Feeling hungry is a good and natural part of being human. Feeling hungry at regular intervals throughout the day is a sign of a working metabolism. But feeling hungry all the time, even after a meal, shows something amiss in your nutritional intake or psychosocial wellbeing. And it can be super annoying! Here we analyze the symptoms, causes, and solutions for constant hunger.
Disclaimer: Hunger Is Good
In a world that rewards thinness, “healthy eating,” and exercise, it’s easy to believe that eating more than three Instagram-worthy meals and the occasional snack somehow equates to overeating or binge eating. Influencers flood social media with “what I eat in a day” posts, promoting unfair food and intake comparisons. Media tells us about “good food” versus “bad food,” creating a sense of morality out of food choices.
Your body needs food, food has nutrition, and what someone else eats shouldn’t dictate what you eat. Period.
Smarter Than Social
We need to be smarter than social media about hunger. We need to learn how to listen to our own bodies’ cues and make educated, fulfilling choices when it comes to food.
Myth-Busting Popular Food Beliefs
Before we dive into helping you deal with your being hungry after eating, we need to myth-bust a few fears around food:
- Binge-eating involves eating a lot of food in a short time until you’re past comfortable fullness. Consuming more than you think is physically required, occasionally eating past satiety, and eating more than regular are NOT binge eating.
- Incidental overeating is normal, like on special occasions. Sometimes we need to eat when we’re not hungry for practical reasons, like because we won’t have another chance to eat for a long time.
- Eating more than the average serving size of a food is not wrong or shameful, especially if you feel that you need it.
- There’s no such thing as good or bad food. All food has a particular nutritional composition and may help us reach satisfaction and well-being.
- Eating is not a moral question; it’s a physical requirement.
- Willpower around food intake is a fallacy. You are not “stronger” if we eat with more rigidity. You might be ignoring hunger cues.
- Everyone has a different genetic code, fitness level, body type, perceptions, and desires. There’s no scientific reason why you should eat the same amount or way someone else eats.
- Our bodies and minds change hourly, daily, monthly, and yearly. Our eating should also change regularly. Flexible eaters are honest eaters.
Great, now that we’ve empowered you to love your hunger, let’s dive into what hunger actually is.
What Is Hunger? Neurobiology 101
Ghrelin is called the “hunger hormone.” It signals that the body requires nutrition.(1) Nutrition is the qualities in food that help humans function. Nutrition comes in the form of three macronutrients and various micronutrients. When the body receives enough nutrients, it releases leptin, the “fullness hormone.” Both ghrelin and leptin exist within the body during meals and non-eating times. People who regularly eat enough nutrition will have natural fluctuations in ghrelin and leptin; they’ll feel naturally full and hungry.
Hunger Symptoms: NeuroBiological Hunger vs. Social Hunger vs. Mouth Hunger
Hunger isn’t as simple as it used to be (like when we crawled on all fours and hunted animals with sticks). There are multiple complex ways to feel hungry. All might contribute to your feeling constantly hungry.
- Neurobiological: the physical and mental cues that we commonly recognize as “feeling hungry. For instance, a growling stomach, an empty feeling in the stomach, headaches, brain fogginess, jitters, and fatigue.
- Social: the nurtured association of specific activities or times of day for which eating is inherent. For instance, the habit of eating every day at 7 PM, eating popcorn at the movies, or eating apple pie in Autumn.
- Mouth: the desire to nibble, chew, or taste. This sensation can translate into food cravings, like potato chips for the crunch or ice cream for the cold. It can also translate into the desire to chew or chomp. The desire to move your mouth in an eating-like pattern is natural to humanity. Most cultures espouse a popular “chew,” from sugar cane to commercialized gum to betel leaves.
Learning to listen to what kind of hunger you’re experiencing is the first step to making educated decisions about food. It’s okay to eat when you’re not hungry for social or physical reasons, but you need to be aware of why you’re doing it and allow yourself to choose a different activity.
13 Causes Of Constant Hunger And Their Solutions
Now you understand what hunger is and how it feels. Still hungry? Here are 13 reasons you may be hungry all the time and ways to ease that empty feeling inside.
1. You Also Need Water
Cause: The hypothalamus (part of the diencephalon and the most important control center of the autonomic nervous system) regulates both hunger and thirst. Many people think that we can mistake thirst for hunger because both are controlled by the hypothalmus. This belief is unproven. One study showed little evidence for such uncertainty in animals and no studies conclude that such a phenomenon exists in humans.(2) In fact, being thirsty can make people want certain foods less (like dry foods).
