I’ve heard it often from friends and relatives, and I used to plaintively bleat it myself: I’m always hungry.
Losing — or just maintaining — weight seems impossible when your body constantly tells you that it needs more.
But the fact is that hunger is just a biochemical signal, and like any such signal, there are many research-backed lifestyle measures you can employ to get it under control.
Here are some of the reasons you may feel too often or constantly hungry, and how to address them:
- Lack of sleep. This one was huge for me — due to overwork and chronic stress, I spent virtually all of my 40s and early 50s sleep deprived and watched helplessly as my appetite raged and waistline expanded. Lack of sleep leads to overproduction of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” and underproduction of leptin, the hormone that gives a feeling of fullness or satiety.1 Once I made getting at least seven hours of sleep nightly a major priority (I’m not kidding about this: I let nothing get in my way), the best “side effect” I noticed, aside from better mood and improved energy, was a major appetite reduction.
- Too Much Carbohydrate. Carbs, especially refined ones such as sugar and flour, spike blood levels of insulin. A dip follows, leading to ravenous hunger and a craving for more carbs.2 Carb overload first thing in the morning — from cereal, waffles, pancakes, pastries, orange juice and the like — is an especially bad idea, as it sets one up for an all-day roller coaster of excessive hunger and overeating.
- Insufficient Dietary Protein and Fat. Protein from meat, eggs and fish is a potent appetite suppressant.3 Don’t be afraid to add more of these to your daily diet to replace carbohydrates, especially in the morning.
- Being Dehydrated. As it turns out, thirst and hunger are both controlled by the same specific region of the hypothalamus. So it is common to mistake dehydration for hunger and overeat when one should be drinking. Indeed, a recent study4 found a “significant association between… inadequate hydration and obesity.” If you are hungry when you know you’ve already eaten enough, drink water or, better yet, iced green tea (which contains caffeine and can mildly depress hunger). Then wait roughly 15 minutes to see if the hunger abates.
- Being Stressed. Low-level psychological stress makes the adrenal glands kick out copious amounts of adrenaline and cortisol. These, in turn, stimulate hunger.5 An excellent way to manage stress is with vigorous exercise, especially first thing in the morning. This can create a relaxation effect that reduces hunger for much of the day.
- Eating Too Quickly. Rapid eaters are more likely to be overweight than leisurely ones.6That’s likely because when you eat at warp speed, you can actually overeat before your brain can “register” the hormonal changes indicating your stomach is full. Take small bites, and space them out — convivial conversation with friends while eating is a great way to do this.
For much of my life, I violated nearly all of the above, and wound up at 225 pounds, despite disciplined daily exercise and exerting every ounce of willpower I could muster to eat less.
It was only when I began to sleep more, cut carbs and eat fat, drink more water and green tea and exercise in the mornings that I could honestly report I no longer felt “always hungry.” That, in turn, dropped my weight to 185, where it has remained for the last decade.
This is not to say that discipline is no longer required… but the amount I need these days is an amount I can summon easily.
The evening hours were always hardest for me — my inclination was to have dinner at 6 p.m., and essentially keep eating right up until bedtime at 10 p.m. One “trick” that helped prevent this was sipping incredibly slowly on some truly excellent red wine, such that it can take a couple of hours to finish a glass.
As long as you keep your consumption under two drinks daily for men, one for women, you’ll remain within the “sweet spot” for cardiovascular benefit from alcoholic beverages.
To your robust health,
- Maurovich-horvat E, Pollmächer TZ, Sonka K. The effects of sleep and sleep deprivation on metabolic, endocrine and immune parameters. Prague Med Rep. 2008
- Cecil JE, Francis J, Read NW. Comparison of the effects of a high-fat and high-carbohydrate soup delivered orally and intragastrically on gastric emptying, appetite, and eating behaviour. Physiol Behav. 1999
- Duraffourd C, De vadder F, Goncalves D, et al. Mu-opioid receptors and dietary protein stimulate a gut-brain neural circuitry limiting food intake. Cell. 2012
- Chang T, Ravi N, Plegue MA, Sonneville KR, Davis MM. Inadequate Hydration, BMI, and Obesity Among US Adults: NHANES 2009-2012. Ann Fam Med. 2016
- Adams CE, Greenway FL, Brantley PJ. Lifestyle factors and ghrelin: critical review and implications for weight loss maintenance. Obes Rev. 2011
- Leong SL, Madden C, Gray A, Waters D, Horwath C. Faster self-reported speed of eating is related to higher body mass index in a nationwide survey of middle-aged women. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011