Advice |  Ask a Doctor: Why Am I Always Hungry?

Advice | Ask a Doctor: Why Am I Always Hungry?


Ellen A. Schur is a professor of medicine at the University of Washington and director of the Center for Nutrition and Obesity Research at the University of Washington.

Q: I feel like I’m always hungry. Why does this happen? What can I do to feel more satisfied?

A: There are a number of reasons why people are hungry. You may not be eating enough to meet your body’s energy needs. But it’s more likely to be related to food choice or lifestyle factors. The type of food you eat, whether you’ve recently lost weight, how much you exercise, and whether you go for long periods without eating can all influence how often you feel hungry.

Here are some reasons why people feel hungry even after eating a meal.

Eat ultra-processed foods

Research has shown that hunger is not the same for all foods. If you’re hungry, you probably crave high-calorie foods, such as those high in sugar, carbohydrates, or fat. Maybe that’s why people rarely say they crave an apple. Instead, we tend to want tortilla chips, cookies, or pizza.

It seems counterintuitive, but eating certain foods can also make you hungrier. Carbohydrates do not suppress hunger hormones as long as fats or proteins do. Ultra-processed foods seem to promote appetite, although scientists still don’t know why. And liquid sources of calories — like smoothies — are less filling than solids.

What are ultra-processed foods? What should I eat instead?

High-calorie foods, at least in rodents, cause inflammation in areas of the brain that regulate body weight, which increases consumption of these foods. Eating as much as they can while food is plentiful makes sense for bears about to hibernate, for example. But if the same inflammation occurs in the brain in humans, it could create a cycle of hunger pangs and repeated options for energy-dense foods.

Your hunger could also simply be a matter of how life priorities affect energy needs. Think about your eating habits: when are you hungry? After vigorous exercise? The night? People may feel less hungry immediately after exercise, but much hungrier hours or even days later.

You may be limiting your food intake during the day due to a busy schedule or trying to manage your weight, but then experience cravings or lack of satiety in the evening.

A common — but often overlooked — factor in your appetite is whether you’ve recently lost weight.

Body weight is a tightly regulated biological system. After weight loss, hormones in the blood signal to the brain that energy stores in the form of fat are depleted. The availability of energy is essential for survival, which is why the brain acts to save energy and stimulates our desire to eat.

This happens regardless of what weight you started at and even if you had weight-related health issues.

Experts agree that the brain powerfully defends the level of body fat and this can lead to weight regain after weight loss. This accumulated research is why many scientists believe we should view obesity as a chronic disease and why treatment recommendations more often include medication as well as lifestyle changes, especially for people with serious health problems related to their weight.

In general, if you are not meeting your body’s total daily energy needs to maintain your weight, your brain will prompt you to eat. Skipping meals or going for long periods without eating stimulates appetite through hormonal and brain changes. You might feel this as a stomach growl, but also as cravings or cravings.

It’s also worth checking your medication list with your doctor. Certain drugs for diabetes (glyburide, glipizide), neuropathy (gabapentin), and depression (mirtazapine) are associated with increased appetite and weight gain.

If your appetite has changed significantly, especially if you have gained or lost weight, it is important to be evaluated by a doctor. Loss of appetite can accompany serious illnesses, including diabetes, cancer or depression. Increased appetite and weight gain are symptoms of hypothyroidism, polycystic ovary syndrome and sleep disturbances.

If your hunger issues started in childhood — when you were 5 years old or younger — rare genetic conditions could be to blame. Genes have another powerful influence: Studies have shown that the brain reacts similarly to food in identical twins, who also have similar baseline appetite levels. The hormonal changes of puberty, pregnancy, and PMS usually affect appetite.

If you experience feelings of loss of control or if you feel numb and consume large amounts of food to the point of discomfort, or if you purge after eating, you should be evaluated for an eating disorder .

Stress, emotions and sleep

Stress levels, boredom, food cues, emotions, and lack of sleep can trigger your cravings. In these cases, mindful or intuitive eating can be a good strategy to explore, as can treating the underlying cause, such as ensuring you get quality sleep.

It can take time to fix these issues, so be kind to yourself. Feelings around food, weight, and body image can be intense. Many people have experienced prejudice or discrimination due to weight stigma, including from healthcare professionals. So if you are blamed or shamed, seek medical help elsewhere. Everyone deserves to feel safe and supported when it comes to weight and appetite.

Remember, there’s a reason food cravings are so powerful. Although our food system and diets have changed in modern times, our brains are still hardwired to survive. Even when we are unaware of it, this biological drive shapes our behavior.

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