Do you feel like you are ALWAYS hungry? Does it seem that no matter what you eat or how you space your meals it feels like you haven’t even eaten and could use a snack? Feeling as though you can’t control your hunger can lead to frustration when trying to lose weight or eat healthily and can make it hard to reach your weight loss goals.
Oftentimes some simple swaps can help you gain control of your hunger and help keep you out of the cabinets looking for something to munch on. Insatiable hunger can be a result of a poorly balanced diet, eating too few calories, and some psychological or behavioral traps.
The basics of feeling hungry are really simple. When we are infants we dictate when it is time to eat and when we’ve had enough. We have an innate ability the tune into our hunger cues as a baby. As we grow up many factors start to influence our eating such as schedules dictating when we can eat, pressure to finish our plates, stress, advertising, boredom, and more.
When our body tells us that we are hungry it is telling us that It needs food for energy. When we get in the habit of eating in the absence of hunger it can tip the calorie balance leading to weight gain and associated health problems. Being in tune with your hunger cues can help you feel energized, eat healthier, and break free from a diet mentality to reach and maintain a healthy weight.
One thing that is important to keep in mind is that everyone has different nutrition needs. Two different people can eat the same exact meal but one could leave the meal feeling stuffed while the other could still be hungry. Your body size, activity level, age, and diet history can all impact your hunger signals. Try not to compare what and how much you eat with others, we are all unique with different needs and goals.
For some, after years of dieting, unbalanced meals, and unpredictable eating schedules, noticing what true hunger and fullness feels like is confusing. Some people mistake thirst as hunger or don’t realize they are full until they feel sick. It’s important to know the signals of true hunger and fullness before digging into the reasons why you feel hungry all of the time because maybe you aren’t hungry all of the time but are actually mistaking hunger for something else.
True physical hunger will feel like your stomach is empty, you may have hunger pangs, feel weak, unfocused, or fatigued. If you are feeling like you want to eat but do not feel hungry, this is often referred to as psychological hunger. Many experts believe that psychological hunger is what leads to weight gain and succumbing to unhealthy cravings. By learning to tune into your true hunger you will be able to give your body exactly what it needs and make better food choices.
A good place to start in determining if you are physically hungry all of the time or are dealing with more of a psychological hunger is by keeping a food journal where you can rate your hunger and fullness on the hunger scale. The hunger scale is a great tool that helps you to explore those cues. Rating yourself on this scale helps you to start to question and put the pieces together to determine if food choices, meal timing, or something else is causing your excess hunger.
The hunger scale rates different levels of hunger and fullness on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being starving and 10 being so full that you feel sick. If you are a 5 on the scale, you would feel comfortable neither hungry nor full. Ideally, you should start eating when your hunger is between a 3 or 4 and stop eating between a 5 or 6.
1—Starving, weak, dizzy
2 – Very hungry, cranky, low energy, lots of stomach growling
3 – Pretty hungry, stomach is growling a little
4 – Starting to feel a little hungry
5 – Satisfied, neither hungry nor full
6 – A little full, pleasantly filled
7 – A little uncomfortable
8 – Feeling stuffed
9 – Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts
10 – So full you feel sick
If you are heading to the refrigerator and rate your hunger at a 6, then you are not physically hungry and are dealing with psychological hunger. However, if you are constantly entering a meal or snack below a 3, you may need to take a closer look at your food choices, eating schedule, or health. If this is you, let’s look at the reasons why you are feeling hungry all of the time.
1. Not enough fat in your diet. A low-fat diet is recommended for heart health, but cutting down too low in fat can leave you feeling hungry. A little fat in the diet can help you feel satisfied and may actually lead to eating less. Fat takes longer to digest than other foods and this slowed digestion helps improve the staying power of these foods. Do you typically avoid high-fat foods? This may be why you are feeling hungry all of the time. Focus on healthy sources of fats such as nuts, fish, avocados, flaxseeds, and olive oil. These types of fats can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels, improve your skin, and help you feel satisfied longer after you eat.
2. Lacking fiber-filled foods. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans are all great sources of fiber. High-fiber foods provide volume and also take longer to digest, making you feel fuller on fewer calories. Think of fiber as a speed bump that slows the traffic going through the digestive system. This leads to greater feelings of satiety, better blood sugar control, reduced calorie intake, and decreased insulin levels. Popcorn is a good example of a high-volume, high-fiber whole grain. Three cups of air-popped popcorn has only 90 calories and 4 grams of fiber. When a diet is lacking in fiber, your body is also missing important nutrients, not just fiber. Opt for whole fruits and vegetables and choose whole-wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, and whole-grain cereals rather than refined grains.
3. Eating too few calories. Overly restricting your calories can leave your body low on energy, your hormones unbalanced, and your diet short on important nutrients which can all lead to increased hunger to meet your body’s needs. Eating too little calories throughout the day can set you up for failure by causing extreme hunger. When we get to the extremes of hunger we tend to eat more quickly, make poorer food choices, and overeat. It’s a good idea to ask your medical team or a dietitian what a good calorie goal is for you. Tracking your intake on a food tracking app, like MyFitnessPal or FatSecret can help you determine if you are eating enough to meet your needs.
