Feeling hungry isn’t a bad thing. It’s your body’s way of telling you it needs fuel to function. But if you feel famished all the time – even after finishing a meal – easily-remedied mistakes may be to blame, some which may surprise you.
Hunger is a biological drive to eat that’s associated with a grumbling stomach, weakness and/or headache, symptoms that can undermine your concentration and prompt you to make less-than-stellar food choices. Appetite, on the other hand, is the desire to seek out a specific food, whether you feel hungry or not.
The biology of hunger
When your stomach is empty it secretes ghrelin, a hunger hormone that signals your brain it’s time to eat. Your brain, in turn, increases hunger and stimulates the release of stomach acid to prepare your body for food intake. When you’ve had enough to eat and your stomach is stretched, it stops churning out ghrelin.
How often you should feel hungry depends largely on what – and when – you last ate. In general, though, it’s normal to feel hungry, or a little peckish, three to four hours after eating a meal.
Blunders that can increase hunger
If you find yourself hungry more often than this – or ravenous before meals –consider whether one (or more) of the following culprits is the reason.
You eat too little protein (or fat)
Including a source of protein – e.g. chicken, fish, lean meat, eggs, tofu, beans and lentils, yogurt, milk – at meals and snacks can delay hunger and fend off cravings. Protein stays in the stomach longer than other nutrients, so it promotes a feeling of fullness.
Fat also helps you feel satiated after eating. Include a source of heart-healthy unsaturated fat from oils, avocado, nuts, seeds or nut butter in each meal.
You’re stuck on white bread
Highly processed carbohydrates in white bread, white rice, refined breakfast cereals, cookies, pastries and candy are digested quickly, causing your blood sugar (glucose) to rise rapidly. In response to high glycemic carbohydrates, your insulin level soars, causing your blood glucose to drop and your brain to signal hunger.
Fibre-rich whole grains and some starchy vegetables, on the other hand, help to stabilize blood glucose.
Replace refined grains with low glycemic foods such as 100 per cent whole grain breads and breakfast cereals, oatmeal, brown rice, barley, quinoa, sweet potato and beans and lentils. Their fibre also adds bulk to meals which helps keep you feeling full longer.
You skimp on breakfast
Skipping the morning meal can trigger cravings, hunger and overeating later in the day by ramping up ghrelin levels.
Missing breakfast or forgoing carbohydrates at the meal also causes serotonin to drop which, in turn, can rev up your appetite, especially for sweets. (Serotonin, a chemical produced in the brain and the gut, helps regulate appetite, digestion and mood.)
A satisfying breakfast should include protein (e.g. eggs, Greek yogurt, soy milk), low glycemic carbohydrates (e.g. steel cut oats, bran cereal, whole grain rye bread, most types of fruit) and healthy fat (e.g. nut butter, chia seeds, flax meal).
Research suggests people often confuse thirst with hunger, perhaps because both sensations are regulated by brain’s hypothalamus. Not drinking enough water can also make you feel tired and, as a result, turn to food to boost energy.
If you feel hungry soon after eating, drink a large glass of water and wait 20 minutes. If your hunger pangs persist, eat a healthy snack, perhaps one that provides water, too. Hydrating fruits include strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches, raspberries, apricots and blueberries. Cucumber, celery, carrots, zucchini and spinach also have a high water content.
The hunger-suppressing effect of water may even help you slim down. Studies have found that dieters who drank two cups of water before meals were less hungry and consumed fewer calories at the meal.
Women require 9 cups (2.2 L) of water each day; men need 12 cups (3 litres). All beverages, with the exception of alcohol, count towards daily water requirements.
You don’t snack
If your meals are longer than four to five hours apart, include a small snack to prevent large dips in blood glucose – and to avoid feeling ravenous at meal time. Between-meal snacks should include protein and low glycemic carbohydrate.
Good choices include fruit and nuts, yogurt and berries, whole grain crackers and tuna or a homemade smoothie made with milk or soy milk and fruit. To control calories, keep snacks to 150 to 250 calories.
You’re a fast eater
When you eat quickly, you don’t give your brain enough time to register you’ve had enough to eat, even if your stomach is full. Eating slowly allows appetite-related hormones to kick in and tell your brain it’s time to stop eating.
To slow your eating pace, pause between bites; put down your knife and fork and chew thoroughly. Ban distractions that prevent you from paying attention to the fact you’re eating. Step away from the TV, computer or newspaper when eating.
You’re stressed out
Ongoing stress increases adrenaline and cortisol, stress hormones that trigger a prolonged release of ghrelin. Plus, stress reduces serotonin, which can also make you feel hungry.
If you typically reach for sugar when feeling stressed, your blood glucose will peak and then crash, adding to your need for food. If you can’t control your stress, control what you feed it.
You’re short on sleep
Not getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night can drive hunger and sugar cravings during the day. Like chronic stress, too little sleep ramps up cortisol and raises ghrelin.
Feeling tired after a poor night’s sleep can also send you in search of food for a boost of energy, even if you don’t feel hungry.
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.