Health Experts Weigh In on the Real Reason You're Always Feeling Hungry

Zee Krstic
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

Ah, there it is again — hunger, causing your tummy to grumble and your mind to drift away from the task in front of you. "Didn't I just have lunch an hour ago?" you might ask yourself as you make your fifth trip to peer into the fridge again. Hunger is natural and is supposed to be self-regulated; these days, everyone on talk shows and on Instagram seem to be talking about "intuitive" eating — or listening to your body's needs, especially when you feel hungry. We bet you know when you've crossed a line, though, and "snacking" turns into an unintentional fourth or fifth meal. If you constantly feel hungry no matter what you're eating, it's time to think about what you're putting on the plate.

Sometimes, an unchecked increase in appetite can be explained by other health conditions or life situations (such as breast feeding), or even by medications you take. But more often, there may be other choices you're making during the day that might unintentionally add fuel to your endless appetite. Below, with the help of a holistic panel of health experts assembled by Good Housekeeping, we explore some of the reasons you may be feeling hungry all of the time — and how to fix them, starting right now.

Photo credit: Getty Images

You're actually very, very thirsty.

Believe it or not, sometimes our body processes thirst in the same way that it processes hangry pangs, and you could be mistaking thirst for hunger. Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, CDN, the Good Housekeeping Institute's registered dietitian, explains that how much water you drink directly influences how "satiated" (full!) you feel during the day. "My biggest tip is not to wait until you're 'thirsty' to grab some water — chances are that you're already dehydrated if you're feeling thirst or dry mouth," Sassos says, adding that most women need to consume at least 72 ounces of water each day (but that formula may depend on your size and activity level). "Set a schedule for yourself to space out your water intake throughout the day and make it a priority." Plus, upping how much water you're drinking on average may be a boon for weight loss if you're dieting or exercising, as Sassos links being properly hydrated to active metabolic rates throughout the day.

How do you know if you're actually thirsty and not truly hungry in the moment? Try drinking a glass or two of water before you decide if it's time to eat again, and wait a few minutes. "You'll be able to gauge whether you're truly hungry or just thirsty," Sassos says.

Your eating doesn't match your activity.

Meaning, you may be missing out on a much-needed meal (like breakfast!) when you're burning through a bunch of energy during the day — or, you're mindlessly eating when you're simply bored on the couch. Comprehensive research establishing the link between hunger and physical activity is lacking, but as Sassos points out, limited research suggests that exercise may trick your body into suppressing appetite during a workout (your body temperature may have something to do with that phenomena). If you're not eating wholesome meals before or after prolonged activity — cycling, running, swimming, lifting weights, as examples — you may be setting yourself up for intense hunger pangs later in the day. "You need proper nutrition to help repair your muscle," Sasso says, adding that she'll actively pad her meals with nutritious picks to "complement" her workout session.

Conversely, you may be engaging in distracted or mindless eating when you're sedentary (think: on the couch, at your desk, or in the car). "If you're sedentary most of the day and not doing much, boredom can certainly entice you to eat more," Sassos says. "If you just ate and know you should feel full, but are bored and want to eat more, consider distracting yourself — pick up a book, or actually get up and exercise! If I know I'm just bored and not hungry, I'll hold a plank for a minute and that craving will go away."

Your meals are lacking in fiber.

Fiber is that magical ingredient that makes a meal feel really filling as opposed to something that doesn't really satisfy you after you've finished eating, explains Julie Benard, M.D., a board-certified pediatric obesity medicine specialist and a pediatrician within the University of Missouri Health Care system. "A diet low in fiber can cause frequent hunger, as fiber is broken down slowly by our gastrointestinal tract, which leads to more stable blood sugar levels… and therefore less feelings of hunger," she says.

You should be aiming to eat your way through 25g of fiber throughout the day, Sassos says. But you don't have to painstakingly count at first: Load up on meals that are highly fibrous, that incorporate things like avocados, beans, or most nuts as the main attraction. You should feel the results soon thereafter: "High-fiber foods may actually take longer to chew, are slower to digest, and promote satiety," Sassos says.

