Why Do People Feel Hungry? Am I Really Hungry? What’s The Right Way To Deal With Hunger?
When you get that rumbling feeling in your tummy, you know it’s time to grab a bite to eat. But why do you need to eat in the first place? And what exactly causes the feeling?
Food is all about energy. Light energy from the sun is absorbed by plants to help them grow. Those plants then find their way into human stomachs, either because we eat the plants, or because we eat animals who have eaten plants. When an animal eats something, energy is passing along the food chain until it gets to us. This energy is in the form of molecules of different types. We humans need those molecules to keep our body operating — the molecules are used to keep us moving, to keep our blood pumping, and to replace cells as they die.
The most important of these molecules is glucose and is the main supply of energy that keeps our body going. However, there are lots of types of molecules we need from carbohydrates to proteins to fats, and not to mention vitamins and minerals.
So, how do we know when it’s time to eat to get more of those molecules? The feeling you get of being hungry happens in response to chemicals being released in your body. Your hypothalamus is the part of your brain that regulates appetite and hunger. In fact, your hypothalamus stays pretty busy with this function, taking in data from different sources. Tucked up inside your brain, this collection of nervous tissue receives inputs from the vagus nerve, which is actually a cranial nerve that sends signals from the gastrointestinal tract to the brain. The signals are reports on how distended your stomach is — in other words, how full you are. If your stomach is filled up with food, then hunger is suppressed.
Hormones influence your desire to eat. Hormones are the emergency responders of the body and are constantly on alert, ready to be released or suppressed in order to maintain homeostasis. The digestion and storage of nutrients involves the interplay of many hormones, but when looking at the hunger hormones, we can put most of our focus on just two.
The first is leptin, which is a hormone secreted by your fat cells that acts as an appetite suppressant. Leptin levels peak when you fill up on food. So, when you eat a lot, your appetite goes away. If you ever said, ‘I am so full I couldn’t eat another bite,’ then in that moment, your body was flooded with leptin. It might help you to recall the action of this hormone by remembering that leptin lowers hunger.
Now that you are full, you will probably wait a few hours before eating again, and this brings the second hunger hormone into the game called ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone secreted by the stomach that acts as an appetite stimulator. If you ever said, ‘I am so hungry that my stomach is growling,’ then your body was flooded with ghrelin. So if your stomach is growling, then it is producing ghrelin.
Ghrelin communicates with your brain and triggers the release of an additional hormone called neuropeptide Y, which is a hormone secreted by the hypothalamus that stimulates hunger.
The decision to eat is affected by a host of factors: sights, smells, social settings, and more.
We eat to satisfy our appetites but also to soothe emotions, celebrate victories, satisfy cultural expectations — and because it just tastes good.
Scientists have been researching influences on appetite and hunger for decades. The body’s systems are complex. “Hunger hormones” (ghrelin) in your blood and an empty stomach signal the brain when you’re hungry. Nerves in the stomach send signals to the brain that you’re full, but these signals can take up to 20 minutes to communicate — and by that time, you may have already eaten too much.
Rating Your Hunger
When you sit down to eat a meal, you want to be hungry, but not ravenous. (Letting your blood sugar get so low that you feel ravenous often leads to binge eating.) And your goal is to stop when you’re comfortably full.
To get into the habit of evaluating your hunger, rate your hunger and satisfaction level before and after every meal. Here’s a numerical scale you could use:
0: Ravenously hungry, salivating.
1: Hungry, belly growling.
2: Mildly hungry; you may need a light snack to hold you over, but you could hold out a little longer.
3: Satisfied; don’t need to eat any more.
4: More than satisfied; ate too much.
5: Stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey.
And whenever you’re about to run to the kitchen or break room or detour to the nearest drive-thru, ask yourself these questions first:
- When was the last time I ate? If it was less than 2–3 hours ago, you’re probably not feeling real hunger.
- Could a small, nutritious snack rich in fiber tide you over until the next meal?
