The pandemic, political divisiveness, and social injustice have acted as big markers for 2020—but we also may come to know it as the year of snacking. With many people working from home and dealing with stress, it’s no surprise that the nearby refrigerator is repeatedly beckoning throughout the day.
In fact, one study conducted by NPD Group found that snack food consumption has increased by 8% during the pandemic. So nine months into this thing, you might be wondering: Why am I always hungry?
Apart from self-soothing and proximity to the kitchen, Jamie Lee McIntyre MS RDN, Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist and Nutrition Communications Consultant at JamieLeeRDN.com says that “there are many situations that can increase the sensation of hunger in individuals.”
She says that when she starts working with a client and they complain of constant hunger, she reviews their food log, usually noting a lack of protein and fiber at meals. She also takes into account poor sleep and stress eating as causes.
“True physical hunger comes on gradually and can be satisfied with good-for-you foods, like an apple or cheese stick,” McIntyre says. “Emotional hunger typically comes on suddenly and seems to only be satisfied with specific foods—this is when cravings for high-fat and sugary foods come in to play.”
To address feelings of hunger, McIntyre recommends trying stress-management methods that are unrelated to food, such as prayer, journaling, meditation, deep breathing, exercise, reading, and listening to music.
According to Matthew Bechtold, MD, a gastroenterologist with University of Missouri Health Care, hunger is a way that your body strives to achieve balance.
“Your body has many mechanisms to maintain balance. There are numerous negative and positive feedback loops driven by hormones and neurotransmitters that keep our bodies running like they should,” he says. “Hunger is no different. Hunger is a way your body tells you to consume calories to run the basic functions it needs to maintain balance.”
Since there are so many things that can bring about constant hunger, it’s best to speak with your primary care physician, and, as McIntyre points out, “consult with a registered dietician-nutritionist who can review your medical status and current dietary patterns.”
Why am I always hungry?
Here are 11 possible reasons why you’re always hungry.
Poorly balanced diet
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that around three-fourths of the population has an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils—in other words, we’re not getting the nutrition we need. “A diet with meals and/or snacks that are inconsistent and poorly balanced can drive appetite,” McIntyre says.
Dr. Bechtold states that certain foods in one’s diet are better at inducing satiety, or the feeling of fullness. He explains, “Foods high in fiber or high in protein seem to decrease further appetite the best. Foods high in fat or unhealthy carbohydrates may stimulate appetite and lead to increased consumption of food.”
To get on the right track, Dr. Bechtold says that it’s key to follow a healthy diet and a dietitian can assist.
Lack of sleep
Dr. Bechtold says that lack of sleep affects hunger hormones, resulting in increased appetite. McIntyre adds that poor sleep can cause you to feel hungrier during the day and tends to drive the desire to eat as you struggle through daylight hours feeling fatigued with low energy.
This is where good sleep can pay off. McIntyre suggests aiming for seven to nine hours of sleep each night, avoiding screens for at least one hour prior to bedtime, and using blackout curtains to minimize light.
“All too often, I come to find my clients intentionally undereating in the name of weight loss, only to gain weight, thanks to the restrict/binge cycle,” McIntyre says. “You may feel that skipping or skimping on meals throughout the day is a good thing to do to cut down on calorie intake, but if you cut too much, your blood sugar drops, and in response, your body produces and circulates more hunger hormones in order to drive you to seek out and consume food that will re-establish homeostasis and steady your blood sugar levels. It does this as survival mode.”
She adds that if you do in fact need to cut down on calories, a small deficit of no more than 500 calories per day is recommended.
Although medications can act as literal lifesavers in many cases, they can also lead to an increased appetite. They do this through numerous mechanisms, as Dr. Bechtold says, including direct appetite stimulation, fluid retention, increasing fat stores, slowing of metabolism, and decreasing exercise.
He says, “The most common medications that have a stimulatory effect on appetite include antihistamines, antidepressants, steroids, and some antipsychotic medications. To help, consult with your doctor about a potential change in your medications since not every medication in that family of medications induces appetite and weight gain.”
