how much, what and how often you’re eating. Maybe you’re eating too little and exercising too much. That’s a sure way to feel hungry!

Be honest with yourself. Are you really hungry? Or are you bored, sad, mad or anxious? If your ‘hunger’ is a coping mechanism, the good news is that there are many more ways to deal with emotions in a more productive way.

Try intermittent fasting. A structured approach to eating can be great. Going longer periods without eating can help shrink your stomach, which will result in feeling less hunger and eating less. Talk with your doctor before starting an intermittent fasting regimen.

Eat quality foods. Say no to highly processed, low-fiber foods like baked goods, candies, cereal and packaged snack crackers. Instead look for high fiber/healthy fat combos that will keep you satiated. Snack on carrots and peanut butter or a hard-boiled egg instead.  


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