You're doubling down on the wrong kinds of carbohydrates.

Dr. Benard and Sassos don't want you to believe all carbs are bad: Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables all contain naturally occurring carbohydrates, and they are definitely pillars of any healthy diet. Refined carbohydrates, however, should be enjoyed occasionally. White breads, pasta, and pastries, among many other items that are also high in saturated fats and sugar, cause a spike in insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar. "We get an initial burst of energy and satiety from these starchy and sugary treats, but then insulin causes our body to burn through that sugar quickly," Dr. Benard explains. "This leads to subsequent rapid declines in blood sugar that trigger our feelings of hunger once again."

Photo credit: Getty Images

You're eating way too much sugar.

Sugar is a carbohydrate too, and it's often the main ingredient in refined carbohydrates alongside classic desserts that you're thinking of right now. You probably are sick to death of hearing about that afternoon "sugar crash," when your blood sugar plummets after eating something very sweet, which later causes you to reach for even more food to help you get your blood sugar back up again. But did you know that repeatedly working your way through this cycle may cause lasting damage? Sugar and refined carbohydrates play into constant elevated blood sugar that can lead to insulin resistance, when your body can't use glucose from your blood for energy (a form of prediabetes), Sassos says.

"Interestingly enough, insulin shares similarities with leptin — a hormone that helps to regulate appetite and weight control," she explains. "Lepin and insulin actually directly regulate each other, and in the case of insulin resistance, this will cancel out the 'appetite-control' effect and can lead to a vicious hunger cycle." Sugar is naturally found in nutritious items like fruits, but if you can identify snacks in your daily rotation that are high in added sugars or processed carbs, those are some of the first items you should cut back on.

You're also missing out on protein.

If you're new to trying out a vegetarian or vegan diet, this could be especially true. And protein doesn't just mean red meat! It includes lean fish, poultry, and plant-based items like tofu or lentils. "A diet low in protein can also lead to frequent feelings of hunger, even though one may be consuming a higher amount of calories," Dr. Benard says.

She explains that a hormone called ghrelin is the hormone responsible for our hunger pangs at the molecular level, and is released when the stomach is empty. Our stomach is stretched in the process of eating, thus decreasing the levels of ghrelin released, but "what we're eating can determine how long our ghrelin levels stay low," Dr. Benard says. "Protein is the most effective nutrient at keeping ghrelin low for longer periods of time, especially compared to carbohydrates." Science!

You're skipping breakfast, or a substantial lunch.

Which is why you may always fall prey to a post-lunch (or dinner) snack later on. "A lot of people will tell me they're 'being good' with their nutrition up until the afternoon, where cravings hit and they just fall off the wagon," Sassos explains. "When I go to analyze their 'good' mornings, it's usually just low-calorie! Restricting yourself early in the day actually may set you up for failure as the day progresses."

There's been a lot of debate around skipping breakfast recently, and some dieters swear by restricting their meals to certain hours of the day (often referred to as intermittent fasting). Regardless of when you choose to eat your first meal of the day, it should be full of nourishing items alongside plenty of water, Sassos recommends. "I’m a fan of bulking up that breakfast and lunch meal with lean protein, healthy fiber, and tons of vegetables to keep you full for hours," she says. "Eating fiber in the morning can help to control afternoon cravings, and I like to look at it as making an investment to help you have a successful day."

You're engaging in emotional eating.

Feeling hungry might be a side effect of purposefully not feeding yourself because you feel that you've "lost control," says David Schlundt, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University and a member of the university's Diabetes Research and Training Center. "Food provides some temporary relief from negative emotion, but hunger is rarely the trigger for emotional eating… It's a problem when people impose unrealistically strict dietary rules on themselves," he says.