But being thirsty will affect cognitive and physical performance, leading you to crave nutrition as compensation for fatigue.
Solution: Drink enough water during the day. Drinking a glass of water before a meal or drinking water when trying not to snack will probably make you hungrier. Don’t give yourself a chance to doubt or confuse your hunger cues; stay hydrated.
Eat snacks and meals with high water content, like fruits and veggies mixed with proteins and grains. For instance, this mango coconut chia seed pudding is delicious and hydrating.
2. Social Media Is Tantalizing You
Cause: From Instagram to Kitchen Confidential, our society is obsessed with food: its creation, ingestion, and imaging. Which is fun until you’re filled with the desire to slam luxurious brownies or grilled baby-back ribs every time your phone opens. “Food porn” is a real thing and unique to younger generations. Studies show that the mere sight of food can cause you to crave it.(3, 4)
Moreover, most of us scroll on social media when we’re already bored, tired, or looking for a dissociative distraction. What else serves those emotional needs? Eating! Images of food on social media or television beckon us when we’re predisposed to seeking emotional relief.
Solution: Start by avoiding social media when you’re already emotionally compromised. If you see food images, allow yourself to enjoy them for the comedy or artistry, but recognize that any mental hunger you might experience might be chemical (versus biological). And if you do decide to snack, do so mindfully and without guilt. Reflect on whether or not it satiated your desire. Store this data as a reference for future instances where you may be tempted by “food porn.”
More Than Casual
The casual enjoyment of beautiful food images is natural to humans. But the inability to look away and seeking such photos very frequently can be a sign of food obsession. A preoccupation with thinking about food can be a sign of undernourishment, undereating, or an eating disorder.
3. You’re Eating Irregularly
Cause: It’s natural to vary your daily caloric intake. The old belief in getting a certain amount of calories or macros every day is being replaced by weekly- and monthly- intake goals (especially for women). However, irregular eating habits can alter the stomach’s sensitivity to food. If we eat several big meals in a row, our stomach may become attuned to a different feeling of fullness. On the other hand, if we only eat small meals, our gut might tell us it’s full before we have gotten enough nutrition.
Solution: Before creating a rigid meal plan, try intuitive eating. We learn to listen to our body’s natural hunger and fullness cues when we practice intuitive eating. Intuitive eaters are less likely to overeat or undereat.
If you have a big meal one day, try not to restrict calories the next day. That will only cause more confusion along the digestive tract. You may be less hungry, which is reasonable, but don’t skip meals trying to “make up for” the day before.
When you’re unsure of your regular consumption, you might consider using a food journal or app to track your intake during a day, week, and month. Tracking your intake helps with self-awareness but should not inspire restrictive or controlling food behaviors. Pay attention to whether you’re getting enough food throughout the day, enough macro- and micro-nutrients, and when you’re most likely to snack. These serve as data points for future food choices.
3 + 1 or 2
Three main meals and possibly one or two snacks a day is the best way to keep your hunger in check.
4. You Are Sleeping Too Little
Sleep deprivation influences hunger and consumption. Too little sleep can lead to reduced levels of the hormone leptin, which is responsible for suppressing hunger. At the same time, inadequate sleep leads to increased ghrelin, the other “hunger hormone,” which stimulates your appetite. Lack of sleep is often associated with weight gain: people who sleep poorly also experience difficulty monitoring intake and controlling appetite impulses.(5) This especially affects people during high-stress periods; little sleep and high stress are predictive of binge-like eating patterns.(6) Doctors recommend getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Here is a sleep calculator that can help you understand your sleep patterns.
5. You Are In Your Luteal Phase
Cause: Unlike men, women’s bodies operate on a 28-day cycle. As such, men benefit from eating a similar amount of food every day. On the other hand, women should eat more or less food depending on their flow.
The Luteal phase occurs around a week before menstruation. Women’s bodies are working on overdrive, so they have a higher basal metabolic rate and need more food to stay energized.(7)
Solution: Know your cycle and fuel it! Get plenty of nutrient-dense foods during this phase (here are some ingredient ideas). Satisfying your craving for something less nutritious also helps keep you from returning to the pantry. If you’re craving chocolate, eat it! Your body knows what’s best.
6. You’re Trying To Eat “Healthy” or “Clean”
Cause: There is no such thing as “healthy” or “clean” food. Some foods are more processed than others, but they’re not always healthier. For instance, unprocessed grains can contain an anti-nutrient that prohibits the digestion of some vitamins. And what is “clean” food, anyway? For example, most clean foodists add protein powder to their “clean” ingredients list. But protein powder is highly processed, often with chemicals in labs.
