Your stomach is growling in the middle of a Zoom meeting — again. While using mute may keep others from hearing your hunger pains, it can be frustrating to feel hungry all the time.
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Being constantly hungry can be caused by lack of protein, fiber and fat in your diet. Not getting enough sleep or being stressed can also affect your appetite. Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, talks about why you may constantly feel hungry and how certain foods can help you feel full for longer.
Why you’re feeling hungry all the time
Hunger typically sets in after two hours from the last time you’ve eaten a meal.
“You’re actually feeling physical signs of hunger, so your stomach is growling, your energy is dropping,” says Zumpano. “You might also feel a little low on energy, maybe jittery.”
On the other hand, emotional hunger doesn’t show any physical signs. This is when you might have cravings for certain foods. Zumpano estimates that about 90% of us engage in emotional eating.
“If you’re saying, ‘I want chocolate. I want a bag of chips,’ that’s not hunger,” notes Zumpano. “Usually, you’re searching for food and food doesn’t satisfy because you’re feeding an emotional hunger.”
You’re not eating enough protein
Protein is one of the three macronutrients your body needs (carbohydrates and fats being the other two) to give you energy. When used together in a meal, they can help fuel your body and keep you feeling full.
For example, a meal heavy on carbs will cause your sugar to spike and then decrease leading to hunger.
“When you include protein with a complex carbohydrate, it slows down the rate of glucose. This means you’ll have a gradual increase and then a gradual decrease, which makes you feel more settled and satisfied,” says Zumpano.
And think beyond meat when looking for protein to add to your meals. Vegetables, dairy products like yogurt, milk and cheese, eggs, fish, beans, tofu, seeds and nuts all have protein.
You’re not sleeping well
If you’re not getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a day, it can lead to weight gain. Sleep helps regulate ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone. Not getting enough sleep increases gherlin, leading you to feel hungry when you’re actually in need of sleep.
“Sleep is ideal to get your body system to heal and regenerate,” says Zumpano. “So if you can’t get sleep throughout the night, taking a short nap or even just resting your body can help.”
You’re eating refined carbs
Watch out for foods made with refined carbs like white flour or white rice (and yes, foods like candy and baked goods contain refined carbs).
Those ingredients have been processed and lose many of their nutrients and fiber. Eating too many refined carbs doesn’t leave you feeling full for long. In fact, it spikes your blood sugar and then when it drops, you’re hungry again.
“We tend to crave carbs and sugar because every time we have a little bit, our energy level rises. So when you’re tired, you’re using your food to create energy as opposed to your natural sources of energy,” explains Zumpano.
Your diet is low in fat
Adding foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, tuna, sardines, walnuts or flaxseed can help with your appetite.
But if you’re lacking healthy fat in your diet, it can lead to craving carbs and foods high in sugar. So consider that balance of what you eat — it all goes back to needing those three macronutrients to feel full and satisfied.
“Those macronutrients are designed so that we need all three,” says Zumpano. “It’s just slightly increasing your healthy fats to the point where you feel that level of satiety.”
Your diet needs more fiber
Fiber is so good for so many reasons. But when it comes to hunger, look for foods high in fiber like fruits, vegetables, lentils, beans and oats to help release appetite-reducing hormones.
“Fiber expands in your belly,” says Zumpano. “It stimulates that feeling of being full earlier.”
You’re eating while distracted
Popping open a bag of chips while bingeing Netflix may sound like an ideal Friday night for some but try to be more mindful of how much food you’re consuming while following plot lines.
“Mindless eating is when you don’t realize what and how much you’re eating,” says Zumpano. “You know in your subconscious that you did eat, but it’s almost like discounting that meal. Your brain doesn’t register that you’ve eaten.”
To avoid mindless eating, portion control is essential. Zumpano suggests portioning out the appropriate amount of snacks before watching TV, driving or even scrolling on your phone.
You’re not drinking enough water
Many of us feel like we’re hungry when in fact we’re just thirsty. But before you slug down that fourth cup of coffee, consider that your large caramel latte with whipped cream is dehydrating you (not to mention adding unnecessary calories).
On the other hand, drinking water throughout the day will keep you hydrated and potentially stave off hunger.
“You could be thirsty and not understand the difference,” says Zumpano. “It’s recommended that you drink 64 ounces of water per day.”
A lot of us will turn to food when we’re stressed out — reaching for that bag of cookies when we’re up against a deadline instead of dealing with the source of our emotions.
“Find a means to relieve the stress without using food to do it,” suggests Zumpano. “Find something you enjoy and if you become stressed in the middle of your day, step away from your desk for five minutes, go outside, get some fresh air.”
She also suggests using deep breathing or box breathing to naturally calm yourself. Even taking a hot bath, painting your nails, reading or knitting can help alleviate stress.
“You don’t want to ignore the emotion, but you want to resolve it with something other than food,” Zumpano says.
Is it OK to always be hungry?
Your body relies on food for energy, so it’s normal to feel hungry if you don’t eat for a few hours.
But if hunger is something you deal with on a regular basis, some people might benefit from eating every two to three hours and then having a small snack — and by snack, Zumpano means foods like a boiled egg with a cheese stick, whole-grain, low-salt crackers with cheese or an apple with peanut butter.
“Look for whole food options that have complete carbs, fiber and protein,” she says.