4. Mindless eating. Do you often eat in front of the television, computer, in the car, or while doing some other activity? When we are unconsciously eating while we are distracted we are often not paying attention to our hunger cues. Some studies have shown that eating mindlessly can lead to an intake of 50% more calories than when we eat with intention while paying attention to our body signals. The practice of mindful eating has been found to lead to eating overall fewer calories and enjoying your meals more. Eating mindlessly may not lead to increased hunger but it could get you into the habit of eating when you are not hungry or lead to unintentionally skipping meals. Switching to more mindful eating will help you to better tune into your true hunger signals rather than just eating because you’re bored, stressed, or tired.
5. Broken hunger cues. Individuals that have a long history of dieting or disordered eating may find it hard to tune into their hunger cues. After ignoring their hunger or fullness cues for so long it can be hard to recognize the signs of true hunger as they have conditioned themselves to bypass these signals to follow unhealthy diets. Learning to listen to your body signals can help heal the old wounds from an unhealthy relationship with food and dieting. Fears of deprivation from previous dieting or bypassed hunger cues could both lead to someone feeling as though they are hungry all of the time. Try to eat until you’re satisfied and try to avoid the “clean plate club.” Slow down your eating pace by savoring your food, pausing between bites, and sipping water during your meal. Don’t forget, it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to get the signal from your stomach that it is full. Getting into the routine of eating regular meals and snacks will help you stay on track with this too. And most importantly, commit yourself to positive lifestyle changes you can maintain rather than jumping from one fad diet to the next!
6. Health conditions that increase appetite. Certain health conditions can cause increased appetite such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, pregnancy, and hypoglycemia. If you have diabetes with uncontrolled blood sugar you may notice that you feel hungrier than normal. This is because your body depends on sugar from food for fuel. When your body does not absorb the sugar properly due to inadequate insulin, your body tells you to eat more in an attempt to get the sugar into your cells. Once blood sugars are controlled, your appetite should return to normal. Similarly, low blood sugar or hypoglycemia can lead to increased hunger as your body searches for carbohydrates to return blood sugar levels to normal.
Hyperthyroidism is when you have an overactive thyroid gland. Your thyroid is a gland located in your neck that produces hormones that control your metabolism. If your thyroid is working too hard your metabolism can speed up leaving to an increase in your appetite. When a woman is pregnant her body is supplying the energy and nutrition for her body and her growing baby which can lead to increased hunger to ensure the baby gets proper nutrition to grow and develop.
In addition to these health conditions, certain medications can increase your appetite including steroids, antidepressants, some diabetes and hormone replacement medications, antipsychotic drugs, and antihistamines. If you feel medications are making it hard to control your weight because of this, talk with your Dr. to discuss if there are alternative options.
7. Inadequate protein intake. Protein in the diet may help keep hunger at bay by increasing feelings of fullness. Some research shows that eating more protein at the start of your day can lead to decreased hunger throughout the day. Protein helps to steady blood sugar levels which helps to control feelings of hunger. It is recommended to have between 10-35% of your total calories be from protein foods. By adding a good source of protein to each meal, you may notice that the urge for a snack shortly after eating disappears. Choose poultry, seafood, low-fat dairy. and plant-based sources of protein like beans and nuts for healthier protein options. When planning meals make sure your meals contain some fat, fiber, and protein will help to control your hunger the best. The fiber will help you feel full after you finish, the protein will keep you feeling full, and the fat helps to balance your hormones that control your appetite. Nuts are a superfood when it comes to appetite control because they contain each of these nutrients.
8. Sleep deprivation. Getting your beauty sleeps is important for balancing your hormones that regulate your hunger and fullness. When you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, your body makes more of the hormone ghrelin. This is the hormone that makes you feel hungry. And as a double whammy, lack of sleep decreases the hormone leptin which is a hormone that provides the fullness signals. Prioritizing sleep and aiming for around 8 hours of sleep per night will help to balance these hormones. Adequate sleep will also help keep you from grabbing something to eat for a quick energy boost and also prevent you from being too tired to exercise.
9. Artificial sweeteners in your diet. Some nutrition research studies have found a link between the use of artificial sweeteners and increased hunger and intake. These studies found that consuming a food or drink with artificial sweeteners tells your brain to expect energy (or calories) and when it doesn’t receive any, it increases hunger to obtain the energy from food instead. Another concern with artificial sweeteners is that they are so much sweeter than naturally sweet foods, such as fruits and vegetables. This may condition the body to prefer ultra-sweet foods and make healthy, filling foods less desirable leading to a decrease in their intake of these appetite-controlling items.
10. Short on fluids. You may have heard the advice to drink a glass of water before you eat. It is often promoted as a way to decrease your total calorie intake. But it is important to remember that the majority of people do not reach their daily fluid intake goals and it is common for people to mistake thirst for hunger. The goal should be to focus on getting adequate fluids throughout the day, not to trick your body into thinking it’s full. Being hydrated is important not only for not mistaking thirst for hunger but also to help improve your skin’s health and beauty, improve digestion, rid the body of toxins, and increase alertness.
If you are feeling frustrated with your constant hunger, assessing your diet and behaviors for these 10 items may help you find the reason why. By addressing the root of the problem, you can take control, feel your best, and reach your goals.