Hunger. The dieter’s enemy. You feel hungry so you have an oreo. Then you feel guilty so you eat a banana–that’s healthy, right? Sure. Then you have another Oreo–the first one was so good and one more won’t hurt, right? Oh, shucks, now you’ve ruined your diet so you might as well have that muffin that’s been calling your name all morning.
Rinse and repeat day after day until, instead of losing 10 pounds in 3 weeks on your diet, you’ve gained 15.
All that hunger made you eat and eating made you fat. So, food and hunger must be the enemy, right?
Say that to your self out loud. “Food and hunger are my enemies.” Does that sound right? Not exactly.
Let’s think about it a minute: What is hunger?
Hunger is our body’s way of telling us we need fuel. Food is the fuel which is turned into energy which our bodies use to do even the simplest things (heart beat, anyone?).
Without food we die. It’s as simple as that. So, how can it be our enemy if it keeps us alive?
From the time we are infants our wires are crossed when it comes to hunger and eating.
- A baby cries because she is cold. Her mother thinks she is hungry and tries to feed her. The baby enjoys the warmth of her mother’s body and eats. Now, hunger = cold to her. Wires crossed.
- A stay-at-home former accountant father picks up a few clients during tax season to make some extra money. To distract his 2-year old daughter for just 5 minutes of uninterrupted work he pours out a bunch of Fruit Loops in front of her. He uses food as the distraction and she eats them because she is a toddler and she eats everything pretty. Her wires cross.
- A teenager at her first party sits on the couch with chips and dip in front of her. She is anxious and doesn’t really know what to do with her hands, so she starts eating. She keeps eating until the chips are gone. She wasn’t eating because she was hungry, but because she was nervous. Wires crossed
Hunger is primal. We feel hungry so that we can survive. A lifetime of conditioning, from almost the very moment we are born, confuses us until we don’t even really know when we’re feeling hungry.
What Real Hunger Feels Like
Over the past few months I’ve been trying to list to my body more acutely. Before, I would have “binge” nights where I would start by eating some (and by “some” I mean half a jar of) peanut butter and raisins after dinner. Then, I would move on to a banana. Then a yogurt with some blueberries in it. Oh man, just thinking about it makes me feel sick. Was I hungry after dinner? No. Not at all. But was I satisfied? Nope. I was eating to fill some hole that couldn’t be filled with food.
I think I’ve finally got this listening-to-my-body thing down. Most of the time anyway. I began by noting how I felt after one of those binges. I didn’t write it down or anything, I just…noticed it. It wasn’t a good feeling. Why would I eat so much if it didn’t make me feel good?
Then I started trying to feel my hunger at all levels. Back when I wasn’t exactly listening to my body I would feel full and then suddenly I would be STARVING. I would get grumpy and my head would start pounding. Joey certainly didn’t appreciate it and the only good it did for me was to cause me to overeat at my next meal.
So I learned to check in with my body and feel exactly what it was feeling. It can be hard to leave your brain out of it, because after all it is your brain that sends you hunger signals, but I tried as much as I can to leave my emotions out of it. And that certainly helped.
Once I started eating I had to learn to control my appetite. Appetite is the desire for food that is linked with sight, smell, and the thought of the food. Appetite has the power to override your feelings of hunger, or non-hunger as they may be, and cause you to eat more than you’d like. I managed my appetite by actually tasting each bite, rolling it around my mouth, and enjoying it thoroughly. I slowed waaaaaay down and just enjoyed the food.
It sounds so freakin’ simple, doesn’t it? But it’s been a journey.
Curbing your Hunger
Sometimes it just comes down to your diet or your mental state. Be sure to check in with these things first before you freak out about anything.
- Drink more water. So many people mistake hunger for thirst. Not only can drinking more water help you curb your hunger but it will make everything on your insides function more smoothly. I won’t tell you a set amount to drink because that depends a lot on your activity level and the climate in which you live. I will tell you that once you start drinking, you’ll get a better sense of how much you need. A good way to tell when you’re getting just the right amount of water is when your pee is a light yellow. If it’s clear you’re drinking too much; dark yellow you’re drinking not enough.
- Drop the diet. Seriously. If you’re always hungry one reason could be that you’re simply not eating enough. Diets also affect your psychological view of food. If you restrict your food intake your mind will always be thinking about the next meal, and will see food as a scarcity. Your primal instinct will kick in and you will binge. That is almost a certainty. Over 90% of diets fail….there’s a reason for that.
- Eat more nutrient-dense foods, and less carbs/sugars. Your body breaks carbs down into sugars, and sugars can give you a blood sugar spike which will make you crave more food. So, instead of having cereal for breakfast, try two eggs and a piece of wheat toast with some peanut butter. This sort of breakfast will keep you fuller longer. For a snack, instead of rice cakes, have some carrots with hummus or peanuts. Stop worrying about all the calories in foods like this and trust that you will actually eat less food impulsively if you eat more calories.
- Stop and think. If you are drinking enough water, getting enough calories, and making sure those calories are nutrient-rich and you are still hungry it is possible you’re not really hungry at all. Now, you’re probably thinking I’m freaking crazy. But the next time you are hungry, pause for a moment and breathe. Ask yourself if you are really hungry or if you’re just trying to deal with your emotions through food. I’ll tell you right now–I want to eat when I’m anxious, bored, or brainstorming. I’m almost always doing one of those things! Come up with something else to deal with those situations. A cup of tea usually works for me.
If you have tried all of that and still feel hungry all the time you may have something physically wrong with you. Now, I really don’t mean to scare you, and before you go running to the doctor at least try all of the above.
If you are under 18, you’re probably just going through a growth spurt. Eat, young grasshopper, and flourish.
For all the rest, if you tried everything and are still hungry you may want to go visit the doctor. Especially if you have changed nothing and yet your body feels drastically different. Here are some things that may contribute to your hungry feelings and if you have persistent problems you should go to the doctor.
Other Potential Reasons for Persistent Hunger
- Pregnancy! This one’s easy enough to test.
- Premenstrual syndrome – If you’re craving foods during the 5 to 11 days before your period it may just be PMS.
- Diabetes – Insulin is an anabolic hormone that encourages storage of fat and protein. Diabetes causes an insulin deficiency which leads to an increased appetite (because you’re not storing fat or protein) and weight loss even though you are eating a lot. And this isn’t the good kind of weight loss.
- Hyperthyroidism – The thyroid is a gland in your neck which produces hormones that regulate how your body uses energy. With hyperthyroidism, the gland releases too much hormone which causes your metabolism to work faster. As a result, you’ll be hungry more often. Grave’s Disease is the most frequent cause of hyperthyroidism.
- Hypoglycemia occurs when your blood sugar is too low. This can be caused by drinking too much alcohol, taking Diabetes meds incorrectly, exercising, or not eating.
- Certain meds such as corticosteroids, cyproheptadine, and tricyclic antidepressants may increase your hunger.
(For more information on these see University of Maryland Medical Center.)
Although horror stories abound about intestinal parasites, if you are constantly hungry it’s probably something else. Parasites in the human body usually cause much more unpleasant things such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, gas, exhaustion, or weight loss. The infamous tapeworm may cause an increase in hunger but you can only really get it if you travel to a place with parasites or eat infect beef/pork. Unlikely.
Most people who are always hungry aren’t really always hungry at all. They are anxious, sad, happy, bored, or a million other possibilities. Learn to listen to your body and you will start to feel satiated more easily.