It can be easy to view hunger as a bad thing — and while it’s certainly an inconvenient feeling — it’s as innate as the need to yawn or go to the bathroom. In fact, hunger is a crucial biological signal. To understand this, a refresher of the autonomic nervous system is helpful. The autonomic nervous (ANS) system consists of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). While the SNS controls the body’s response to threats (e.g., the “fight-or-flight” response), the PNS is the body’s counterbalance and returns the body back to a state of calm.
Our bodies want and need to spend some time in “rest and digest” mode for the ANS and SNS to function properly. During this time, blood pressure lowers, heart rate decreases and gastrointestinal peristalsis increases so you can absorb and digest nutrients and produce energy stores for the future.
As a result, you shouldn’t feel the need to eat around the clock. Many people feel their best when eating smaller meals more often. However, if you find yourself feeling hungry all the time it could be due to one of the following reasons:
YOU’RE NOT EATING ENOUGH PROTEIN OR FIBER
We need all of the macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat) for different reasons, and not all calories will have the same impact on satiety. While carbohydrates are great for providing quick energy, protein, fat and fiber are important for sustaining that energy. A study published in Nutrition Journal found high-protein snacks led to reduced hunger and kept participants satiated for longer. It is generally regarded that foods high in protein and fiber are most effective at generating satiety due to the breakdown and release of nutrients from these foods.
YOU’RE NOT EATING ENOUGH
Whether you’re reducing calories for weight loss, have a fast metabolism or are very active, you may feel constantly hungry if you’re not eating enough to sustain your biological needs. True hunger is a sign from the body that it needs more energy to function, and it doesn’t always have to be a growling or rumbling stomach. Hunger can also manifest as fatigue, the inability to concentrate, feeling dizzy or always thinking about food. Try tuning into your body’s natural hunger cues and consult with a registered dietitian who can help review your diet and lifestyle and come up with a plan to meet your needs.
YOU’RE DISTRACTED WHEN EATING
Given hectic schedules, you might find you’re eating while walking, driving or scrolling on your phone. However, if all of your meals are rushed, the body has a harder time recognizing fullness. In a study comparing distracted eaters to non-distracted ones, the non-distracted participants reported a reduction in their desire to finish their entire plate of food. In contrast, distracted participants maintained a desire to eat everything on their plate, which may be a contributing factor to overeating. Not only can mindful eating help you feel satiated, but it has also been linked to reduced food cravings and emotional eating.
YOU’RE EATING TOO QUICKLY
Even if you’ve put down your devices and turned off the TV, rushing through meals and snacks makes it difficult for the body to register feelings of fullness and satiety. That’s why you should make it a priority to slow down. If you tend to devour meals and snacks quickly, try allocating a certain amount of time to finish your meal. Include sips of water between bites and reflect on your body’s fullness level with each bite. Try to use your five senses to help you enjoy everything you eat. Check in with yourself: What does the food taste like? Do you enjoy the texture? Is it hot or cold? Is it satisfying your needs at the moment? You’ll likely find you feel full sooner and stay satiated longer if you’re able to focus on these other qualities.
YOUR HORMONES ARE OUT OF WHACK
When the body is in a constant state of stress, cortisol (aka the stress hormone) rises, which can trigger an increased appetite. Furthermore, stress eating usually causes people to reach for highly palatable foods, like refined carbohydrates and sugary items, which won’t keep you full or satiated for long.
Menstruation can be another hormonal shift that may cause a temporary increase in appetite and cravings, both related to increased feelings of fatigue and an uptick in energy needs.
Try to line up some other coping mechanisms to deal with stress aside from eating, such as exercise, talking with a friend or family member, journaling, reading, cuddling with a pet or meditation.
YOU’RE BURNING MORE ENERGY THAN YOU REALIZE
A mismatch of energy leads to increased or constant hunger. If you are exercising more, at higher intensities or for longer durations, your appetite likely increases as your body burns through more calories than it’s used to. Other life changes and considerations may also lead to increased energy needs and appetites. For example, pregnancy, recovering from childbirth, breastfeeding or chasing kids around. Using an app like MyFitnessPal can help you keep track of your caloric needs and help you check in to make sure you’re fueling properly.
Many of us are familiar with the afternoon slump or the feeling of just wanting something to “snack on.” Oftentimes, we just need to hydrate. A study published in the journal Physiology and Behavior found people respond inappropriately to body signals 62% of the time, confusing hunger and thirst. While hydration shouldn’t be used to “mask” hunger, it is important to make sure you are hydrated so you’re not mistaking thirst for hunger.
If you feel hungry soon after eating, try drinking a glass or two of water first. If you still feel hungry after drinking, it is likely true hunger. In that case, choose a protein-rich snack to keep you satiated longer. You can also track your hydration in MyFitnessPal and set reminders on your phone to sip more.
YOU’RE NOT SLEEPING ENOUGH
Sleep plays a significant role in regulating hormones, which may contribute to increased feelings of hunger. Short sleep duration is linked with elevated levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite, and decreased levels of leptin, a satiety hormone. That means when you’re short on sleep you’re more likely to feel hungrier and crave sugary foods. Focus on creating healthy sleep habits including avoiding alcohol and heavy dinners before bed and leaving gadgets like your phone or laptop in another room.
Originally published April 2020, updated with additional reporting
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