Whether you want to lose weight or just want to eat more healthily, hunger can completely derail your best intentions. Hunger is a powerful motivator to eat and, in many cases, people are hungry because they are purposely eating less than usual.
Unfortunately, your brain doesn’t understand that you are eating less on purpose – it assumes you’ve failed to catch enough food to eat. Stupid brain! Subsequently, it makes you hungry, so you’ll get up off your butt, out of the cave, and on the hunt.
Common causes of hunger and ways to fix them include:
1) Low blood sugar
Your brain runs on sugar or, more specifically, glucose. When you eat carbohydrate, it’s broken down into glucose and then transported in your blood. It’s then used by your muscles, taken up by your liver, and any excess is converted to and stored as fat.
This process involves the hormone insulin. Insulin transports glucose out of your blood and into your cells. The faster-acting the carbohydrate is, the more quickly it is broken down into glucose, and the more insulin is produced. Insulin is very effective and can end up removing too much glucose from your blood, triggering hypoglycemia – low blood glucose.
A sudden drop in blood glucose can leave you weak, tired, hungry, and craving another hit of fast-acting carbohydrate. That’s why a bowl of sugary cereal makes you crave another sweet treat soon after, whereas a slower acting carb like oatmeal keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
Solution: Avoid fast-acting carbs most of the time. Fast acting carbs include refined grains and foods with a lot of sugar. The slower the carb digests, the less insulin will be produced, and the more stable your blood glucose will be.
2) Low fiber
Fiber is part of the carbohydrate group, but it contains no calories. Humans lack the enzymes to break fiber down for energy. However, despite being calorie-free, fiber is bulky and filling and stays in your stomach longer than digestible sugars and starches. A full belly, even if it’s full of indigestible fiber, can help ward off hunger.
Solution: If you eat grains, consume those that are unrefined and therefore high in fiber, i.e., brown rice instead of white rice, wholemeal bread, and wholemeal pasta. Leave the skin on your veggies and fruits too. Consider adding a fiber supplement such as psyllium husks to your meals to make them more filling.
3) Not enough dietary fat
Low-fat diets can lead to a lot of hunger. Why? Fat is the number one gastric inhibitor which means it is the best food for keeping food in your stomach and delaying gastric emptying.
The longer food stays in your stomach, the longer you will feel full. Adding healthy fat to a meal means it will take longer to digest and help ward off hunger. Meals containing fat are more filling than carb-only meals.
Solution: Include healthy fats in most meals. Good options include olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, nuts, red meat, and oily fish.
4) Insufficient protein
Like fat, protein delays gastric emptying and can help prevent hunger. Include protein in every meal you eat and as many snacks as you can. Protein also has a high thermogenic effect and speeds up your metabolism. Filling and metabolism boosting – protein is a very useful food group in the battle to lose weight.
Solution: Make sure you include protein at every meal and snack. If this is not practical, drink a whey protein shake before eating solids.
5) You eat too quickly
Despite only being about three feet apart, your brain and stomach are very slow to communicate with each other. It takes anywhere from 15-30 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you are full and that it’s time to stop eating. This provides a big window of opportunity for overeating because you still feel hungry.
Solution: Avoid this problem by eating more slowly. This will give your stomach and brain time to communicate. Chew each mouthful thoroughly, put your cutlery down between bites. Sip water while you eat, and generally dine at a more leisurely pace.
6) You aren’t really hungry at all
Many of us mistake hunger for other emotions and sensations such as stress, boredom, anger or sadness. Food can act as a distraction to what is really bothering us and so, in times of need, we turn to food. With repetition, this response becomes hard-wired, and we think we’re hungry when, in reality, we’re just anxious bored.
Solution: The next time you feel hungry, ask yourself this question: “Am I hungry enough to eat an apple?” If you are, then have an apple and be done with it. If, however, you want to eat something else, like a few cookies, you probably aren’t hungry at all and are responding to emotional stress.
7) You are sleep deprived
Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but most of us get by on as little as five. When you are sleep deprived, your body seeks out alternative sources of energy – namely food. The lack of sleep also interferes with the leptin and ghrelin response mechanism; increasing the hunger hormone ghrelin and reducing appetite-suppressing leptin.
Solution: Start going to bed earlier, cutting down on afternoon and evening caffeine, and avoid stressful activities at night to ensure you get a full night’s sleep.
8) You aren’t eating often enough
The popular trend of intermittent fasting can lead to a lot of hunger. After all, most people in the Western world are used to eating two or three meals and two or three snacks per day. Suddenly eating just one meal a day or skipping food altogether for 24 hours can trigger hunger in some people (especially carb lovers) and lead to overeating at subsequent meals.
Solution: While intermittent fasting can work extremely well, it’s not for everyone. If you decide to try IF for yourself, introduce it gradually and make sure that break your fast healthily and without overeating.
Don’t let hunger derail your healthy eating plan and, if you are hungry, remember that hunger is a good indicator that you are using more fat for fuel. Many so-called diet experts say that you should avoid hunger, but that’s not necessarily true. Once you come to appreciate that hunger is nothing to worry about, it loses its power. After all, just because you are hungry doesn’t mean you have to dive headfirst into the cookie barrel!