We’ve all had those days where we can’t stop raiding the fridge. Case in point: I just ate about an hour ago, but there’s a slice of leftover pizza calling my name. I know my body doesn’t need food right now — it’s not like I’m torching calories while I’m typing this — so why am I so hungry?
No matter how committed you are to eating healthy, it can be hard when you feel like you’re always hungry. But if you understand how hunger works — and why you sometimes feel ravenous for no apparent reason — you can take control of your cravings and keep your healthy eating habits on track.
How Hunger Works
When your stomach is empty or your blood sugar dips, your gut releases a hormone called ghrelin that signals your brain that it’s time to eat. When you’ve eaten enough, you release leptin, a hormone that signals fullness.
This basic physiological need for food is called “homeostatic hunger.” And if homeostatic hunger were the only thing we needed to deal with, we’d probably be totally okay with eating exactly the right amount of plain chicken breast and raw veggies at every meal.
Of course, that’s not how it actually works. For starters, there are several factors that can mess with your metabolism or throw your hunger and fullness hormones out of whack. “Gut hormone levels, predisposition to obesity, stress, and sleep issues all influence hunger,” says Caroline Apovian, M.D., Director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at the Boston Medical Center.
And to make things even more complicated, there’s another type of hunger to contend with, known as “hedonic hunger.”
If you’ve ever announced at the end of a meal that you’re so full you might burst, then someone offers you a salted caramel brownie and you realize you have a brownie-sized space left in your belly, then you’re familiar with hedonic hunger.
“Hedonic hunger is associated with the way our brains perceive pleasure and reward,” Dr. Apovian says. “Certain triggers will cause our brains to crave a snack to soothe or energize us.” When that happens, you’ll want food even if you don’t technically need it.
10 Reasons Why You Feel Like You’re Always Hungry
Obviously if you haven’t eaten anything in four hours, you can probably guess why your tummy’s rumbling. But if you just finished lunch a few minutes ago and you’re already digging through the snack drawer, here are a few things that might be giving you that bottomless-pit feeling.
1. You’re not sleeping enough
If you regularly skimp on sleep — like one-third of adults do — it could be to blame for your endless snack attacks. Just one night of sleep deprivation can cause your ghrelin levels to spike, and sleep debt has been linked to higher BMIs and obesity-related metabolic disorders.
And when you’re running on fumes, your body will start looking for any fuel source to keep you going — like, say, that bag of corn chips in the pantry. Studies have shown that sleepy people tend to consume hundreds of extra calories in a day — so if you burned the midnight oil last night, don’t be surprised if you’re hungrier than usual today.
2. You’re missing out on nutrients
If you’re only counting calories, you may not be getting enough of the essential nutrients your body needs. When that happens, you may end up feeling hungry even after you’ve maxed out your daily calorie allowance.
“Even if we’ve been steadily munching on snacks throughout the day, a deficiency in nourishment can trigger a craving,” Dr. Apovian says. A nutrient-rich eating plan can help stave off cravings: “Opting for healthy foods — such as fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources, and whole grains — keeps us feeling full longer than refined and processed foods.”
3. Your blood sugar is crashing
Eating too many refined carbs can cause your blood sugar levels to spike and then crash — and when your blood sugar gets low, your stomach releases the hunger hormone ghrelin to remind you to refuel.
“Sugar or processed carbohydrates — like white pastas, bread, white potatoes, white rice, sweets, and baked goods — feel filling when you eat them, but they digest quickly in the body, leaving you hungry again not long afterwards,” says Gabrielle Kane, M.S., RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in the Houston area. You don’t have to give up carbs completely — they’re not the enemy! — but make sure your meals and snacks contain plenty of protein, healthy fat, and fiber as well.
4. You skipped breakfast
Do you absolutely have to eat breakfast? No, skipping brekkie won’t automatically sabotage your weight-loss efforts. But eating a balanced breakfast can help you establish healthy eating habits for the long-term. And people who do eat breakfast tend to choose foods with lower energy density throughout the day.
(Quick refresher: Energy density is the number of calories per gram of food. The lower a food’s energy density is, the more you can eat without making a huge dent in your calorie count — think tomatoes, celery, leafy greens, or broth-based soups.)
If you’re always famished by lunchtime, try adding a healthy, high-protein breakfast to your morning routine.
5. You’re eating out of habit
There are certain foods we eat solely out of habit, regardless of whether we’re physiologically hungry — think cake at a birthday party, a hot dog at a baseball game, an afternoon snack from the vending machine at work, or a glass of wine while catching up on Shameless.
“As we all know, habits are hard to break, but they could be causing you to consume unneeded calories,” Kane says. The fix? “Take note of what your body and mind feel like: Are you experiencing physical hunger pangs? Do you feel tired or low-energy? Would you typically get hungry around this time?” If not, your hunger is probably being triggered by a habit.
6. You’re stressed
Stress not only makes you more likely to eat when you’re not physically hungry, but it can also make you more likely to reach for high-calorie snack foods. If you’ve had a long day and you’re tempted to drown your sorrows in a plate of cheesy fries, try some stress-relief techniques before you give in to your craving.
“Try soothing yourself in a different way — connecting with a supportive friend, taking a short walk outside, listening to music, or trying aromatherapy,” Dr. Apovian says. If that doesn’t take the edge off your hunger, choose a low-calorie, high-fiber snack like an apple.
7. You’re drinking diet soda
Diet soda may seem like the perfect calorie-free substitute for whatever sweet treat you’re craving. But rather than satisfying your sweet tooth, the artificial sweeteners in diet drinks can actually make your sugar cravings stronger. If you’re constantly craving sweets, try cutting back on diet soda and see if that helps.
8. You’re eating too fast
Efficiency is nice, but if you have a habit of scarfing down your meals like you’re a competitive eater, you may end up eating more than you need. Not only does eating slowly give you the chance to actually enjoy your food, but it can also help you register fullness sooner — like, before you need to unbutton your jeans.
9. You’re still adjusting to a healthier eating plan
If you’re pretty new to the nutrition game, your body may still be craving comfort foods and adjusting to smaller portion sizes.
If you just started following a balanced nutrition program and you’re hungry, try and ride it out – your body should adapt in a week or so. But if you’re feeling irritable, low energy, foggy, or just plain bad, try adding one of the following to your day: two greens, one purple, one blue, or one orange container.
10. You’re going harder at the gym
If you’ve ramped up your workouts recently, you may actually need to eat more calories than you’ve been taking in. “If you’re very active, make sure you’re adequately fueling before and after your workouts,” Kane says. “Insufficient calories can be harmful to the body — it decreases your metabolism, makes you hungry virtually all the time, and puts you at risk for overeating later in the day.”
If you’re having trouble powering through your workouts, you may want to reassess how many calories you need.
Next time you feel the urge to rummage through your kitchen, take a few minutes to figure out what’s behind your hunger. Once you pinpoint why your appetite is in overdrive, a few healthy changes — like getting more R&R, tracking your macros, and eating more mindfully — can help you get your cravings under control and stop feeling hungry 24-7.