“Clean” or “healthy” food is not always satiating. Behavior analysts rank common foods on a satiety index– both “clean” and “unhealthy” foods rank. Most people also have their own internal satiety index. For instance, do you like sweet potatoes more than white potatoes? Then sweet potatoes are probably more satiating to you! Studies show that when people eat the foods truly satisfying to them, they usually eat less.(8)
Solution: Honor your hunger! If you’re trying not to eat “unhealthy” cereal with milk, you might eat an apple… and a granola bar… and carrots with hummus… and then another apple. If you had just eaten the bowl of cereal in the first place, you’d likely have consumed fewer calories. And, you wouldn’t feel hungry all the time. Eating what you want is NOT “giving in to your cravings.” It’s what’s suitable for your body and your mind.
7. You’re Taking Medication
Cause: Certain medications, like anti-depressants, can stimulate appetite and hunger. Always consult with your doctor or psychiatrist about the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs and coping techniques.
Solution: Eat more protein and more high-nutrient, low-density foods (like fruits and vegetables). So many studies show that higher amounts of protein lead to a more favorable body fat percentage. Snacking on fruits and vegetables throughout the day can help satisfy the unnatural eating urge. And exercise will help your body metabolize excess calories into functional muscles.
You’re taking the medication for a reason, so it’s okay if your diet needs to change to accommodate. Keep your eyes on the prize (overall health) and tweak your lifestyle. You’re on the right path!
8. You Aren’t Eating Enough Protein
Cause: While most people eat protein during lunches and dinners, they rarely add it to their snacks and breakfasts. Studies show that increased protein consumption leads to increased satiety and a reduction in overall calories.(9, 10) Scientists currently investigate the protein leverage theory, which states that our body doesn’t cue leptin until we eat enough protein.(11) If this theory is correct, you might only feel satisfied after getting enough protein!
Solution: First, determine how much protein to carb/ fat ratio you likely need. The general rules of thumb for macronutrients is 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrates. Try to get 20-30 grams of protein per meal and 15 grams for snacks.
The average grilled chicken breast contains 20-30 grams of protein.
However, if you’re constantly hungry, exercise a lot, are trying to build muscle mass, or are underweight, you can make 40% of your daily intake protein. Second, get creative with your meals. Adding vegan and vegetarian protein alongside animal-based sources is an easy way to add protein to snacks and meals.
9. You Aren’t Eating Enough Fiber
Cause: Fiber is one of the most satiating elements of food. Fiber affects gastrointestinal and metabolic health.(12) Fiber (and protein) require effort to digest, meaning that you burn some calories while digesting them. Because fiber-rich foods last longer in the gut, you’ll feel fuller for longer, too.(13) New research also analyzes the role of naturally-occurring healthy bacteria in whole grains. It seems that a healthy gut biome contributes to a healthy brain.(14) Since overeating links to emotional instability, fiber might be a double-whammy against constant hunger!
Solution: Replace some of your regular grains with more fiber-filled options. Here are some great substitutions:
- Buckwheat, bulgur wheat, or quinoa for white rice
- Nutty or oat bread for traditional bread
- A side of beans instead of a bread roll
- Add fruits and nuts to your regular oats
- Sprinkle seeds (sesame, flax, chia) on everything
- Eat your vegetables with the peels on (i.e., cucumber, zucchini, etc.)
For more information and recipes on dietary fiber, check out our other blog post.
10. You Cut Out Food Groups
Cause: Studies have shown that people who cut out entire food groups, like bread or products with gluten, are less likely to maintain healthy eating patterns.(15) When people view food as “bad” or “good,” they tend to lose control of their food decisions. Dichotomous beliefs about food and eating are linked to rigid dietary restraint, which impedes a person’s ability to maintain a long-term weight and food intake.(16)
Solution: Take some time to examine your rules around food and eating. Do you believe that you should avoid certain foods, even if your body and mind want them? How does that avoidance affect your inability to say “no” to other snacks or “stop” when you eat them? If you sense that you are restricting foods or groups, try integrating them into your diet. You may find that you eat less of everything when you eat what your heart, gut, and mind desire.
11. You’re Eating Emotionally
Cause: “Comfort food” isn’t just a saying; humans are hard-wired to desire tasty, filling foods. But it’s not always easy to separate emotional cues to eat from physical ones, especially in times of stress, boredom, or fatigue. It can be easier to eat our problems than to examine them. And a lot of these emotional drives occur subconsciously.
