“Hunger is the physiological need for calories, water, and salt, and it’s driven by a mix of factors, including your diet, appetite hormones, and emotional factors, such as stress,” says Maggie Moon, RD, a Los Angeles-based nutritionist and owner of Everyday Healthy Eating.
If you’re one of those people who are always thinking about food, this may seem like a natural thing to you. However, thinking about food constantly because you’re hungry may show a bigger medical issue.
There are several conditions or issues that cause constant and ongoing feelings of starvation, and this is something you should definitely investigate with your physician. Here are some of the common problems related the experience of chronic hunger.
Many times people have dehydration when they are experiencing hunger symptoms. The truth is that with chronic dehydration the symptom for thirst is often misunderstood. Always being hungry combined with not drinking enough fluids, or having enough electrolytes, in your body could mean that you’re actually suffering from moderate to mild dehydration.
The easiest way to check if you’re dehydrated is to look at the color of your urine. Cleared to light yellow is a fully hydrated person. Moderate to dark yellow means you definitely need to drink more water. If your urine is orange or dark brown, you should seek immediate medical attention because this is a symptom of extreme dehydration.
“Mild dehydration is often masked as feelings of hunger, when really your body just needs fluids,” says Alissa Rumsey, RD, spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Our brain mistakes our thirst for hunger since both are controlled by the same part of the brain, the hypothalamus. A study carried out by the Journal of Physiology & Behavior found that we mistake our thirst for hunger 60% of the time.
Water is crucial for carrying nutrients to where they need to go, and lack of water means lack of nutrients, which makes our body think it’s running low on fuel and strikes up ‘hunger pangs.’
If you’re eating more than usual, constantly hungry still losing weight, then you could have a problem with your thyroid. Hyperthyroidism is a condition where the thyroid speeds up everything the body does. This means all of your metabolic processes will run faster than they normally would. As a result, you will find yourself with an insatiable hunger.
WebMD says that if your hunger pairs with moodiness, fatigue, brittle nails, or hair loss you could be displaying all the signs of hyperthyroidism. Having tests run by a doctor for thyroid function is the only way to be sure that you do not suffer from this medical condition.
Besides hyperthyroidism, several hormonal conditions can affect your metabolic function. Women’s Health Magazine points to conditions like prediabetes and diabetes, hypoglycemia, and other insulin and glucose related issues as the main sources of hunger spikes.
Sometimes hunger hormone responses are controlled through specialized diet. If your hunger is caused by a high-refined carbohydrate diet, a nutritionist may recommend that you reduce your carbohydrate intake. In fact, eating refined carbs, such as white starches, and sugar is known to cause out of control cravings and an erratic appetite.
Reducing carbohydrates has an effect on the insulin output and uptake in your metabolism. Your hormones handle many things in your body and shouldn’t be ignored.
If you skip meals in an effort to burn off some fat, you are making a mistake. When you skip a meal, your body goes into “storage” mode and locks down on the fat cells in case there’s a bout of starvation going around.
Also, ghrelin, the hormone responsible for stimulating your appetite, goes into overdrive when you leave your stomach with no food for a long time. A rule of thumb is not to go without food for more than 4 or 5 hours, and opt for healthy snacks.
Sleep is one of the biggest regulators of hormones. Hormones such as those produced during stress (cortisol) relate directly to your sleep cycle. In addition, sleep affecting hormones it can also cause you to have a larger appetite.
WebMD notes that craving high fat and high calorie foods are symptoms of being overtired. Along with craving foods that are bad for you, you may notice a change in mood, clumsiness, difficulty focusing and weight gain.
If you’re having all the symptoms and aren’t sleeping your eight hours every day, it may be time to add some extra sleep into your daily schedule. Once you do, you should see an immediate decrease in the stress responses due to lack of sleep.
When you don’t use your five senses while eating, you’re likely to eat more than those who pay attention to their food. Even listening to the crunching of your food registers with your brain on some level, allowing for the hormone leptin, which is responsible for the sense of being full, to start working after nearly 20 minutes of eating.
But if you’re distracted watching TV, or playing on your phone, or working on your laptop, your brain doesn’t register that you’re eating and you end up eating almost 40% more than you should.
Take your time and practice mindful eating. Our busy lives dictate that we do everything in a rush. We rarely have time to think and reflect, let alone take our time eating. You should spend around 20-25 minutes eating since the hormone leptin starts kicking in after about 20 minutes, giving that feeling that you’ve had enough to eat.
Studies show that those who eat quickly consume 60% more calories than those who take their time with their food.
Eating a meal full of carbohydrates means you’re flooding your bloodstream with sugars, especially glucose, which then alerts insulin to be released in huge amounts to take in all that glucose. And since insulin moves fast, it will take away the sugar quickly, leaving you with a sudden drop in blood sugar levels.
This triggers hunger pangs and out of control cravings. Steer clear of refined carbs, including sugar, white breads, rice, and pasta. Opt for whole grains and eat a clean diet filled with whole food, which will also improve digestion and boost metabolism.
Usually when we’re stressed, we lose our appetite. However, that’s only temporary, because prolonged stress increases the release of the hormone cortisol, which triggers our sense of hunger. What’s more is that cortisol takes out lipids from our bloodstream and stores them in fat cells, adding on the pounds, thus increasing stress levels even more.
Lean protein takes some time to fully digest, which means you feel full longer. What’s more is that lean protein provides your body with an appetite-suppressing effect.
Protein comes in many forms, such as eggs, meat, poultry, and fish. However, there are also other sources of protein, which you can consume any time of the day, such as quinoa, hummus, and peanut butter.
Some medications could be increasing your appetite. The scientific explanation is that any type of medication you ingest is a chemical, which goes into your body and can create a discrepancy in your body’s natural chemical balance.
While there is no one for sure answer as to why you are always hungry, these things are the top contenders for chronic hunger symptoms. The best thing that you can do is start by drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep. If you’re doing both of these then you may have a problem that should be addressed by your physician.
If all of your blood work shows normal hormone levels, your hunger may be psychological appetite rather than real hunger. Learning to control your appetite can be done through support groups like overeaters anonymous and through mindful eating techniques.
Learning how to control your hunger in the absence of physical ailment will help you succeed in not thinking about food all the time.