My Essay Isnt Done But I Sure Am Hungry
By Esther Crain
It's one thing to notice an uptick in appetite if you've been training hard at the gym, or if you're pregnant or PMS-ing. But when you always feel like a bottomless pit for no obvious reason, then something's definitely up. "Hunger is the physiological need for calories, water and salt, and it's driven by a mix of factors, including your diet, appetite hormones and emotional factors, such as stress," says Maggie Moon, RD, a Los Angeles-based nutritionist and owner of Everyday Healthy Eating. Figuring out why you can't stop shoveling it down is important, because excess hunger can tip you off to a physical or mental health issue -- and giving in to that need to feed can send your BMI into dangerously unhealthy territory. These 11 things will help explain why your belly's been growling.
"Mild dehydration is often masked as feelings of hunger, when really your body just needs fluids," says Alissa Rumsey, RD, spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The confusion happens in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates both appetite and thirst. When dehydration sets in, wires get crossed in the hypothalamus, leading you to grab a bag of chips when you really need a bottle of water. "Prevent it by staying on top of your fluid intake, starting with a glass of water first thing in the morning," advises Rumsey. "If you feel hungry, and you haven't drank much that day, try drinking a glass of water and waiting 15 to 20 minutes to see if your hunger subsides."
You're a restless sleeper
By the time you wake after a night of poor sleep, two hormones linked to appetite have already begun conspiring against you. "Too little sleep can lead to surging levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite, as well as decreased levels of leptin, a hormone that causes feelings of fullness," says Rumsey. Lack of shuteye on a regular basis makes you ravenous for another reason. After poor sleep, you're more likely to have serious fatigue and brain fog. Your system, desperate for a shot of energy, triggers cravings for sugar carbs, even if you're not actually hungry. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, and you'll get your energy level and hunger hormones back on track.
You load up on starchy carbs
Ever notice how one doughnut or cookie leaves you unable to resist eating another... until the whole box is just crumbs? That's your brain on starchy carbs. "Simple carbs, the kind found in sugary, white flour foods like pastries, crackers and cookies, spike your blood sugar levels quickly, then leave them plunging soon after," says Moon. That blood sugar plunge causes intense hunger for more sugary carbs and the cycle continues." Keep fluctuating blood sugar levels from sending you on a cravings roller coaster by avoiding simple-carb foods as much as possible. Get your carb fix with the complex, filling kind that contains lots of fiber. Almonds, apples, chia seeds and pistachios are healthy options that ward off hunger pangs, suggests Moon.
You're a stress case
Who hasn't dealt with a high-pressure workday or relationship rough spot by giving into cravings for a pint of Rocky Road? But stress has a sneakier way of making you voracious. When you're tense, your system ramps up production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, says Rumsey. Elevated levels of these hormones trick your system into thinking it's under attack and needs energy, so your appetite starts raging. Stress also reduces levels of the brain chemical serotonin, and that can make you feel hungry when you aren't, says Moon. Consider it a case for making it to yoga class more often, or cranking up a soothing playlist on your commute home.
You drink too much alcohol
That pre-dinner cocktail or glass of wine meant to whet your appetite before dinner actually does just that, stimulating a feeling of hunger even if your stomach is full, says Moon. A small study published in the journal Appetite backs this up, finding that people were more likely to consume foods higher in calories after drinking alcohol. And because booze dehydrates you, it can trick you into thinking you need food when your body is really calling for water. Offset the effect by eating before you drink, and make sure to alternate your cocktails with water so you stay hydrated, says Rumsey.
You need to eat more protein
It sounds counterintuitive, but piling your plate with more food -- lean protein and healthy fat, specifically -- keeps hunger pangs at bay. "Not only does protein stay in your stomach and promote feelings of fullness, it's been shown to have an appetite-suppressing effect," says Rumsey. Aim for at least 46 grams of protein per day (best sources: Greek yogurt, eggs, lean meat and whole grains), which is the RDA for women between 19 and 70. For men, it's 56 grams per day.
You aren't eating enough fat
Just like protein, unsaturated fat is also linked to feelings of satiety. "When you're satisfied after a meal, you are more likely to listen to your hunger cues and not eat again until you are truly hungry," says Rumsey. Add this heart-healthy, brain-boosting kind of fat to your meals in the form of oils, nuts and seeds and avocados. Experts recommend that adults limit their fat intake to 20 to 35 percent of their total daily calories.