For example, if you believe that you shouldn't eat breakfast because it'll make you gain weight, then you will likely feel hungry when you skip it — and then break other self-imposed dietary rules. "An example might be that you believe donuts are bad, but when you're hungry and there's a donut in the break room, you pick up two when no one is looking," Schlundt explains. "This becomes a problem not because you took in calories — your body was telling you to do that — but because the perceived rule violation is a negative experience leading to guilt, self-blame, and abstinence violation. This is the extended loss of control that occurs as a result of your self-defined dietary violation."

This behavior can lead you to be extremely restrictive in what you eat, when you eat, or how much you eat later on, Schlundt says, all factors that can influence your appetite.

Photo credit: Mike Garten

You're not getting enough sleep.

Ah, yet another way that sleep can impact our daily lives. Not getting enough rest at night may inadvertently affect how much you're eating throughout the day, especially if you're frequently getting less than 7 hours of sleep. "Feeling sleep deprived can do a number on our will power, as we then tend to not make the best nutrition choices," Dr. Benard says, like easy ready-to-eat items containing refined carbs and sugar. "On a hormonal level, some studies also suggest that a lack of sleep may be associated with lower levels of leptin — our 'feeling full' hormone — and higher levels of ghrelin — the hungry hormone."

These hormones may be at the heart of why sleep deprivation has been associated with excessive weight gain over a longer period, Sassos says. A landmark study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology followed 60,000 women over 16 years while recording their sleep habits and dietary functions alongside other lifestyle aspects; it noted that women who slept 5 hours or less per night had a 15% higher risk of becoming obese, and were 30% more likely to gain 30 pounds in the same time frame compared to women who slept 7 hours each night.

All to say: You should be doing everything in your power to establish better sleep hygiene, and work on creating a better-for-you bedtime routine.

You're letting your head decide when you eat, not your stomach.

"I like to categorize cravings by whether they're coming from above the neck or below the neck," Sassos explains. "Above the neck cravings are emotional, often come on suddenly, and aren't satisfied even if you do eat a full meal. They may trigger feelings of shame and guilt, and you may feel like you have no control over your food choices."

On the flip side, then, "below the neck" cravings are actually a sign of physical hunger that you shouldn't ignore, Sassos says. "These cravings build gradually, and many food options sound appealing. Once you're sensibly full, the cravings go away. Below the neck cravings aren't associated with any feelings of guilt or anger, but rather you feel satisfied — or even relieved — after eating that particular item or meal."

You may be experiencing depression, or another mood disorder.

Stress has a terrible way of impacting much of our lives, including how much we eat; the flight-or-fight response associated with stress can lead to an increase in hunger later on (the Cleveland Clinic even lists hunger a side effect of stress). But more seriously, Schlundt says that a severe, sustained change in appetite is one of the main symptoms of major depressive disorder. "There are two types of people: Those who eat more when depressed, and those who lose interest in food when depressed," he adds. "Eating more when depressed may be more complicated than just increased hunger. It is probably some degree of loss of control over behavior rather than hunger alone."

If mealtimes have become an unstable part of your day and feel that it might be due to anxiety, depression, or emotional trauma, you should consider seeking out professional help. The American Psychological Association's Psychologist Locator tool can help you find a licensed therapist in your area that takes your insurance.

You may have diabetes or an overactive thyroid.

Underlying conditions like these can be the source of your insatiable appetite, but this is probably the least likely explanation for feeling hungry all the time. "Increased hunger can certainly be a sign of diabetes, alongside increased thirst or frequent urination," Dr. Benard says. "It also could be a sign of hyperthyroidism, which goes hand in hand with an increased heart rate, feeling jittery, or losing weight without trying… There are rarely genetic changes that can lead to insatiable hunger as well."

If you feel like you've exhausted the suggestions on this list to no avail, it's time to schedule a checkup with your healthcare provider, where you can address your diet and other aspects of your hunger in depth. Your appetite may be caused by a condition that's beyond your control and could require qualified attention.

You Might Also Like