When you feel your stomach “growl” or start turning flips, you know you’re hungry and that it’s time to eat. If you deny these demands from your body, you may become irritable (“hangry”), get a headache, or be unable to focus on tasks at hand. This is not you being impatient for lunch, this is your body pulling rank over your mind and insisting on what it needs. Ideally, you get hungry right around your regular meal time, but if you have to ask yourself, “Why am I always hungry?” there might be an underlying reason that you can help fix. Let’s explore the possible causes behind your excessive hunger pangs.
It’s often not a matter of eating too little, but instead a question of what you eat, how you consume it, and when.
Protein helps contribute to appetite control. The more protein you eat earlier in the day, the more likely you are to consume fewer calories during later meals.
There are several reasons why protein increases satiety: protein takes longer to digest and break down than quick sugars like refined carbs, and protein increases the production of fullness-signaling hormones, which reduces the amount of the “hunger” hormone ghrelin.
The science is in: one study of 14 overweight men found that those who ate 25% of their calories from protein over a 12-week period experienced a 50% reduction in their desire to snack late at night compared to the group eating less protein. Another study showed that those who ate higher amounts of protein had fewer obsessive thoughts about food, and felt a greater amount of fullness throughout the day.
You can find protein highly concentrated in animal products (meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products), in a few trusty plant-based foods like nuts and legumes, in whole grains, and in protein shakes.
Poet Philip Sidney described sleep as “the certain knot of peace,” “the poor man’s wealth,” and “the prisoner’s release.” The consequences of sleep deprivation have swift and severe effects on your health. Not only does a lack of sleep interrupt the regulation of ghrelin and make you feel hungrier, but without a proper amount of sleep, the functioning of your brain and your immune system are compromised also. Sleep is a health imperative, and the more regularly you sleep, the lower your risk for chronic illnesses like cancer and heart disease.
One study of 15 people sleep deprived for a single night found that they reported being significantly hungrier than those who slept a full 8 hours. They also chose food portions 14% bigger than the food portions chosen by the control group. To keep your hunger levels in check, aim for about 8 hours or more of uninterrupted sleep per night.
Already bad for your health due to the processing that strips natural carbohydrates of their vitamins, minerals, and fiber, refined carbs also have a detrimental impact on your blood sugar levels. Rapid increases in blood sugar from refined carbs leads to increased insulin levels, which then causes a fast drop in blood sugar levels and puts you at risk for various cardiovascular health concerns, obesity, and diabetes. Low blood sugar levels then signal that the body needs more food, starting the cycle over again if you choose refined carbohydrates over a more nutritionally dense food.
Because refined carbs digest so quickly, they do not provide you with long-lasting feelings of fullness. Refined carbs and processed sugars can be found in white flour (white bread and white pasta), as well as sodas, candies, and commercially baked goods. Replacing these foods with fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains will provide you with more fiber and help you feel fuller for longer.
Healthy fats play a key role in helping you feel full. The time it takes to digest fats leads to a longer-lasting feeling of fullness. One study of 270 obese adults found that those following a low-fat diet had significantly increased cravings for carbs and feelings of hunger than those keeping a low-carb diet.
Once you establish an eating pattern with high-fat foods, you can drop weight quickly while never starving your body, which is the principle behind the ketogenic or keto diet. Certain fats like omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish) or medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs derived from coconut oil) have been repeatedly studied for their influence on reducing appetite.
Healthy fats can be found in fish like tuna, salmon, and mackerel, plant foods like flaxseeds and walnuts, olive oil, avocados, eggs, coconut or MCT oil, and full-fat yogurt.
There are several health benefits associated with drinking enough water, including heart health, brain health, and exercise performance (not to mention healthy digestion and hydrated skin). Drinking a glass of water before a meal helps reduce the calories you feel the need to consume. One study found that those who drank 2 glasses of water before a meal ate nearly 600 fewer calories. Such data suggests that drinking water may help curb a feeling of hunger.
It’s also important to note that if you are somewhat dehydrated, feelings of thirst may be interpreted by your brain as constant hunger. Drinking plenty of water and eating water-rich foods like watermelon can help curb your appetite and keep you hydrated.
A lack of fiber, just like a lack of protein, can make you feel like you’re always hungry. High-fiber foods slow stomach emptying and take longer to digest, which is not only beneficial to appetite control, but also helps ease spikes to your blood sugar levels and reduce your risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Fiber also impacts appetite-reducing hormones and short-chain fatty acid production, both of which prompt feelings of fullness.
When seeking enough fiber to help with hunger pangs, soluble fiber tends to be more filling than insoluble fiber, so opt for foods like sweet potatoes, oranges, flaxseeds, oatmeal, and Brussels sprouts.
We only say too frequently because you may be exercising more than your body has resources to spare. While so many of us barely have time to exercise enough as it is, if you’re exercising more often, you may be hungry all the time because your body needs more nutrients than it’s getting.
Far and above normal healthy eating, if you’re regularly engaged in high-intensity exercises or long-duration activities like marathon training, you may be developing a faster metabolism than you’re used to feeding. Those who vigorously work out on a regular basis will burn more calories even at rest than those whole live more sedentary lifestyles.
If this is your underlying hunger issue (best problem ever!), you don’t have to necessarily add more calories to your diet, but instead choose more filling foods like high-fiber, high-protein, and high-fat foods to keep you lean and fueled and not constantly feeling that gnaw of hunger in your stomach.
No, we’re not calling you a drunk, because even a perfectly moderate amount of alcohol can lead to a higher calorie intake. Why? Alcohol has an appetite-stimulating effect, and when consumed with meals can disrupt hunger-reducing hormones like leptin, leading those who drink too much alcohol to feel hungry even when they shouldn’t.
One study found that men who drank 1.5 ounces of alcohol before lunch consumed 300 more calories than those who drank only 0.3 ounces, and ate 10% more calories throughout the rest of the day. They were also more likely to choose high-fat, salty foods. Not only does alcohol make you feel hungrier, but it also inhibits your self-control and better judgement. Drink moderately or abstain more often and you may find your hunger pangs decrease.
Increased cortisol levels (the fight-or-flight hormone) can promote hunger and food cravings. You may have heard of the term stress-eating? It’s a real phenomenon that causes the frequently stressed to find themselves feeling constantly hungry.
One study showed that women exposed to stress consumed more calories, particularly in the form of sweet foods, than did women who were not stressed. The eating habits of 350 young girls also showed that those with higher levels of stress were more likely to overeat than the girls with lower stress levels, mostly in the form of snack foods like cookies and chips.
These studies suggest that chronic stress levels increase hunger and lead to eating unhealthier “comfort foods” instead of nutritious foods.
Frequent, unexplained hunger could be a sign of a medical condition like diabetes, the classic first sign of which is increased hunger and thirst, followed by fatigue and unexplained weight loss. Another condition that may be the culprit is an overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism. Both of these conditions require the treatment and advice of a medical professional as soon as possible.
Hunger is usually a sign that your body needs more food, but it could result from an imbalance of hunger hormones, a lack of nutrient-dense whole foods, a side effect of too much alcohol or chronic stress, or even a medical condition that needs immediate treatment. An increase in food intake will not always solve the underlying issue, so know your body, question your habits and schedules, and seek medical advice if needed. The best part of hunger is the ability to satisfy it, and when it comes to excessive hunger, knowing the cause is half the battle!