“Hunger is the physiological need for calories, water, and salt, and it’s driven by a mix of factors, including your diet, appetite hormones, and emotional factors, such as stress,” says Maggie Moon, R.D., nutritionist and owner of Everyday Healthy Eating.
Possible causes for constant hunger
Outside of pregnancy, excessive hunger is usually a sign of some physical or mental health problem. Here are some possible causes to consider:
1. Poor sleep
Not getting enough sleep can lead to elevated levels of the hormone ghrelin that triggers hunger. Not to mention tiredness makes your body more likely to crave carbohydrates and calorie-rich foods as an energy source.
“Too little sleep can lead to surging levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite, as well as decreased levels of leptin, a hormone that causes feelings of fullness,” explains Alissa Rumsey, R.D., spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
2. Overindulging on starch-laden carbs
“Simple carbs, the kind found in sugary, white flour foods like pastries, crackers, and cookies, spike your blood sugar levels quickly, then leave them plunging soon after,” says Moon. “That blood sugar plunge causes intense hunger for more sugary carbs, and the cycle continues.”
Becoming dehydrated makes your body feel run down and sluggish. This naturally triggers the body to look for sources of fuel. So you can experience hunger, even though thirst is the real problem. If you drink a large glass of water at the onset of hunger and then wait for several minutes before you eat something, you may find you were thirsty, not hungry.
“Prevent it [dehydration] by staying on top of your fluid intake, starting with a glass of water first thing in the morning,” advises Rumsey. “If you feel hungry, and you haven’t drank much that day, try drinking a glass of water and waiting 15 to 20 minutes to see if your hunger subsides.”
4. Low protein
While it may sound odd, eating good-sized portions of healthy fats and lean protein can stave off hunger. The recommended daily allowance for protein for women is between 19 and 70 grams per day; for men it’s 56.
“Not only does protein stay in your stomach and promote feelings of fullness, it’s been shown to have an appetite-suppressing effect,” says Rumsey.
Not to mention, heart-healthy unsaturated fat is also good for your brain. Excellent sources are avocados, nuts, and oils.
“When you’re satisfied after a meal, you are more likely to listen to your hunger cues and not eat again until you are truly hungry,” explains Rumsey.
5. Stressed out
Going back to the early days of human development, the natural response to stress was to load up on food. When you get tense, your body ramps up the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones tell the body to look for food sources of energy. Stress triggers cravings for sugary and fatty foods in particular.
6. Skipping meals
Dieters are often guilty of this. You think taking in fewer calories by skipping meals will help you lose weight. Wrong! Instead, this backfires and causes you to overeat at other meals. When your stomach is empty for too long, it causes a rise in ghrelin, which increases your appetite. “Ghrelin also prompts the GI tract to expect food to come. Your ghrelin levels are in overdrive, and so is your lust for food,” explains Rumsey.
Next time you find yourself hungry all the time, think about what may be causing it.
—The Alternative Daily