Therapists recognize that humans have primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust and joy. They are how we feel about an external incident. Secondary emotions are feelings about feelings. Secondary emotions can help us cope with the primary emotion by distracting, acting, or changing our outlook.
For example, you may be sad about losing a loved one. Instead of sitting with that feeling, you use eating or hunger as a way to cope. You prefer to feel the food than feel the initial emotion, and the act of eating gives us a sense of control and action.
Solution: Analyze your hunger cues to determine if they are neurobiological, social, or mouth cues. If you don’t have physical sensations of hunger, aren’t with friends in an eating situation, and chewing on a toothpick doesn’t satisfy you, your appetite may be emotionally driven. If so, sit with the feeling before going to the fridge. You can also use a journal to write down your thoughts. Ask yourself more questions: How do I feel right now? Where is that feeling coming from? Will eating help it? What else might help, too?
Consider learning new ways of coping with emotion. The coping techniques will probably relate directly to your original feeling. If the emotion is fear, you might wrap up in a blanket and watch a feel-good movie. If it’s anger, you might need an intense HIIT session. If it’s joy, you could call your Grandma to share the good news. A casual walk with a friend can help with sadness. Only you know how to soothe yourself. It might be eating, or it might be something else. Give yourself some space to explore!
12. Mindless Eating
Cause: A mindful eater focuses and engages with the act of tasting, chewing, and ingesting meals. Mindless eating is the opposite: eating in a distracted or fast manner. Most people’s bodies take about 20 minutes to recognize glucose in food. When glucose is recognized, leptin is released and you’ll start feeling full. Watching television, eating while driving, or doing other things while eating may distract you from the physical sensations of satiation and fullness.
Solution: Be present in your meals! This number one recommendation is to eat without distractions. However, most of us enjoy some entertainment with our meals, like chatting with our partner or catching up on the day’s news. Here are some more ways to eat mindfully, even when combined with other activities:
- Set the utensils down every so often to give your belly time to digest
- Comment or acknowledge the way the food tastes, smells and is textured
- Silence the commercials or pause between videos to check in with your fullness
- Limit yourself to a certain amount of distraction— for instance, spend only 10 minutes on social, watch just one YouTube video, or limit reading to the headlines
13. You May Be Suffering From Extreme Hunger
Cause: Months and years of inadequate nutrition can lead to a clinical diagnosis of extreme hunger. It most often occurs after dieting or underfeeding but can also be caused by long-term malnutrition (like poorly-executed vegetarianism). When it’s underfed, the body produces more ghrelin. As this need continues to be denied or unfulfilled, less leptin is released.(17)
Eventually, the body will undergo metabolic adaptation. To conserve energy, it will stop producing ghrelin and stop sending energy-intensive hunger cues, like a grumbling stomach. The body will get better at operating with fewer calories, but this is at the expense of vitality. It will leech energy from brain cells and muscles. The infamous Minnesota semi-starvation study shows that undernourished people become obsessive about food, less coherent, and physically incapable.(18)
Unfortunately, metabolic adaptation takes time to reverse. Initially, when enough calories are consumed again, the body will store everything as fat because it believes it’s in starvation. It will hold onto whatever it can get.(19)
Solution: If you suspect that you may be suffering from extreme hunger, it’s essential to see a registered dietician for assistance in metabolic recovery. It’s vital to listen to any eating cues that your body sends. At first, you will eat frequently and unlike you had in the past. Eventually, the body will find its new set point weight, stop storing food, recover its hunger cues, and recompose fat to muscle.
Being hungry all the time is not a sign that your body is broken or confused. It’s a sign that your mind or body is unsatisfied and asking for more. It could be that you’re not getting enough food or nutrients. It could also be that you’re not getting enough sleep, rest, or emotional release. When you deny your urge to eat, you deny something in you calling for attention. The call will get more and more intense until it’s satisfied. And if it is never satiated, your body will down-regulate hunger, hormones, and metabolism.
Being constantly hungry and snacking is not the same as over-eating and binging. Don’t fear a “slippery slope” if you’re hungry after eating and want to eat again. You might just need to eat or reflect on your emotions. Rigid thinking often leads to more compulsive food behaviors.
Try altering your diet to get more regular and whole nutrition throughout the day in your meals and snacks. Find balanced portions with protein, fiber, and fats. Take care of your mental health as you do your food intake. Be curious, forgiving, and observant of your impulses. Listen to yourself, not diet culture!