Ever go through a period of time when you feel hungry all the time? You’re not alone. As crazy as it might feel to be ravenous in the middle of the night, hungry right after a meal, or wake up with hunger pangs in the morning, it’s actually more common than you think.
Our hunger is controlled by a wide range of factors, including two very important hormones called leptin and ghrelin. Triggered when the stomach is empty, ghrelin has the important job of making us feel hungry. Meanwhile, leptin, which is produced by our fat cells, is known as the “satiety” hormone and inhibits hunger when our bodies have met their energy requirements.
The balance between these hormones is delicate; leptin and ghrelin can easily be knocked out of whack, even by “healthy” lifestyle habits, such as:
Too much cardio
Cardiovascular exercises, like running, walking, biking, dancing, or jumping rope are excellent for preserving heart health and burning calories. But do too much cardio and it can leave you opening the fridge a thousand times a day. Why? After a long cardio session, your glycogen stores will be totally depleted, which means your body will be anxious to replenish this form of stored energy. This causes serious hunger. Not to mention, exercise can increase your stress hormone cortisol, which can also make you feel ravenous. If you’re experiencing hunger that just won’t quit, try reducing the duration of your cardio sessions — you can replace them with something anaerobic like yoga or pilates — and see how you feel.
A low-carb diet
For many people, a low-carb or keto diet is like a magic bullet for weight loss, tons of energy, and a great mood. For others, it can actually backfire, causing leptin levels to drop too much, which essentially signals to your body that you’re experiencing starvation. So, even though you’re eating plenty of calories in the form of healthy fats and protein, you just can’t quell your hunger.
The good news is that you don’t have to start eating cookies and cakes to restore leptin. Instead, you can try carb cycling, which means increasing your intake of healthy carbs — like sweet potato, fruit, and rice — a few times a week to increase leptin and reassure your body that it’s not starving and has plenty of energy. For many people, carb cycling does the trick for excess hunger and it’s definitely worth a try if you’re following a low-carb diet.
Another important hormone involved in hunger is insulin, which you’ve probably heard of before, likely in the context of blood sugar or diabetes. Insulin is released when we eat foods that contain sugar and carbohydrates because they cause a spike in blood sugar. More specifically, insulin has the important job of taking the sugar in the blood and leading it into our cells where they can supply our body with energy.
This process is all well and good until we eat too many carbohydrate-rich foods like fruits, juices, or bread too often. This exhausts insulin, which means our blood glucose levels remain elevated and our hunger levels will be extremely high because our cells won’t be getting the energy they need, despite the fact that we’re eating plenty of food.
If you’re a carb-lover and you’re experiencing cravings, try limiting yourself to just three meals a day, watch your carbohydrate intake, and see how your hunger levels respond.
Speaking of blood sugar, many people try to support healthy insulin levels by opting out of traditional sweeteners like sugar and honey. This is great in theory, but the truth is, many of these sweeteners are unhealthy in their own way. In fact, studies in both humans and animals suggest that consuming artificial sweeteners can make you feel hungry and cause you to eat more.
How does this happen? According to researchers at the University of Sydney, there’s a part of the brain that works to integrate sweet sensations with energy content. This means that when you eat something sweet, your brain expects sugar — real sugar, which is full of energy. When it doesn’t get the expected response for a period of time, the brain will recalibrate and trigger an increase in hunger.
If you’re a fan of diet sodas, Splenda, or even natural sugar substitutes like stevia and monk fruit, it might be worth cutting them out for a while to see if your brain is playing this not-so-fun trick on you.
Mysterious hunger can make you feel out of control and easily sabotage your healthy efforts. But by learning a little more about how hunger signaling actually works and then evaluating some of your habits (including the healthy ones!), you can get your hunger back on track.
“Looking and feeling great has never been easier!” Discover the simplicity of personalized nutrition with Clean Plates Founder, Jared Koch, on this free webinar: The 5 Secrets To Sustainable Weight Loss, Radiant Energy And Effortless Health.