"Why am I SO hungry ALL the time?"
Early in my undergrad studying Nutrition and Dietetics, this was a question I had. Now that I've been working with men and women around the world for years, I've heard this question pop up time and time again.
Hunger can be frustrating because it makes achieving weight loss or wellness goals extremely tricky. When we're hungry, we tend to not make the best meal time decisions that supports our goals. It also makes a weight loss or wellness journey simply less enjoyable.
But once you understand the five main reasons you're feeling hungry, it gets a lot easier to make adjustments to your meals or lifestyle to reduce (or even remove) hunger.
Let's dive into it.
Why You're So Hungry
There isn't one thing that causes hunger. In fact, sometimes what we interpret as hunger isn't really hunger at all. What we feel as "hunger" boils down to five main reasons:
1. Your Hunger Hormones Are High
The main hunger hormone is called ghrelin. When it's high, we experience hunger and when it's low we don't feel hungry. Ghrelin tends to go up if it's been a long time since we've eaten, if we didn't eat enough or if we're following a calorie restrictive diet. In fact, studies show that following a calorie restrictive diet causes ghrelin to raise significantly, making us feeling even more hungry than before.(1)
We want to eat foods that help to lower ghrelin and eat in a frequency that keeps ghrelin at bay. The two foods that help reduce ghrelin the most are those rich in protein and fiber.
Protein rich foods include eggs, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, beef, chicken, whey protein, lamb, pork, tempeh and others. Each meal should be centered around these protein rich foods to help reduce hunger. The amount each person needs will vary, but aiming for 30 grams of complete protein per meal is a good place to start for many. This would be like 4.5 oz. of chicken/beef/turkey, 1 1/2 cups greek yogurt, 1 1/2 servings whey protein, 5-6 eggs or 5 oz. tempeh.
Fiber acts on the stretch mechanism in the stomach. When we eat fiber rich foods, it stretches the stomach and sends a signal to the brain that you're full. Great sources of fiber rich foods include chia seeds, basil seeds, raspberries, cacao nibs, artichoke hearts, lentils and avocado.
As a Nutritionist, I don't stress about the specific amount of fiber at a meal. Instead, I make sure to add at least one source of fiber at each meal and increase the serving as needed based on my hunger cues.
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2. Your Satiety Hormones Are Low
Just like we have hunger hormones, we also have hormones that tell our brain that we're full and satisfied and shuts off hunger. The two main satiety hormones include cholecystokinin (CCK) and peptide YY.
These hormones go up by eating foods rich in protein and high quality fats. If we don't eat enough protein or fat, it can result in lower satiety hormones and feeling hungry faster.
By eating quality sources of protein, we can simultaneously decrease ghrelin while also increasing satiety hormones. When we eat enough protein, we should feel satisfied for about 4 hours after the meal.
Great sources of fats include avocado, chia seeds, olives, coconut, almonds, cashews, peanuts, hemp seeds, fat naturally found in meats/fatty fish/dairy products and flax seeds.
You can easily sneak high quality sources of protein, fat and fiber into a morning protein smoothie. Check out one of my favorite recipes with the link below.
3. You're Tired
Getting poor sleep can raise the hunger hormone ghrelin and the stress hormone cortisol. This combination results in us feeling hungry and stressed. It also results in cravings for sugary, starchy foods.
When looking to improve sleep, we need to aim to improve both quantity and quality.
Going to bed earlier and skipping the extra episode on Netflix or HBO is helpful for addressing the sleep quantity (how long you're sleeping). But we also want to incorporate tools that improve sleep quality.
Sleep quality is an assessment of how well we slept. If you woke up feeling rested, then you probably had great quality sleep. However, if you woke up feeling tired or groggy, then you probably didn't get very good quality sleep.
A few of my favorite tools for boosting sleep quality include:
Shutting off all TV/phone/electronics 30-60 minutes before bed. This naturally allows the sleep hormone melatonin to increase.
Taking a magnesium supplement. Magnesium has been noted in research to help improve sleep quality.(2) Make sure to check with your doctor before adding supplements, as some medications or conditions shouldn't be mixed with magnesium supplements.
4. Your Blood Sugar Is Crashing
Low blood sugar is a dangerous situation for our body because certain cells (like red blood cells) can only function off of sugar. So when our blood sugar crashes, it sends the signal to our body that we need food and we need it now. This type of hunger usually results in irritability, nausea, anxiety, sweating, shakiness and/or headaches.
When eating blood sugar stabilizing foods rich in protein, fat and fiber, this type of hunger is less common. Typically low blood sugar results from eating a meal high in refined carbs or sugars that cause the blood sugar to spike and fall.
By emphasizing protein, fat and fiber rich foods, you can help to promote a stable blood sugar level and therefore reduce cravings and hunger that result from a blood sugar crash.
An additional helpful tool is to focus on medium to low glycemic load foods at each meal while avoiding high glycemic load foods.
Glycemic load is a measurement of how much a food will spike blood sugar levels. High glycemic load foods have the biggest impact on blood sugar levels, whereas medium and low glycemic load foods have minimal to zero impact on blood sugar.
Most of the medium and low glycemic load foods are also more nutrient dense and higher in fiber.
5. You're Stressed
Stress raises the hormone cortisol and high levels of cortisol increase our cravings for sugary and starchy foods. This isn't true hunger, but it can feel like hunger because the cravings are so strong.
One helpful tool to reduce cortisol is to go for a 10-15 minute outdoor walk. If you can take the walk in a natural environment (like a park, garden or lake), then you can get even better stress reduction perks.(3)
When it comes to reducing hunger, we need to remember that our body is feeling that way for a reason. The first step is identifying what that reason is so that you can then use the tools that best help the situation.
Are you tired? Did you eat enough at your last meal? Was your breakfast low in protein?
Understanding the various causes of hunger can help you confidently make lifestyle and dietary choices that reduce hunger, increase energy levels and make you feel GOOD again.