- Can you drink a glass of water and wait 20 minutes?
If you find that you don’t easily recognize the signs of hunger, schedule your meals and snacks. Divide your eating plan into several small meals, spaced every three to four hours. Rate your hunger each time you sit down to eat, and try to become more aware of what real hunger feels like.
More Mindful Eating
Most of us wolf down our food without really tasting it from time to time. Do you suffer from “eating amnesia” when the hand-to-mouth activity becomes automatic — usually in front of the television or while reading a book? Bad habits are hard to break, but if you want to control what you eat, you must become more mindful of everything you put into your mouth.
It helps to slow down and enjoy your meals, like they do in France. Sit down, turn off the television, and create a peaceful environment free of distractions to take pleasure in your meals.
Keep in mind that the first few bites are always the best (your taste buds soon become less sensitized to the chemicals in food that make it taste so good). Focus on the quality of the food, not the quantity. Be mindful of each mouthful, and appreciate the flavors, aromas, and textures of the food.
Enjoying leisurely meals gives your stomach time to signal your brain that you are comfortably full. Put your fork down between bites, sip water, and enjoy conversation while you dine.
Deal With Your Hunger
Here, we need to differentiate between homeostatic hunger, which is related purely to balancing our energy reserves short-term, and hedonic hunger, which makes use of opportunities to gather extra energy. Hedonic hunger is less well understood than homeostatic hunger.
When our eyes detect something that we have previously enjoyed eating, our brain is notified.
If we are full, we might take a rain check. However, our brains are hardwired to avoid running out of energy. The offer of extra food can therefore override our feeling of fullness and lead us to grab that tasty snack after all.
Here are some more tips to help you get in touch with real hunger:
- Exercise portion control. The old expression “your eyes are bigger than your stomach” may be sage advice. Researcher Barbara Rolls and her colleagues at Pennsylvania State University have found that the more food you’re served, the more you’re likely to eat. The theory is that the environmental cues of portion size override the body’s cues of satisfaction. Also back to the above-mentioned, do not wait until you are starving to eat. You tend to shovel food down your throat when you are starving.
- Eat foods that are bulked up with water or air, which gives them more volume and makes them more satisfying. Increasing the bulk in your meals helps fill your belly, signals satiety to your brain, and allows you to feel full on fewer calories. Broth-based soups, stews, hot cereals, and cooked grains are good examples of the foods that go the distance.
- Fiber can help satisfy hunger and reduce appetite. Choose high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, popcorn, and whole grains. Starting a meal with a large salad can help you eat fewer calories during the meal because of the fiber and water content of greens and vegetables. Also keep in mind that fresh fruits have more fiber and water than dried ones.
- Avoid the buffet line. When there are lots of choices, most people eat more. Keep it simple, limit the number of courses, and fill up on the high-fiber foods first.
- Avoid Empty Calories. Alcohol, soda, juices are loaded with calories and sugar but low on nutritional values.
- Cut Down on Refined Carbs Refined carbs also tend to have a higher glycemic index, which can cause spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, resulting in increased hunger. One study in 2,834 people also showed that those with higher intakes of refined grains tended to have a higher amount of disease-promoting belly fat, while those who ate more whole grains tended to have a lower amount (36). For the best results, reduce your intake of refined carbs from pastries, processed foods, pastas, white breads and breakfast cereals. Replace them with whole grains such as whole wheat, quinoa, buckwheat, barley and oats.
- Include lean protein in your meals and snacks to help them last longer in your stomach. Protein, a component of every cell, organ and tissue in the body, must be replenished on a daily basis. Including more protein-rich foods in your diet is an effective way to reduce your appetite and burn more fat. A handful of nuts, some low-fat dairy, soy protein, or lean meat, fish, or chicken will tide you over for hours. Rule of thumb: 0.7 to 1.2 grams of protein x weight per pound is the ideal protein intake. A healthy adult needs a minimum of 50 grams per day.
Rebecca Gillaspy Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.
David Wood David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.