Do you find yourself hungry less than an hour after you last ate? Generally, we can all go for at least 3 hours after eating a meal before we get hungry again, so if you find your stomach rumbling or looking in the pantry for a snack between meals, then you may be eating or doing something that is triggering your appetite long before you should be hungry.
To help you keep your hands out of the snack cupboard, we asked Dr Nancy what’s making you so hungry.
#1 Not Eating Enough
The first reason is also the most obvious – and it may be that you’re simply not eating enough. When we’re dieting it can be tempting to follow extreme celebrity diets or cut our calories significantly, but this can lead us to eat too little. Make sure you’re calculating your BMR (basal metabolic rate) and never cut your calories lower than that – this is the number of calories your body needs simply to function, not walk around or workout. Severe calorific restriction will cause your body to think that you are starving, and so it will trigger hormones that make you want to eat. This makes it much more difficult to choose healthy options and may lead to a nutrient deficiency if you aren’t getting a balanced diet.
Also, be wary of eating too little protein and fiber. Protein and fiber take longer to digest, so they’ll keep you feeling fuller for longer and suppress your appetite. Make sure you look to whole grains for fiber, eat whole fruit instead of juice, and eat sources of healthy protein such as lean white meat and fish or legumes like beans and lentils.
#2 Eating a High-Sugar Breakfast
Breakfast meals that are high in sugar and caffeine, such as the average bowl of cereal and a coffee, will usually spike your blood sugar and cortisol. Cortisol is the body’s internal alarm system – it will cause you to feel more stress and anxiety, which can lead many people who emotionally eat to feel like turning to the cupboard for comfort.
Instead of eating your normal sugary cereal and a coffee, opt for a breakfast high in protein to keep you full and maintain healthy insulin and cortisol levels throughout the day. If you eat eggs, then something like a garden scramble or homemade egg muffin is a good choice, or try sugar-free yogurt with a few low-sugar berries, such as strawberries.
#3 Eating Too Much Sugar
We all know that sugar is bad for us, but we often fail to link with the fact that sugar is empty calories with the fact that it spikes our blood glucose levels, which at best, results in a sugar crash. When we experience that crash after eating we feel tired and often turn to food to try and get more energy, which can become a cycle.
Don’t forget that it’s not just chocolate and soda that counts as sugar – seemingly healthy foods like fruit juice can also cause this rollercoaster effect. Fruit juice is essentially just natural sugars (fructose) in a carton, especially if the pulp has been removed. It doesn’t have any fiber, fat, or protein, so while it may have some nutrients and antioxidants, it’s going to do you more harm than good.
#4 Drinking Coffee From Starbucks or Premixed in Cartons
Most of us know that coffee has some health benefits, but it’s important to note that it’s black coffee that has the benefits. As soon as you start adding in other ingredients, you compromise those health benefits. When you’re making a coffee at home or ordering out, avoid those mixes that are full of creamer, milk, and sugar.
Remember that “no added sugar” does not mean “no sugar”, it just means the café or factory hasn’t added refined sugar to the recipe. Drink your coffee black, add just a dab of unsweetened almond milk, or switch to a cappuccino or Americano.
Where there are extreme diets, there are also those who become addicted to exercise. Whether it’s someone who binges on food and then spends all evening on an elliptical or would rather be at Crossfit than at home, exercise equals calorific expenditure, and that means your body needs food to replenish the resources it’s used during exercise.
Intense periods of exercise can also increase ghrelin, the hormone that increases your appetite, and decrease the hormone that makes you feel full, which is leptin. That’s not to say you should avoid exercise, but you should consider what you need to eat to fuel your body both before and after exercise if you’re going to be exercising intensely for a long period and make sure you have planned something filling, healthy, and balanced.
#6 Lack of Deep Sleep
Most adults need 7-8 hours of quality sleep a night to operate optimally, and sleep deprivation can increase the hunger hormone as you feel like you need to eat more to stay awake and continue functioning properly. Sleep deprivation isn’t just something for the pages of thrillers, for those with insomnia, or prisoners of war – regularly getting less sleep than your body needs can lead to sleep deprivation.
Within the past decade, over 50 genes have been identified that can stimulate hunger and make it difficult to lose weight when activated. Don’t let this deter you, however – eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of nutritious, filling foods will help you work around any genetic issues that cause you to feel hungry.
Feeling hungry all the time can be frustrating, but you may be perpetuating the cycle simply by being unaware of the habits you have. With just a few tweaks to what you eat, diet, and sleep, you can stop feeling hungry all the time and get your health back on track.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.