Hungry all the time? We hear you. The good news is you can curb those hunger pangs and lose weight at the same time.
Losing weight relies on burning more kilojoules than you consume, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means you need to stay in the hunger zone permanently. In fact, research shows that when you’re really hungry, not only do high-kilojoule foods suddenly seem more appealing, but you’re also more likely to eat too much in a single meal.
“Experiencing some hunger before a meal is a valuable tool, because it’s one indication that you’re getting your portion sizes right,” says dietitian and Dietitians Association of Australia spokesperson, Nicole Dynan. “But feeling overly hungry or starving will eventually backfire.”
Genuine hunger — which Dynan describes as ‘stomach hunger’ — occurs when your body has burned through the fuel provided by your last meal or snack, triggering symptoms like stomach contractions and noises. These are caused by a complex interaction between ‘hunger hormones’ and brain chemicals.
But your hunger levels are not just dictated by how many kilojoules you consume — they’re determined by everything from the quality of those kilojoules to when you eat them, and even how much sleep you get.
Here are five reasons you might always feel hungry, and how to regain control.
1. You’re tired
Lack of sleep upsets the balance of two important ‘hunger hormones’, ghrelin and leptin. Comparing people who had eight hours sleep with those who received just five, US researchers discovered that sleep deprivation increases levels of ghrelin. This triggers appetite by about 15 per cent, and decreases levels of leptin, the hormone responsible for letting the brain know when you’re full. It means that when you’re tired, you’ll feel hungrier than usual.
Getting enough sleep is key, but when you’re tired, try bumping up your intake of ghrelin-suppressing foods. “Carbohydrates that are rich in something called resistant starch are really useful for this,” says Dynan. Among these foods are unprocessed cereals and whole grains, potatoes and lentils.
2. You’re consuming artificial sweeteners
These not only make you feel hungry — they also encourage you to eat more. Researchers from The University of Sydney say it’s because artificial sweeteners, like saccharin and aspartame, create confusion in the brain’s reward centres. Your brain detects a sweet sensation but not the energy that should go with it, because these sweeteners are kilojoule-free. The result? Your brain has to recalibrate, and then starts sending messages that drive you to eat more food to make up for the imbalance.
Make the effort to avoid the artificial sweeteners that are commonly used in Australia. These include alitame, acesulphame K, aspartame, cyclamate, neotame, saccharin and sucralose. As well as being available as an alternative to white sugar, they’re used in a wide range of processed foods and drinks, including yoghurts, ice-cream, chewing gum and soft drinks. These products are often labelled as ‘diet’, ‘low kilojoule’ or ‘no sugar’.
3. You eat while you’re distracted
It turns out you have a ‘food memory’ that plays a role in hunger and, according to UK-based scientists, it doesn’t function properly or accurately when you’re not 100 per cent focused on a meal while you are eating it.
Their research found that when this memory doesn’t fire up, people eat significantly more throughout the day. “Mindfulness and eating mindfully is so important for creating an awareness around when and why, but also how much, you’re eating,” says Dynan.
Make sure you can hear yourself eat, which means finding or creating some peace and quiet at meal times. Hearing yourself crunch and chew your food regulates your appetite. In fact, if you can’t hear those noises, you’ll end up eating about 25 per cent more food. Dubbed the ‘crunch effect’, it works as a sensory cue to remind you of how much food you’re putting in your mouth — a useful way of activating that food memory.
4. Your breakfast isn’t balanced
It’s not just eating enough at breakfast that matters — what you choose for your first meal of the day has an influence on subsequent hunger levels. Research shows that nutrients like fibre and protein are essential in the morning for regulating ghrelin levels — and your appetite — later in the day.
Choose high-fibre breakfast foods, such as wholemeal or multigrain bread, along with cereals that contain barley, wheat or oats. And match them with a source of protein such as yoghurt, eggs, nuts or legumes.
5. You’re not eating enough, early enough
Research shows that it’s not just how many kilojoules you eat that impacts on how hungry you’ll feel, but also what time of day you consume them. Having your biggest meal at breakfast, rather than at dinner, is a proven aid to weight loss. This is partly thanks to the positive effect that breakfast has on hunger levels — and the hormones that regulate them — keeping you feeling more satisfied for longer.
Try to use up 50 per cent of your daily kilojoule intake at breakfast, 35 per cent at lunch and just 15 per cent at dinner. Not possible every day? Snack on a few walnuts in between meals. They’ll also help to regulate hunger hormones, thanks to the polyunsaturated fats they contain.
You’re not the only one. Up to 97 per cent of women and 68 per cent of men experience food cravings. So what actually causes them?
For starters, forget the idea that it’s your body’s way of telling you you’re deficient in something. There’s no real evidence to link food cravings with nutritional deficiencies.
A better explanation may be that the cravings occur when you ‘ban’ a food. Research confirms that doing that fuels the fire, leading to an increased appetite, or craving, for the food you’re trying to avoid.
Try these three strategies to help you when cravings strike:
1. Stop using the word ‘cravings’
“It’s a word that gives what you’re feeling a lot of power,” says dietitian Lisa Renn, “almost like it’s an addiction.”
While research shows that acknowledging the ‘craving’ is more effective than simply ignoring it, try using different language to describe it. “For example, say, ‘I feel like some chocolate’, rather than, ‘I’m craving chocolate’, and see what a difference it makes.”
Research also shows that cravings can develop when you use a crave-worthy food — say, hot chips or lollies — to satisfy genuine hunger.
2. Distract yourself
Your brain has a big role to play in food cravings. Not only is simply imagining a food enough to trigger a craving for it, but the opposite is also true — giving your brain another task when you feel a food craving coming on can reduce its intensity.
3. Go for a power walk
Short bursts of physical activity are powerful enough to significantly reduce food cravings immediately afterwards. It’s an effect that lasts even when the food in question is put in front of you.
Is hunger all in your head?
Genuine or ‘stomach hunger’ isn’t the only reason you might find yourself reaching for food.
“‘Head hunger’, where you eat without those genuine hunger signals being present, is not only common — it can happen for a variety of reasons,” says Dynan.
Be on your guard for these scientifically proven ‘head-hunger’ triggers the next time that you’re feeling peckish.
When you repeatedly eat a food (think, popcorn) in a particular place (think, movie theatres), your brain starts to associate that food with that place, and triggers you to eat it, even if you’re not hungry.
More than 70 per cent of us turn to food to deal with stress, and it’s typically high-fat, high-sugar foods that we gravitate towards to take the edge off hunger.
According to a 2015 study, it’s common to eat when you’re bored, as a way to distract yourself from that feeling.
The copycat effect
Researchers in the US have found we mimic the food choices of the people we’re eating with, regardless of how hungry or otherwise we actually are.
Just seeing your favourite food is enough to trigger a ‘hunger’ for it, with one study showing that people eat 67 per cent more chocolate when it’s in a clear container on their desk, rather than an opaque one.