8 Surprising Reasons You're Always Hungry
Ever have days where you just can't seem to get full? Sometimes the reasons are easy to trace back to diet: maybe you're not eating enough calories, or you're getting too little protein or fat, which can leave you feeling empty.
But what if you can't find a logical reason for hunger? Here are eight surprising reasons for why you're always hungry (and how to fix it).
1. You Aren't Getting Adequate Sleep
A night of poor sleep not only affects productivity, but also can make you hungry the next day. The reason is that inadequate sleep disrupts the body's regulation of ghrelin and leptin, two hormones used by the body to tell us when to eat and when to stop eating. But a lack of sleep can disrupt the balance of these two, causing ghrelin (the one that triggers hunger) to increase and leptin (the one that triggers satiety) to decrease.
How to manage this hunger: It's recommended that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep each night, so set this as a goal, even though it may not be possible every night. Also, being cognizant that hunger the next day may simply be due to a lack of sleep—not a true physiological need to eat—may help you make better food decisions.
2. You Need to De-Stress
Stress levels ebb and flow on a daily basis, and when faced with bigger stressors, the body releases fight-or-flight hormones (epinephrine and cortisol) as a normal feedback mechanism to help the body cope in the short-term. The problem arises when the stress never eases or dissipates. Cortisol levels stay elevated, and these higher levels start to wreak havoc on eating habits by increasing appetite and triggering cravings for high-fat, high-energy food (think refined carbs and processed foods with added sugars).
How to manage this hunger: It's essential to decrease overall stress to reduce cortisol levels, so finding some stress-management techniques or activities is key. Even just five to ten minutes spent meditating, stretching or walking the dog can make a difference. To manage increased appetite during stress, get adequate rest and eat balanced meals with complex carbs and lean protein.
3. You're Hooked on Low-Calorie Drinks
Excessive consumption of added sugars is linked to weight gain and increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and even diseases like Alzheimer's. So grabbing a diet soda or using an artificial sweetener instead of choosing a sugar-sweetened beverage may seem like the healthier choice. And while this does decrease calorie intake, consuming sugar substitutes may actually increase appetite and hunger. Research suggests the combination of these substitute's sweet taste and lack of calories actually confuses brain receptors, which may trigger an increase in appetite and a lack of satiety.
How to manage this hunger: Choose drinks without added sugar and artificial sweeteners when possible. If you do want a beverage with a little sweetness, it's okay to opt for a sugar-sweetened one on occasion. (We're big fans of iced tea, lemonade and infused water!)
4. You Forget to Stay Hydrated
Even slight dehydration can make you think you're hungry, especially when you're busy and distracted. Staying hydrated can be key to preventing those mixed messages, since it's not uncommon to get mildly dehydrated if you don't drink fluids throughout the day.
How to manage this hunger: Carry a water bottle, sit a glass on your desk or find other ways to keep hydration at your fingertips to prompt intake of water or other non-caloric fluids in during the day. Need more help? Consider setting a timer on your phone every 20 to 60 minutes to remind you to get some fluids.
5. It's Cold Outside
Do you tend to eat more in cold months compared to summer? It's not uncommon to crave more carb-rich foods in winter because of the comfort factor and serotonin boost they provide. However, if portion sizes that satisfied you in September don't seem to fill you up in February, there may be another reason for that hunger. It turns out that those same hunger hormones (ghrelin and leptin) that can increase appetite following a lack of sleep may also fluctuate in cold months and lead to an increase in appetite and decrease in satiety.
How to manage this hunger: Keep winter hunger in check with these tips: pay attention to portion size; pair healthy complex carbs like beans, whole grains and vegetables with lean protein; warm up with hot tea or other minimal drink with minimal calories; and don't forget to stay hydrated.
6. You Skipped Your Workout
It's logical to think that exercise might increase hunger, but research suggests the opposite can actually be true. The reason is that moderate to vigorous activity has an appetite-suppressing effects. Combine these effects with the fact that exercise tends to set a mindset for making good food choices for the next 12 to 24 hours, and this means skipping a workout may leave you feeling hungry and more likely to make less healthy choices.
How to manage this hunger: Taking an occasional rest day is important to give your body a break, so if hunger tends to be an issue on those days, it's key to remember that it may be simply from not getting exercise's appetite-suppressing effects. To help, stay hydrated, eat regularly and focus on getting higher-fiber whole foods and lean protein at meals.
7. You're Eating the Wrong Carbs
Carbohydrate-rich foods that have little fiber and protein (think processed foods made with refined grains and flours like crackers, cereals, breads and pastas) can leave you feeling empty and hungry an hour or two after eating, due to their effect on blood sugar. This effect is heightened when added sugars are involved. The reason is that these carbs require little digestion, and this allows for a rush of glucose into the blood that's later followed by blood sugar levels that plummet leave you feeling empty, weak and hangry.
How to manage this hunger: Choose complex, whole-food or minimally processed carbohydrates such as legumes, starchy vegetables and whole grains. The carbs contain more fiber and protein which slows digestion and leads to a slow steady flow of glucose into the bloodstream.
8. Your Mind Is Confusing Appetite for Hunger
While often used interchangeably, the terms hunger and appetite are two very different things. Hunger is a true physiological need for energy and nutrients. Appetite, on the other hand, is psychologically driven. It's a desire to eat that is triggered by seeing, smelling or thinking about food. The problem is that, in today's world where we have constant access to food and are bombarded with food images, appetite becomes hard to separate from hunger.
How to manage this hunger: To help keep appetite in check, eat regularly making sure to include fiber-rich foods, lean protein and a little healthy fat so you're left feeling satisfied. Also, be aware of how emotions and things in the environment may trigger a desire to eat.
Related: 5 Ways to Beat Emotional Eating
Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.