You skip meals
Yet another reason why ghosting on breakfast or forgoing other meals throughout the day backfires on you. When you skip a meal and your stomach is empty for too long, it produces an uptick in the hunger hormone ghrelin, which ramps your appetite, says Rumsey. "Ghrelin also prompts the GI tract to expect food to come. Your ghrelin levels are in overdrive, and so is your lust for food." When you finally give in, you're prone to a binge. As a general rule, try not to let more than 4 to 5 hours go by between meals. And even if you hate breakfast, eat something in the a.m. within an hour of waking, like yogurt, peanut butter and apple slices, or a soymilk smoothie.
You're bombarded by food porn
Pinterest recipe boards. Facebook photos of your friends' lunches. Late-night TV ads for takeout pizza. With images of food saturating our lives 24-7, it's no wonder so many of us are constantly craving the real thing. The connection between what we see and what we desire has been documented by science: a 2012 study from the journal Obesityfound that just looking at food cranked up levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Getting a whiff of food has a similar effect, says Moon. "Pleasant food aromas stimulate an involuntary physiological reaction: the mouth will salivate and the stomach will contract, mimicking hunger pangs," she says. Of course, you can't totally eliminate the possibility of seeing or smelling food. But try limiting your exposure, say by skipping TV commercials and un-following food brands on Instagram.
You inhale your food
When you wolf down your meal, your stomach might be full, but you haven't allowed your brain enough time to register that fullness. When your brain is still in the dark, it keeps your appetite high... and you continue eating. A study published in 2013 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism supports this, finding that eating at a moderate pace prompts the release of hormones that tell your brain "no more." Try eating your food slowly, savoring each bite and enjoying the ritual of a good meal. Then wait at least 20 minutes before deciding if you really do need another helping. That's about how long it takes for that fullness signal to reach your brain, says Rumsey.
You're on certain meds
The same drugs you might be taking regularly to treat a health condition can also drive you to raid the refrigerator. Antidepressants such as Zoloft and Paxil, as well as corticosteroids such as prednisone (prescribed to treat potentially dangerous flareups of the immune system due to allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn's disease, and some cancers), are known to affect appetite, says Rumsey. If you're on one of these prescription and feel hungry after a normal-sized meal, talk to your doctor to see if it's possible to switch to another drug.
11 Reasons You're Always Hungry originally appeared on Health.com.
More from Health.com:
20 Little Ways to Drop the Pounds and Keep Them Off
5 Natural Appetite Suppressants
20 Snacks That Burn Fat
I decided to take a try at the great problem of our time: how to lose weight without any effort. So I did an experiment on myself. I was ripe for it, if truth be told. Here I am eight months later and 50 pounds lighter, so something must have worked. My approach to the problem was different from the usual perspective. I’m a psychologist, not a doctor. From the start I suspected that weight regulation was a matter of psychology, not physiology.
If weight were a matter of calories in and calories out, we’d all be the weight we choose. Everyone’s gotten the memo. We all know the ‘eat less’ principle. Losing weight should be as easy as choosing a shirt colour. And yet, somehow it isn’t, and the United States grows heavier. It’s time to consider the problem through an alternative lens.
Whatever else it is, hunger is a motivated state of mind. Psychologists have been studying such states for at least a century. We all feel hungry before dinner and full after a banquet, but those moments are the tip of the iceberg. Hunger is a process that’s always present, always running in the background, only occasionally rising into consciousness. It’s more like a mood. When it slowly rises or eases back down, even when it’s beneath consciousness, it alters our decisions. It warps our priorities and our emotional investment in long-term goals. It even changes our sensory perceptions – often quite profoundly.
You sit down to dinner and say: ‘That tiny, little hamburger? Why do they have to make them so small? I’ll have to eat three just to break even.’ That’s the hunger mood making food look smaller. If you’re full, the exact same hamburger looks enormous. It isn’t just the food itself. Your own body image is warped. When the hunger mood rises, you feel a little thinner, the diet feels like it’s working and you can afford a self-indulgence. When satiety kicks in, you feel like a whale.
Even memory can be warped. Suppose you keep a log of everything you eat. Is that log trustworthy? Not only have you drastically misjudged the size of your meals, but you’ve almost certainly forgotten items. Depending on your hunger state, you might snarf up three pieces of bread and after the meal sincerely remember only one. One recent study found that most of the calories people eat come through snacks between meals. But when you ask people, they deny it. They’re surprised to find out just how much they snack.
The hunger mood is hard to control, precisely because it operates outside of consciousness. This might be why obesity is such an intractable problem.
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The hunger mood is controlled by the brain stem. The part most responsible for regulating hunger and other basic motivated states is called the hypothalamus, and it sits at the bottom of your brain. It has sensors that literally taste the blood. They detect levels of fat, protein and glucose, as well as blood pressure and temperature. The hypothalamus gathers this data and combines it with sensory signals that percolate in through other systems in the brain – fullness in the gut, the feel and taste and smell of food, the sight of food, even the time of day and other surrounding circumstances.
