Why am I so hungry?
Hungry all the time? We hear you. The good news is you can curb those hunger pangs without overeating.
Maintaining a healthy weight relies on burning as many kilojoules as you consume. And people trying to lose weight need to burn more. But that doesn’t have to mean staying in the hunger zone permanently. In fact, research shows when you’re really hungry, not only do high-kilojoule foods suddenly seem more appealing, but you’re also more likely to eat too much in a single meal. “Experiencing some hunger before a meal is a valuable tool, because it’s one indication that you’re getting your portion sizes right,” dietitian Nicole Dynan says. “But feeling overly hungry or starving will eventually backfire.”
Genuine hunger, which Ms Dynan describes as ‘stomach hunger’, occurs when your body has burned through the fuel provided by your last meal or snack, triggering symptoms such as stomach contractions and noises. These are caused by a complex interaction between ‘hunger hormones’ and brain chemicals.
But your hunger levels are not just dictated by how many kilojoules you consume. They’re determined by everything from the quality of those kilojoules to when you eat them, and even how much sleep you get.
Here are five reasons you might always feel hungry, and how to regain control.
1. You’re tired
Lack of sleep upsets the balance of two important ‘hunger hormones’, ghrelin and leptin. Comparing people who had eight hours sleep with those who had just five, US researchers showed that sleep deprivation increases levels of ghrelin. This increases our appetite and decreases levels of leptin, the hormone responsible for letting the brain know when you’re full. It means that when you’re tired, you’ll feel hungrier than usual.
Getting enough sleep is key, but when you’re tired, try bumping up your intake of ghrelin-suppressing foods. “Carbohydrates that are rich in something called resistant starch are really useful for this,” Ms Dynan says. Among these foods are unprocessed cereals and whole grains, potatoes (especially when cooled) and lentils.
2. You eat while you’re distracted
It turns out you have a ‘food memory’ that plays a role in hunger and, according to UK-based scientists, it doesn’t function properly or accurately when you’re not 100 per cent focused on a meal while you are eating it.
Their research found that when this memory doesn’t fire up, people eat significantly more throughout the day. “Mindfulness and eating mindfully is so important for creating an awareness around when and why, but also how much, you’re eating,” Ms Dynan says.
Make sure you can hear yourself eat, which means finding or creating some peace and quiet at meal times. Hearing yourself crunch and chew your food helps regulate your appetite.
In fact, if you can’t hear those noises, you could end up eating about 25 per cent more food. Dubbed the ‘crunch effect’, it works as a sensory cue to remind you of how much food you’re putting in your mouth, a useful way of activating that food memory.
3. You’re consuming artificial sweeteners
These may not only make you feel hungry, they could also encourage you to eat more. Researchers from The University of Sydney believe it’s because artificial sweeteners, such as saccharin and aspartame, create confusion in the brain’s reward centres. Their animal studies show the brain detects a sweet sensation but not the energy that should go with it, because these sweeteners are kilojoule-free. The result? The brain has to recalibrate, and then starts sending messages that drive more eating to make up for the imbalance.
Make the effort to limit the artificial sweeteners you consume. These include alitame, acesulphame K, aspartame, cyclamate, neotame, saccharin and sucralose. As well as being available as an alternative to white sugar, they’re used in a wide range of processed foods and drinks, including yoghurts, ice cream, chewing gum and soft drinks. These products are often labelled as ‘diet’, ‘low kilojoule’ or ‘no sugar’.
4. Your breakfast isn’t balanced
It’s not just eating enough at breakfast that matters, what you choose for your first meal of the day has an influence on subsequent hunger levels. Research shows that nutrients such as fibre and protein are essential in the morning for regulating ghrelin levels, and your appetite, later in the day.
Choose high-fibre breakfast foods, such as wholemeal or multigrain bread, along with cereals that contain barley, wheat or oats. Match them with a source of protein such as yoghurt, eggs, nuts or legumes.
5. You’re not eating enough, early enough
Research shows that it’s not just how many kilojoules you eat that affects how hungry you’ll feel, but also what time of day you consume them. Having your biggest meal at breakfast, rather than at dinner, can help weight loss. This is partly thanks to the positive effect that breakfast has on hunger levels, and the hormones that regulate them, keeping you feeling more satisfied for longer.
Try to use up 50 per cent of your daily kilojoule intake at breakfast, 35 per cent at lunch and just 15 per cent at dinner. Not possible every day? Snack on a few walnuts in between meals. They’ll also help to regulate hunger hormones, thanks to the polyunsaturated fats they contain.
You’re not the only one. Many men and women experience food cravings. So what actually causes them?
For starters, forget the idea that it’s your body’s way of telling you you’re deficient in something. There’s no real evidence to link food cravings with nutritional deficiencies.
A better explanation may be that the cravings occur when you ‘ban’ a food. Research confirms that doing that fuels the fire, leading to an increased appetite, or craving, for the food you’re trying to avoid.
Try these three strategies to help you when cravings strike.
1. Stop using the word ‘cravings’
“It’s a word that gives what you’re feeling a lot of power,” says dietitian Lisa Renn, “almost like it’s an addiction.” While research shows that acknowledging the ‘craving’ is more effective than simply ignoring it, try using different language to describe it. “For example, say, ‘I feel like some chocolate’, rather than, ‘I’m craving chocolate’, and see what a difference it makes.” Research also shows that cravings can develop when you use a crave-worthy food, say, hot chips or lollies, to satisfy genuine hunger.
2. Distract yourself
Your brain has a big role to play in food cravings. Not only is simply imagining a food enough to trigger a craving for it, but the opposite is also true. So, giving your brain another task when you feel a food craving coming on can reduce its intensity.
3. Go for a power walk
Short bursts of physical activity are powerful enough to significantly reduce food cravings. It’s an effect that can last even when the food in question is put in front of you.
Is hunger all in your head?
Genuine or ‘stomach hunger’ isn’t the only reason you might find yourself reaching for food.
“‘Head hunger’, where you eat without those genuine hunger signals being present, is not only common, it can happen for a variety of reasons,” Ms Dynan says.
Be on your guard for these ‘head-hunger’ triggers the next time that you’re feeling peckish.
When you repeatedly eat a food (think, popcorn) in a particular place (think, movie theatres), your brain starts to associate that food with that place, and triggers you to eat it, even if you’re not hungry.
More than 70 per cent of us turn to food to deal with stress, and it’s typically high-fat, high-sugar foods that we gravitate towards to take the edge off.
According to a 2015 study, it’s common to eat when you’re bored, as a way to distract yourself from that feeling.
The copycat effect
Researchers in the US have found we mimic the food choices of the people we’re eating with, regardless of how hungry or otherwise we actually are.
Just seeing your favourite food is enough to trigger a ‘hunger’ for it, with one study showing that people eat 67 per cent more chocolate when it’s in a clear container on their desk, rather than an opaque one.