If you feel like you’re always hungry, don’t be fooled. You’re likely just a victim of craving culprits that trick us into thinking we need to eat.
The good news is your diet and lifestyle choices can help keep your cravings and hunger at bay, and your weight in check. We spoke to OhioHealth dietician Jessica VanCleave, MPH, RD, LD, and endocrinologist Michelle Kovalaske, MD, FACE, to learn how.
How to tell the difference between hunger and cravings
“Our appetite is a rather complex process influenced by many factors,” says Kovalaske. Everything in your environment and unique body composition plays a role. But many of these factors impact how different hormones in our body regulate our hunger cycle.
VanCleave says your hunger cycle is controlled primarily by two hormones: ghrelin and leptin. “When ghrelin levels in our blood increase, typically about every four to six hours, our brain interprets this signal as ‘It’s time to eat!’ This cycle is why we have the breakfast, lunch and dinner schedule that we do,” says VanCleave. “Our appetite should decrease as leptin levels rise, which occurs as we eat.”
This cycle means that true hunger comes on gradually, she says. Cravings, on the other hand, are sudden, and usually for a specific food. “You’ll often find that a craving comes after you see or hear about a particular food. When you’re actually hungry, you’re open to a variety of options.”
VanCleave recommends using the hunger scale to get in tune with your symptoms of hunger and satiety. This 10-point scale is a good way to prevent mindless overeating or succumbing to a craving. You use it by ranking your hunger before you eat and then again halfway through your meal. The goal is to stay between 3 and 7 at all times.
How to control your cravings and handle hunger
Kovalaske and VanCleave say there are a number of things you can try to keep yourself full and satisfied throughout the day.
- Don’t skip meals. Learn your body’s hunger signals and eat when you feel them. Sometimes you only need a small snack to stave off hunger. If you wait to eat, your symptoms will intensify and a feeling of deprivation can lead to overeating when you do sit down for a meal.
- Plan ahead. Everyone gets busy, so take time to portion out meals and snacks before you begin your day or week. “It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to relay to your brain that you are full,” says VanCleave. “And when you don’t have time to unwind and avoid distraction, you will most likely eat whatever size portion is in front of you.”
- Eat slowly. “Think more chews per bite,” says Kovalaske. Eating slowly stimulates leptin and other appetite-suppressing hormones, and you will have time to notice when you are getting close to 6, 7 or 8 on the hunger scale. As you reach satisfaction, you won’t feel the need to finish everything on your plate.
- Eat food that is large in volume, but not calorically dense. Examples of this include a large salad, or lots of fruits and vegetables. These types of foods do not contain many calories, so you can eat a larger portion, which tends to build greater satisfaction.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates. Foods that contain refined carbohydrates, like sugar, can increase your cravings. “They’re like a drug,” says VanCleave. “The more you consume them, the more your body believes that it needs them.” These foods also don’t satisfy true hunger for long, which leads to eating more than you need.
- Eat more protein. Studies show that protein is the most effective food for suppressing your appetite. Try to include protein with each of your meals and snacks.
- Get moving. When you exercise regularly, your body develops greater sensitivity to appetite-suppressing hormones.
- Get enough sleep. “There is much evidence to indicate that sleep deprivation results in increased food intake,” says Kovalaske. When you don’t get enough sleep, ghrelin hormone levels tend to be higher than they should be in the morning, making you hungrier.
- Work on stress management. Short-term stress can actually suppress your appetite, but when stress persists, a steroid hormone called cortisol is released. Cortisol increases our appetite and often leads to cravings for “comfort foods” high in fat and sugar. Start by trying our five unexpected ways to relieve stress.
When you should worry about your hunger
VanCleave says an active appetite isn’t as bad as everyone thinks, as long as you’re making healthy choices and not gaining excessive weight. But if you find that you’re eating all of the time and not gaining weight, you could have a more serious health condition; hyperthyroidism is one example.
Genetic defects can also play a role in appetite and obesity, says Kovalaske. Prader-Willi syndrome, Bardet-Biedel syndrome and leptin deficiency are some examples. “Just remember that these conditions are very rare, and the genes that contribute to more common forms of obesity have been challenging to identify because there are many.”
Kovalaske says scientists have also been able to show that as estrogen levels rise during a woman’s ovarian cycle, appetite declines and women eat less. When estrogen levels are at their lowest, women tend to eat more. “These appetite changes during a woman’s ovarian cycle are a normal process. Being aware of the cycle can be helpful when trying to manage food intake, but you do not need to worry if you find that you are more or less hungry than usual.”
There is still much more to learn and understand about the science of appetite, she says. This is complicated by the fact that there are no available tests for appetite hormones and typically no underlying disease process influencing appetite.
If you have tried our suggestions for managing your hunger, but things still aren’t right, seek the advice of a physician.
To schedule an appointment with an OhioHealth primary care or endocrinology physician, visit Find a Doctor on OhioHealth.com.