Is it lunchtime yet?
Why you’re feeling famished – and what to do about it once and for all!
It’s 11:00 am and all of a sudden you’re hungry. Not just hungry, you’re famished. It’s too early for lunch, and you ate your breakfast just like you were supposed to. Or, maybe it’s 1:00 pm, you just finished your lunch, but you’re already hungry again. If you’ve ever gotten back from a meal to find yourself already feeling like you need more, you get it – and boy, is it frustrating! You just ate, “how on earth is it possible that I’m already hungry AGAIN?” you shriek internally. Then your inner hypochondriac chimes in: do I have a case of the munchies? Am I getting my period? Is this what happens when you have a tapeworm? (disclaimer: it’s not). You rack your brain to justify it instead of thinking maybe, just MAYBE, there is a totally normal, nothing-to-be-concerned-about reason for why you’re feeling hungry. In fact, there are a handful of things that can be causing your tummy to rumble like you’ve never eaten before, and guess what? They’re totally normal. Here are six reasons you could be feeling hungry even though you ate.
(1) YOU’RE NOT EATING ENOUGH FIBER
Fiber is key to filling you up and keeping you feeling full, yet the vast majority of people don’t eat enough of the good stuff. So, if you’re puzzled as to why you’re feeling hungry, your fiber intake is often the first thing to look at. First, if you’re not eating ample (or any!) fiber, what is it that you are eating? The average American diet is heavily comprised of refined carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates (otherwise known as simple carbohydrates) are sugars and grains that have been processed and stripped of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They are foods like cookies, crackers, and sweets, but also breakfast cereals, white bread, pasta, pizza, bagels, and white rice. When you eat too many refined carbohydrates, your body digests them quickly, and the sugar enters your bloodstream rapidly, causing blood sugar spikes and subsequent crashes. When your blood sugar crashes, you feel weak, shaky, cranky, tired, and hungry, and thus are compelled to eat again, even if your last meal was not so long ago.
However, had your meal contained ample fiber, this scenario would likely have played out a little differently. Fiber is indigestible, so foods that contain fiber take longer to digest than foods that don’t (like refined carbs). In effect, eating foods high in fiber slows the digestion process down. This helps to prevent the blood sugar spikes and crashes that can drive you to crave more and keeps you feeling fuller for longer. On top of that, high-fiber foods are rather filling in the place. Fiber adds bulk to food, so foods high in fiber are more voluminous. Fiber also swells in the stomach, so when you eat high-fiber foods it takes up even more space in your belly before moving along the GI tract, which it does slowly because the fiber is (again) indigestible. It’s for these reasons why swapping white bread out for fiber-filled GG crackers when you make a sandwich satisfies your hunger for longer.
(2) YOUR MEAL LACKED PROTEIN
Metaphorically speaking, think of fiber and protein like peanut butter and jelly. Both are good on their own, but together they’re even better. If your dish contains fiber but lacks protein, you may find yourself hungry soon after. Protein is satiating; it helps you feel fuller without having to eat more. This is in part because protein isn’t digested very quickly. So, when you eat protein, it slows the movement of food through the GI tract—and slower stomach emptying means prolonged feelings of fullness. Protein also impacts our hunger and satiety hormones: ghrelin and leptin. It helps reduce ghrelin levels (the hormone that tells us it’s time to eat) and may increase leptin sensitivity (the hormone that signals to us that we’re full)1,2. Lastly, if you had filled up on more protein there’s a chance you wouldn’t have relied on other, less healthy foods that don’t keep you feeling full. Like fiber, if your meal lacked protein, there’s a good chance it was comprised primarily of refined carbs, which, as noted above, can cause your blood sugar levels to spike, crash, and leave you feeling like you need to eat again.
(3) YOU DIDN’T GET ENOUGH SLEEP LAST NIGHT
Whether it was a night spent tossing and turning, or you stayed up past your bedtime, a poor night’s sleep could be what is driving you to want to eat. This is because the amount and quality of your sleep also affects those hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin, and leptin. After a good night of sleep, these hormones work as they’re supposed to, making us hungry when it’s time to eat and telling us to put the fork down when we’re full. A poor night’s sleep, on the other hand, throws these hormones out of whack; ghrelin (the one that stimulates appetite) levels soar, and levels of leptin (the one that tells us we’re full) plummet. So, even if you ate, you may be feeling hungrier than normal, and less satiated than you otherwise would.
(4) YOU’RE NOT ACTUALLY HUNGRY – YOU’RE THIRSTY
Sometimes, our hunger is really thirst in disguise. The symptoms of dehydration mimic those of hunger. We haven’t been drinking enough H2O and thus we feel like we’re hungry; we feel weak, cranky and tired, and think oh, I must be hungry. Water is also great for digestion and plays a key role in nearly every bodily function, so drinking up is always a good idea. Aim for 3 liters of water per day to ensure you’re staying properly hydrated.
(5) YOUR DIET LACKS FAT
Fat may have a bad rap, but we do need some of it in the diet. A little bit of fat at each meal helps to decelerate the digestion process. Similar to how a meal with fiber or protein slows digestion, this helps keep you feeling fuller for a longer period of time than a meal that does not have any. So, if your last meal lacked fat (olive oil, cheese, avocado), you may be feeling hungry again sooner than you’d expect. With that being said, the calories from fats do add up fast so if weight management is your goal, it’s important to be mindful of portion sizes. The F-Factor Diet Book provides a list of fat exchanges for reference.
(6) YOU’RE RUNNING ON NOTHING
Long treadmill session this AM? That may be the reason you’re counting down the minutes to lunch. When you do physical activity, your body uses the glycogen it has stored from what you’ve eaten as fuel. This happens whether the activity is simple, like getting out of bed, or intense, like a full-on triathlon. The difference is the amount of energy the body burns for the activity; light activity uses a little glycogen and intense activity uses more. When you do intense physical activity, like a sweat-pouring-out-of-you cardio session, your body uses a lot of glycogen, and can even use up all the glycogen you have stored. We often refer to this as emptying your glycogen stores. This is why athletes “carbo-load,” so they have plenty of glycogen to fuel their physically strenuous activities. Back to your workout and subsequent rumbling tummy, your body knows that the current sweat-session isn’t the last activity for which you’re going to need energy and thus wants to refuel in preparation for the next activity. The result: you feel hungry.
Aside from the physiological reasons why cardio stimulates appetite, there’s a mental part of the equation too. Often times we overestimate how many calories we burn during a workout. We know we need to refuel and believe that since we worked out so intensely and burned so many calories, we ought to eat a much bigger meal than we actually need. That mindset in itself can add to our in-the-moment feelings of hunger.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
Things happen! Feeling extra hungry one day is no cause for concern. Keep the above factors in mind and next time you’re feeling inexplicably ravenous, skip the webMD search and have a little snack.
- Blom WA, Lluch A, Stafleu A, et al. Effect of a high-protein breakfast on the postprandial ghrelin response. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;83(2):211-220. doi:10.1093/ajcn/83.2.211
- Weigle DS, Breen PA, Matthys CC, et al. A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;82(1):41-48. doi:10.1093/ajcn.82.1.41