By Isadora Baum
You know the feeling…you can’t seem to step away from the fridge or get images of food out of your head. Sometimes it’s not even because you want food. The feeling might arise even right after you’ve had a big meal or snack. Hunger isn’t the only driving factor . Many things can make an appetite increase, and when it gets to the point when you start grabbing any food in sight, it’s time to think about why you are always hungry.
“The terms hunger and appetite often get confused, especially since our appetite is regulated by what is referred to as hunger and satiety hormones,” says Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.
Here is the critical difference between hunger and appetite: Hunger is a physiological need for food and nutrients, while appetite is a psychological desire to eat.
The Hunger Hormones at Play: Ghrelin and Leptin
There are two main hormones that can make us either feel hungry or satisfied.“Hunger hormones are substances our body releases to prompt us to eat, in response to a variety of things such as an empty stomach, low blood sugar, or lack of intake of certain nutrients,” she says. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone discussed most often, as it tells the body to release two other hormones, NPY and AgRP, both of which stimulate feeding, as well as suppress the release of one of our satiety hormones, leptin.
Leptin is often discussed when satiety, or the feeling of fullness, is brought up, as it is released by our adipose tissue (fat) and acts opposite of ghrelin, by inhibiting release of NPY and AgRP. “There are a variety of other satiety hormones working alongside leptin, most notably PYY, CCK, and PP and these satiety hormones are released when blood sugar rises, insulin is released, fat is consumed, and the nerves lining the stomach and intestines sense pressure, noting there is food available,” she says.
Hunger increases when ghrelin levels are higher, and lepin is lower. There’s an imbalance. Sometimes we feel hungry without actually being hungry, and that can come from a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, if we don’t get our appetite in check, and we overeat consistently, it can easily lead to some side effects, like weight gain, type 2 diabetes. It also trains you to snack excessively and may create a feeling of constant hunger over time. Here are a few traps to watch out for.
You Are Not Eating Enough Fat
A common reason you might feel hungry is if you are not eating enough high-fat foods, such as peanut butter, avocado, salmon, and seeds. “If you’ve ever counted calories, it may have brought you to restricting your fat intake with low fat and fat free products, or skipping the cooking fat or avocado in a meal,” she says.
Avoiding fat backfires. Fat is vital to increase satiety levels and prevent overeating. “Physically, fat moves through your stomach and intestines more slowly than starches or sugars, so by slowing movement through the GI tract, your nerves feel pressure for longer, to prevent early release of ghrelin,” she says. “Physiologically, the presence of fat in the GI tract releases the hormone CCK, which leads to the feeling of fullness, or not wanting to eat,” she adds.
If you typically include enough fat in your meals and snacks, but missed out on it one day, that may be why you’re feeling hungry earlier than normal. Even if you’re not eating fewer calories, (meaning your body isn’t actually hungry and in need of nutrients), omitting or significantly limiting healthy fats may lead to hunger pangs and increase appetite.
You Are Not Eating Enough Carbs
“Your blood sugar impacts satiety and hunger hormone release and after we eat carbohydrates, when the body recognizes there is energy in the bloodstream that needs to get into our cells, we release the hormone insulin, which tells our cells to allow carbohydrate and other energy nutrients in for use or storage,” she says.
Insulin also acts as a satiety hormone though, telling you not to eat. Ghrelin is also released in response to low blood sugar, meaning that if you aren’t eating enough carbohydrate, you’ll likely feel hungry more often. “Even if you aren’t on a low carb diet, and just skimp on carbs at lunch or dinner one day, your blood sugar may remain on the lower end of normal and soon after the meal you may feel hungry again,” she says.
When you feel the effects of low blood try two tricks to help you avoid grabbing and scarfing down sugary snacks. First, eat healthy carbs throughout the day to stay fueled. Second, make sure to have plenty fiber to keep insulin levels stable. It will keep your belly fuller longer. High-sugar carbs like pastries, white bread, and candy, have little to no value and can feed into the cycle of needing sugar so go for whole grains, whole wheat, gluten-free grains like quinoa, beans, and legumes.
You Have Your Period
“The drop in estrogen and increase in progesterone that occurs after ovulation and during the pre-menstrual luteal phase of a woman’s cycle naturally increases appetite as well,” she says. Energy needs and appetites fluctuate throughout the month.Try to learn to be truly in tune with your body’s needs relative to hunger and fullness, and over time, your energy intake should even out over the course of your cycle, she explains.
During this time in your cycle, focus snacking on fiber-dense complex carbs, healthy fats, veggies, and enough protein. It will help to keep hunger signals in check and allow you to monitor appetite control better. You may be able to then keep cortisol levels lower too, so you will feel more relaxed.. This can assist you in preventing weight gain and allow you to focus on a healthy food intake that can better your body and mindset.
You Have Sleep Deprivation
Very simply, sleep deprivation spikes ghrelin and reduces leptin, leaving you feeling hungrier than normal. “This may be due to the fact that carbohydrates aid in delivery of tryptophan into the brain. Tryptophan is a precursor to the well known sleep enhancing substance, melatonin,” she says. Once hunger is increased your body is searching for carbs that will prompt you to get the sleep you need. Make sure to get 7-8 hours a night to get enough sleep and to prevent excessive hunger, which may lead to increasing unwanted calories intake and weight gain.
You Move More
“Many people think about the extra energy they expend during planned exercise, recognizing that the body needs to replace that extra energy (as well as protein) to improve fitness,” she says.
“However, if you have increased your lifestyle activity due to a new job, settling into a new home, or as a parent, you’ll also be expending more energy and your body responds to that .” You will feel the need to eat, releasing the ghrelin (you will want to either more often or eat in higher amounts) depending on your eating pattern,” she adds.
Your body’s own desire to maintain its weight is a protective mechanism. Your body knows that if you continue with extra activity, but aren’t replacing the energy with enough protein and healthy fats and carbs, other essential body functions won’t have enough energy to operate over time. So, if you’re working out or becoming more active on a day-to-day basis, add more to your plate too.