Turns out, some of us may be more susceptible to growling stomachs.

Karla Walsh; Reviewed by Jess Ball, M.S., RD
April 19, 2021
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Whether your hunger manifests in scouring the house for snacks, ordering takeout ASAP or getting a bit snappy with your family (hey, hanger is real!), we've all likely experienced the sensation of, "Whoops! I waited too long between meals…"

Some of us might be more likely than others to experience these feels more frequently, suggests a new study published last week in the journal Nature Metabolism. And it all boils down to biology.

A research team from King's College London and a health science company ZOE teamed up to research why certain individuals struggle to lose weight while on a calorie-controlled diet. To do so, they tracked the blood sugar (via stick-on continuous glucose monitors) and several other health biomarkers from 1,070 people for 14 days. During this trial period, participants all ate the same breakfast—muffins with the same amount of calories and macronutrients—then chose the rest of their meals throughout the day.

In addition to the blood sugar data that the monitor kept tabs on throughout the day, the researchers crunched the numbers from:

  • Wearable devices that tracked sleep and activity
  • Self-reported hunger and alertness levels tracked via a smartphone app
  • Reports about when and what participants ate each day

Past studies have honed in on the blood sugar fluctuations for the first 2 hours post-meal only. But this research zoomed out—and as a result, discovered that some of the participants had significant "sugar dips" between 2 and 4 hours after their initial blood sugar high. At this point, certain people recorded a blood sugar dive below their normal baseline level, then they popped back up.

Woman looking inside the fridge
Credit: Getty Images / PeopleImages

Those who had the largest dips experienced a 9% increase in hunger and ate again about 30 minutes sooner than those who had smaller dips; even if they ate the same amount. "Big dippers," as the study authors call them, also consumed about 75 additional calories in the 4 hours after breakfast and about 310 calories more over the course of the day than the "little dippers." Tally that rate up over a year, and it equates to a potential 20 pound weight gain over the course of a year.

"Many people struggle to lose weight and keep it off, and just a few hundred extra calories every day can add up to several pounds of weight gain over a year. Our discovery that the size of sugar dips after eating has such a big impact on hunger and appetite has great potential for helping people understand and control their weight and long-term health," says study leader Ana Valdes, who is also a professor at the School of Medicine at the University of Nottingham.

Body weight, age and body mass index (BMI) were not correlated with the size of peoples' "dips," but the average male tended to have a little larger fluctuation than the typical female in this study. Interestingly, an individual's day-to-day dip in response to the same meal varied sometimes, which hints at the fact that activity levels and overall meal choices and patterns might impact metabolism as well.

So what can the big dippers who want to lose weight do now that we know this? Select specific foods that team up to work together better with your personal biology to help you stay satisfied longer—and subtly eat a few less calories. We have plenty of calorie-specific, healthy meal plans to help you get started. (But keep in mind: Being healthy does NOT always equate to being a certain body size. Also, let's not forget we're in the middle of a pandemic still, so give yourself grace if you gained a pound or a few.) More research is needed to pinpoint exactly what foods should be consumed when for the feel-fuller-longer lifestyle.

"This study shows how wearable technology can provide valuable insights to help people understand their unique biology and take control of their nutrition and health. By demonstrating the importance of sugar dips, our study paves the way for data-driven, personalized guidance for those seeking to manage their hunger and calorie intake in a way that works with rather than against their body," says Patrick Wyatt from ZOE, the lead author on the study.