Given all this data, the neural circuits train up on our dietary habits. That’s why we get hungry at certain times of the day – not because of an empty stomach, but because of a sophisticated neural processor that anticipates the need for more nutrition. If you skip a meal, at first you feel acutely hungry, but then you actually begin to feel less hungry again as that accustomed mealtime passes by. That’s also why we get full at the end of a meal. Again, not because of a full stomach. If that’s your only signal, then you’re drastically overeating. As counterintuitive as it might sound, there’s normally a healthy gap between feeling full and having your stomach actually full. Psychological fullness is a feeling of sufficiency that comes from a much more complex computation. The hypothalamus in effect says: ‘You’ve just eaten a burger. I know from past experience with burgers that in about two hours the protein and fat in your blood will rise. Therefore, in anticipation, I’ll turn off your hunger now.’ The system learns, anticipates, and regulates. It operates in the background. We can consciously interfere with it, but not usually to good effect.
Take in fewer calories and you’ll lose weight. But explicitly try to reduce calories, and you’ll do the exact opposite
Here’s what happens when you interfere with your hypothalamus – when medical advice collides with psychology. Let’s say you decide to cut back on calories. You eat less for a day. The result? It’s like picking up a stick and poking a tiger. Your hunger mood rises and for the next five days you’re eating bigger meals and more snacks, perhaps only vaguely realising it. People tend to judge how much they’ve eaten partly by how full they feel afterward. But since that feeling of fullness is partly psychological, if your hunger mood is up, you might eat more than usual, feel less full than usual, and so mistakenly think that you’ve cut back. You might feel like you’re making progress. After all, you’re constantly vigilant. Sure, now and then you slip up, but you get yourself right back on track again. You feel good about yourself until you get on a scale and notice that your weight isn’t responding. It might go down one day and then blip up the next two days. Dancing under the surface of consciousness, your hunger mood is warping your perceptions and choices.
I’m not denying the physics here. If you take in fewer calories, you’ll lose weight. But if you explicitly try to reduce calories, you’re likely to do the exact opposite. Almost everyone who tries to diet goes through that battle of the bulge. Diets cause the psychological struggle that causes weight gain.
Let’s say you try another standard piece of advice: exercise. If you burn calories at the gym you’ll definitely lose weight, right? Isn’t that just physics? Except that, after you work out, for the rest of the day you’re so spent that you might actually burn fewer calories on a gym day than on a regular one. Not only that, but after a workout you’ve assuaged your guilt. Your emotional investment in the cause relaxes. You treat yourself to a chocolate chip muffin. You might try to be good and decline the muffin, but the exercise revs up that subtle hunger mood lurking under the surface and then you don’t even know any more how much you’re overeating. Meals grow bigger while seeming to grow smaller. Extra snacks sneak in.
Let’s say you’ve tried all the standard advice – every diet out there. Some of them might even work for a short time, until you fall off the wagon and gain back even more than before. After a while you start to doubt your willpower. If the prevailing medical theory is correct, if weight is a matter of calorie control, then your problem is a weak character. It’s your own fault. That’s the message beamed across our culture from all directions.
But the concept of willpower is anathema in psychology. Cognitive control is much more subtle, complex and limited in its ability than the lay notion of willpower. That notion is false and harmful to mental health. What is willpower anyway? It’s pitting long-term rewards against short-term rewards, and you’re going to fall off that wagon sooner or later. Every time you fall off, you do more damage than you can undo by climbing back on again. And even when you think you’re firmly on the wagon, most of the psychological complexity runs under the surface of consciousness and therefore you can’t possibly realise how much you’re sabotaging your own efforts.
Where does that leave you? At the end of that seemingly inevitable progression, you’re demoralised and depressed. You can do anything else you put your mind to but somehow you can’t manage the weight loss. And so you enter a disastrous spiral. If you’re going to be miserable anyway, you might as well indulge yourself. The food at least mitigates the misery. You slip into comfort eating, self-medication and addiction, and lose all motivation. You fall into the deepest part of the psychological quagmire and your chance of recovery is small. A recent study showed that if you’re obese, your chance of getting back into the normal range is less than one in 100.