McIntyre adds that you should not stop taking these medications without first discussing your concerns with your doctor.
Diabetes is a condition in which insulin or insulin activity is lacking, resulting in a reduced amount of glucose or sugar delivery to the cells. “Therefore, the cells are craving glucose,” Dr. Bechtold says. “Through very complex cell-gut-brain interaction, the cells send a signal to the brain that more sugar is needed to be ingested.”
This can elicit near-constant hunger. To help, Dr. Bechtold advises consulting with your doctor and treating underlying diabetes.
Did you know that when you’re hungry, you actually might be thirsty? McIntyre shares that bodily cues for thirst can mimic hunger. She says, “Therefore, it is important to stay well-hydrated throughout the day when trying to control your appetite.”
She provides this advice to her clients: drink anywhere from eight to 16 ounces of water before every meal and snack during the day in addition to fluid intake between and with meals. “This way, when they begin eating, they can be sure they’re responding to true hunger rather than thirst as they enjoy their meal or snack,” she says.
“A natural reaction to pregnancy is increased appetite,” McIntyre says. “This is your body’s way of ensuring your daily food intake provides enough nutrients to meet your own nutritional needs, plus that of your growing baby in utero.”
Dr. Bechtold says, “Pregnancy-induced appetite stimulation starts as early as the first trimester. The body wants calories and nutrients to feed both the mother and the fetus. Many hormones are released to help induce weight gain during the entire pregnancy.”
Since hyperthyroidism releases too much thyroid hormone into the body, this “leads to the body being hyperactive in energy expenditure,” Dr. Bechtold says, this can stimulate the need for more calories to run all the functions of the body that are in overdrive.
“Thyroid hormone is a pivotal hormone for basic metabolism in your body,” Dr. Bechtold says. “To help, consult with your doctor to determine a potential treatment.”
McIntyre believes that popular diets that center around fasting, or some level of restriction, can cause ravenous hunger. Although they promise quick results, you’ll likely find that these diets will leave you relentlessly hungry.
She says, “I find that the majority of my clients do best when spreading their food intake out evenly throughout the course of the day, so they have a steady intake of nutrients and energy to get them from one regularly scheduled balanced meal to the next. This is a reasonable pattern of eating and supports steady energy and blood sugar control.”
Lack of exercise
If you haven’t been logging your regular miles on the treadmill lately, you may find that you’re hungrier than usual.
“Exercise burns calories,” says Dr. Bechtold. “Although some evidence shows that aerobic exercise may decrease appetite, the exact mechanism is not fully understood. It is postulated to work by direct interaction with hunger hormones or indirect interaction with dopamine and mood mechanisms. Those individuals that lack exercise do not get this added benefit of hunger suppression. To help, consider an exercise routine.”
Yes, stress eating is absolutely a real thing, and it’s something that many of us have dealt with throughout the pandemic.
Dr. Bechtold explains the science behind stress eating, saying that long-term stress results in the release of the hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol stimulates the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats in your body for immediate energy.
“By doing this, insulin is also released,” he says. “This combination results in an increase in appetite to maintain blood sugar levels.” He adds that eating can increase dopamine, which is believed to be part of the reward mechanism in the brain and stimulates good feelings to combat stress.
But those good vibes won’t last forever. The high from stress eating crashes in a hurry. Instead, McIntyre recommends getting comfortable with stress instead of reaching for the cookies.
“Remember that the pattern of stress tends to look like a bell curve,” she says. “It begins to mount in response to a certain trigger, feels very uncomfortable as it reaches its apex, then slowly dissipates and tapers off. This can happen over a period of minutes or hours and is different for everyone. However, since many of us eat before reaching the apex, we have conditioned ourselves to believe that it is the food providing relief from stress, when in actuality, the feeling of stress relieves on its own regardless if you eat or not. Before eating, consider if there are other tools you could use to manage stress.”