Many factors, biological and environmental, influence appetite, food choices, and meal timing. Some people can’t tell when they are hungry, while others have learned to ignore feelings of hunger. Both scenarios can lead to low energy levels, a dissatisfaction with food choices, intense cravings, and heightened hunger pangs. Food is used to nourish our bodies and supply it with the nutrients needed to perform all of its daily activities from thinking to digesting food to sleeping. Understanding why we eat and how the body responds to food energy and feelings of hunger is key to developing eating habits that can be sustained for life.
So, let’s break it down! Why do we eat?
Reason #1: Biological Hunger
Have you ever experienced your stomach growling in a silent room? Stomach growling is one symptom of biological hunger, and it’s what makes us feel physically hungry. People with a faster metabolism and those who do more physical activity may experience biological hunger cues like stomach growling. All. The. Time.
Biological hunger is also experienced when nutrient needs aren’t being met. For example, when a meal consists mostly of highly-processed carbohydrates and simple sugar and lacks quality protein, fiber, and healthy fat, digestion happens more quickly and so do feelings of hunger. You can’t beat biological hunger, so listen to your body’s hunger cues, choose balanced meals and snacks, and try not to go too long without fuel.
Reason #2: Intense Cravings
Do you find it hard to say no to sweets? Do you have a habit of skipping meals or waiting too long to eat? Have you recently started a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet? Our brains respond when we’re low on fuel and signal the release of the hormone neuropeptide Y (NPY). More specifically, levels of NPY increase after an overnight fast, during times of stress, and from quick weight loss diets. The body responds to elevated levels of NPY with an increased craving for carbohydrates.
Managing food cravings starts with the morning meal. Have you noticed that many breakfast foods are high in carbohydrates? Think of traditional foods like pancakes, toast, cereal, oatmeal, and fruit. It turns out that eating carbohydrates in the morning lowers NPY levels and reduces cravings later in the day. The key to feeling your best, however, is to be mindful about your morning meal. Pairing fiber-rich carbohydrates, like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, with some lean protein, like Greek yogurt, may not only satisfy your appetite; it can also stabilize blood sugar levels, help keep you fuller longer, and improve overall satisfaction.
Reason #3: Boredom/Emotions
Some people eat out of boredom. Others may eat because they are lonely, sad, or stressed. For many people, eating is a coping mechanism that provides comfort during difficult times. It’s important to recognize on an individual level what drives emotional eating, and address those feelings. Additionally, activities like finding a new hobby, calling a friend, or taking a relaxing bath may help satisfy your emotional needs in the moment.
Reason #4: Special Occasions
Food is often the centerpiece of special occasions, like holidays, weddings, and vacations. For example, wedding cake! You wouldn’t choose to miss out on it just because you’re not biologically hungry, right? In fact, doing so when you really want it may set you up for increased cravings due to dissatisfaction. Honor your desire to take part in these celebrations! Choose the foods that mean the most, taste the best, and savor them slowly in the moment. Your satisfaction of these treats is likely to increase when you take the time to truly enjoy them.
Reason #5: Timing or Habit
You may also eat out of practicality. For example, there may be a last-minute meeting during the standard lunch time at work (11-1pm). Choosing to eat early at 10am even though you are not physically hungry, rather than waiting until the late afternoon when you would likely be ravenous, would be one way to handle this type of scenario. Planning ahead and keeping a stash of portable nutritious snacks on-hand, such as fresh fruit, trail mix, or low-fat cheese sticks, is a quick solution to an unexpected change in schedule.
So, how do you get more in-tune with your biological hunger?
The first step is to recognize the symptoms of biological hunger. Some symptoms may include experiencing gurgling, growling, or pain in the stomach, feeling lightheaded or faint, having difficulty with concentrating, feeling irritable, or experiencing headaches.
How many symptoms can you relate to? Next time you feel irritable, can’t concentrate, or get a headache, stop and think about when was the last time you ate and what did you eat? Could those symptoms actually be symptoms of hunger?
Next, assess your level of hunger before meals and your fullness after meals using the hunger scale. Try this for a few days to identify common trends.
After you’ve assessed your level of hunger and fullness, evaluate it! How often do you wait too long to eat and end up uncomfortably hungry or ravenous? Or, on the opposite spectrum, do you eat frequently until you are very full, stuffed, or painfully full? How often do you eat when you’re a little hungry and finish when you are satisfied? What feelings or events are influencing your eating pattern? Keep in mind your eating pattern may vary day-to-day, so use this tool as a way to identify any common trends.
Finally, make a change and reassess its effect. For example, if you find that you don’t eat much during the day and end up eating a lot late in the day and at night, try adding a balanced breakfast and morning snack, and see how that impacts your evening habits. Or, if you feel hungry quickly after eating a meal that is high in processed carbohydrates, adding some quality protein and fiber may help you feel full longer and improve your energy levels between meals. Be mindful that it can take a few days before your body responds, so don’t be quick to give up a new habit if there is not an immediate effect.
There is no doubt about it – hunger can be complicated. Many factors influence our appetite, food choices, and meal timing, making it difficult to create or maintain eating habits. If you are looking to make some changes and want the support of a registered dietitian, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to request an appointment with one of our registered dietitians.
Somer E. Food & Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks: 1999.
Tribole E, Resch E. Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger. In: Tribole, E and Resch, E, ed. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press; 2012: Chapter 6.
By: Katie Perzynski, MS, RDN