If you feel like you're hungry all the time, even after a meal, you're not alone. In a physiological sense, hunger is a cue that your body needs more food. Your stomach may feel empty and grumbly. You might notice yourself feeling irritable, or "hangry." You might even feel dizzy or off balance.
But hunger can also be a sign of emotional emptiness. You reach for food in an attempt to soothe yourself, or out of sadness, boredom, even happiness. The trouble is, eating more than your body needs to support your daily activities can trigger weight gain.
What Is Hunger?
Hunger can be physical, psychological or even a combination of the two. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to differentiate between true physical hunger and an emotional craving for food.
- Physical hunger: Physical hunger happens when you truly need to eat. The stomach is a muscular organ that expands and contracts. When it stretches after you eat food and liquid, you begin to feel full. A hormone called leptin signals the body that you're full so you can stop eating. When your stomach is empty, it contracts or collapses, causing hunger pangs. Your blood sugar levels dip, and your stomach produces a hormone called ghrelin, prompting you to eat.
- Psychological hunger: Psychological or emotional hunger is not caused by true physiological hunger or the need for nutrition. It happens when you have an emotional connection to, or yearning for, a certain food due to habit, stress or environmental cues. Unlike true hunger, emotional hunger triggers cravings for specific foods — usually something sweet, salty or crunchy.
Why You're Hungry
If you regularly eat a hearty breakfast only to feel ravenous an hour later, there could be more behind your grumbling belly than real hunger. From not getting enough sleep to feeling overwhelmed, here are seven reasons why you might feel constantly hungry:
- You're not really hungry. Reaching for the pantry door shortly after eating often means you’re psychologically hungry. You're turning to food to cope with uncomfortable feelings like sadness, depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, eating foods that are salty, sweet or fatty can cause your brain to release feel-good hormones, which only reinforces those eating behaviors. Your best bet: Try the egg test. If you're not hungry for protein like eggs, chicken or beans, you're probably not really hungry.
- Your meals are out of balance. If you're not getting enough protein, fat and complex carbohydrates, especially fiber-rich sources, you're likely more likely to feel hungry throughout the day. Each of these nutrients slows digestion and promotes feelings of fullness. On the flip side, eating too many refined carbohydrates can cause blood sugar fluctuations that trigger your body to want more food.
- You're eating too quickly. Your body needs about 20 minutes to register fullness. When you eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly, your body and brain have time to notice that you're satisfied.
- Your medications are the culprit. Medications, such as steroids, anti-seizure drugs, certain antidepressants and oral contraceptives can cause you to feel hungrier than usual. If you're concerned that your meds are making you feel hungry, talk to your doctor. There may be an alternative that doesn’t produce the same side effects.
- You're not getting enough sleep. Sleep and appetite are inextricably linked. In fact, our bodies produce more ghrelin and crave more calories when we're not getting enough shut-eye. That's why you often feel hungry when you're sleep-deprived.
- You're actually thirsty. Water not only makes you feel full, it also helps your body absorb the nutrients it gets from food. What's more, feelings of thirst can be mistaken for hunger. Not sure if you're hungry or thirsty? Drink a full glass of water before you even consider preparing a meal or snack.
- You're stressed. Stress can stimulate your appetite. Your body mistakenly assumes you need more nourishment to meet your daily demands. In fact, the stress hormone cortisol can send your blood sugar levels into a tailspin, leading to hunger and food cravings.
Satisfy Your Hunger
Whether your hunger is physical, psychological, or some combination of the two, it's important to get to the bottom of insatiable hunger — and curb overeating. A few key strategies:
- Wait it out. Distract yourself from your cravings with a non-eating activity like a guided mediation, a stroll outdoors or a phone call with a friend. If you can wait even three minutes, there's a good chance the craving will pass.
- Strive for balance. Sometimes hunger between meals indicates your diet is lacking in protein, fat and fiber, which take time to digest. You'll feel full for longer after eating a spinach salad topped with garbanzo beans, hard-boiled eggs, and nuts or seeds than you will after noshing on a plate of spaghetti.
- Keep a food diary. Awareness is the first step toward change. You can get there by logging your food intake. In the log, include the type and amount of food you eat, the date and the time. You might also address questions like: Am I hungry? Why am I eating? Where am I eating? Am I doing anything else while eating? What is my mood? After several days, you may be able to identify certain patterns in your food intake and make changes accordingly.
If you feel hungry all the time and are eating more calories than you need, take a step back and consider what's behind your hunger. Are you thirsty? Overtired? Stressed? Do you need more fiber in your diet? Whatever the reason, reach first for whole fruits and vegetables, or a hard-boiled egg, before you try to quash those cravings with refined foods and snacks.
Still can't get to the bottom of your ongoing hunger? Talk to a health professional. Constant hunger could be a sign of health conditions including diabetes, hyperthyroidism, depression and pregnancy. It's important to rule out medical conditions while addressing those hunger pangs.
Patricia Jurek, RD, MBA, is the manager for Henry Ford Macomb Hospital’s Center for Weight Management. Learn more about Patricia.