Hunger is your body telling you it needs sustenance so it can operate efficiently. Yet sometimes, it can feel like all our hunger is a little…excessive.
We’re talking about those days when just 20 minutes after lunch (after you ate a meal big enough for two) you’re already starving again. Maybe it happens every day—you find yourself jonesing for another snack before you can even lick all the white cheddar popcorn off your fingers. Either way, you’re always. so. damn. hungry. But why?
“It is normal to experience an increase in appetite after going hard in the gym or during your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, or breastfeeding,” Amanda Foti, M.S., R.D., a senior dietitian at Selvera Wellness, says “But if you feel like a bottomless pit, something might be up.”
Luckily, tweaking some of your daily habits can help keep your appetite in check so you’ll keep all that eating to when you’re truly, really, actually hungry.
1. You’re not eating often enough.
It might sound counter-intuitive if you’re trying to curb your eating, but spacing out your meals too far can make you constantly hungry. “When your stomach is empty for too long, your body will release more ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone, leaving you feeling famished,” Foti says. Which over time, leads to overeating. Try eating a meal or snack every three to four hours. Foti also recommends keeping an emergency snack on you, like a piece of fruit, for when you’re tight on time.
2. You’re not getting the right balance of nutrients.
“Satisfying snacks have three components: fiber, protein, and a little healthy fat,” explains Caroline Kaufman, R.D. All three can help slow digestion, which keeps blood sugar stable and keeps you full for longer. Some of her suggestions: a serving of plain popcorn (fiber) with roasted almonds (protein and healthy fat); vegetable sticks (fiber) with hummus (protein and healthy fat); or cherry tomatoes (fiber), avocado (healthy fat) and part-skim cottage cheese (protein).
3. You’re eating too many simple carbs and sugars.
On the other hand, eating lots of simple carbohydrates (think: white bread, pasta, bagels, pastries) and sugar will make it impossible to feel satisfied. “Your glucose will rise at first giving you a burst of energy, and then crash rapidly causing your body to crave more fuel,” Foti explains. This can become a vicious cycle, where you never feel satisfied no matter how much you keep eating.
4. You’re dehydrated and confusing thirst for hunger.
Our thirst and hunger cues both come from the same part of the brain, the hypothalamus, making it difficult for our bodies to know the difference, Foti explains. Keep a water bottle at your desk so you remember to sip throughout the day. “You’ll know you’re drinking enough water when your pee is light yellow or clear,” Kaufman adds.
5. You’re stressed.
Simply put, stress increases the body’s production of the hormone cortisol, which boosts appetite, since your body thinks it needs to prepare to fight. “According to the Harvard School of Public Health, many studies have found that stress can increase cravings for sugary, fatty foods,” Kaufman explains. “These foods may actually comfort you on a physiological level—they seem to inhibit parts of your brain that produce stress emotions.” This may make you feel better temporarily, but it ends up increasing snack cravings. (Trying to manage your stress? Here are six easy ways to feel less stressed in under five minutes.)
6. You’re not paying attention to what you’re eating.
Eating mindfully—that means actually paying attention to what you’re eating instead of shoveling it in your mouth as you’re running off to do something else—is important for your body to register when it’s hungry or not. When you don’t fully experience a meal, you may still feel hungry even when your body is full, because you essentially forget you already ate.
“In addition to sensing when you’re hungry and full, mindful eating can help you decide if food is even satisfying,” Kaufman explains, or if your hunger is something else entirely, like dehydration or stress. “Maybe you think you’re hungry, but when you start eating your yogurt, you realize you’re not hungry at all. The yogurt isn’t satisfying that feeling.” If you weren’t paying attention to the eating process, you’d just down the yogurt and still feel hungry.
7. You’re not getting enough sleep.
Sleep is very closely linked with two hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin. Leptin reduces appetite, and ghrelin stimulates it. “When you’re sleep-deprived, leptin levels drop and ghrelin soars—no wonder you’re hungry!” Kaufman says. Plus, when you’re exhausted, your body craves a quick fuel source, glucose, which gets you reaching for those sugar-laden foods. “These ‘comfort carbs’ set you off on a hunger rollercoaster, since they give you a quick (but fleeting) energy boost, followed by a sugar crash that makes you crave more.”
8. You have an underlying medical condition that’s messing with your appetite.
If you’ve checked all the other potential causes, and you’re still eating nonstop, it may be worth seeing a doctor to rule out any real health concerns. Diabetes, hyperthyroidism, depression, and anxiety (along with some medications) can all amp up your appetite.