Most doctors, trainers, and healthcare professionals think about weight from the perspective of chemistry. It’s calories in versus calories out. Eat less, exercise more. Different schools of thought posit that all calories are equivalent, or that fat calories are especially bad, or that carbohydrate calories are particularly to be avoided. All these approaches focus on the way that calories are digested and deployed in the body. They ignore psychology. Most studies treat the psychology of hunger as an inconvenience. A ‘properly’ controlled study forces participants to eat a set amount of calories, thus screening out the annoying influence of autonomous human behaviour. And still, for all that has been learned from this mainstream medical approach, the advice is failing us. More than two-thirds of the US population is overweight. More than one-third is obese.
As I reviewed the discouraging rise of obesity in the US and all over the world, and the discouraging shrinking space between my own belly and my desktop, it seemed to me that the mainstream focus is almost entirely wrong. The obesity epidemic is not an issue of calories or willpower. I began to suspect that our problem with obesity is a problem of poisoning the normal regulatory system. We possess a system that’s intricate and beautifully calibrated. It evolved over millions of years to be good at its job. It should work in the background without any conscious effort, but for more than two-thirds of us it doesn’t. What are we doing to ourselves to screw up the hunger and satiety system?
For about a year, I experimented on myself. I used what’s called an event-related design, which involved some arduous sacrifice (or at least some boredom). Simply put, I ate the same damn thing every day to establish a consistent baseline. I measured weight, waistline, and kept notes on everything I could think of. Then I changed one thing in one meal and monitored its tiny, perturbing effect over the next several days. When the measurements went back to baseline, I’d try a new perturbation. Each tweak by itself gave a small signal, but after a while I could average across many events and watch the pattern emerge. Of course I had no illusions of discovering anything new. This wasn’t formal science. It had a sample size of one. The point was to find out which of all the conflicting advice flying back and forth out there resonated with my own personal data. What should I believe?
As usual, the most instructive part of the experiment turned out to be an incidental observation. Never mind whether some foods grew or shrank my poundage. I noticed instead that some acts grew or shrank my level of hunger. I knew when my hunger mood was up, even if I didn’t consciously feel hungry, because somehow I’d end up at the lunch deli early. And after I finished eating, it didn’t seem like I’d had as much food as usual. Maybe they’d slipped me a smaller sandwich?
When my hunger mood was down, the roster of priorities would shift and I’d get caught up in my work. Somehow lunch would get delayed by an hour. My moment-by-moment decision-making was warped. Each time it happened it seemed as though there was some other reason for it, but I couldn’t ignore the pattern accumulating in my notes.
Three bad habits appeared to consistently boost my hunger. I call them the super-high death-carb diet, the low-fat craze, and the calorie-counting trap.
The super-high death-carb diet has become normal US fare. We get up in the morning and eat a croissant, or pancakes with syrup, or a muffin. Or cereal and milk. The cereal is all carbs. Then comes lunch. Suppose I’m unhealthy and eat a fast-food, McDonald’s lunch. We think of it as greasy food, but beyond the grease the burger has a bun and the ketchup is sugar paste. The fries are all carbs. The large soda is sugar water. The grease is only a tiny part of the meal. Maybe you feel morally superior and prefer a ‘healthy’ lunch, a deli sandwich that’s mainly French bread. And chips. And a Snapple. All carbs.
The afternoon snack is some sugary beverage at Starbucks and a cookie. Or a power bar, which is a candy bar with spin. If you’re good, maybe a banana, which is as high carb as you get in the fruit world. Dinner? Piled with potatoes, pasta, rice, bread. We think we’re healthy eating sushi but it’s mostly rice. Maybe you go for a nice healthy soup. It’s thickened with flour and has noodles and potatoes. And every meal comes with soda, or juice, or ice tea, or some other sweetened drink. Then dessert. Then a snack before bed. It’s all carbs. You can’t walk through a supermarket without being assaulted by carbs on all sides. Some people talk about complex carbs versus refined sugar. They have a point, but take out the refined sugar and it’s still a staggering amount of carbohydrates. The super-high death-carb diet has warped our sense of normal.
The low-carb people might be right for the wrong reasons. Starting with Robert Atkins, the American cardiologist who first popularised the diet, an entire physiological theory has sprung up. In that theory, if you cut out enough carb, your body switches from using glucose to using ketones as the main energy-transporting molecule in your blood. By using ketones, the body begins to draw on its fat reserves. Moreover, by reducing blood sugar, you reduce insulin, the main hormone that promotes the deposition of fat in the body. Less carbs, less fat. The theory sounds good and might have some validity, but its impact on obesity remains controversial. One recent paper seems to smack it down entirely.
The study monitored two groups of people. For six days, one group ate low-carb, the other low-fat. Both were strictly forced to eat the same number of calories. The result? The low-carb group did not lose more weight. Actually, the low-fat group did. The low-carb people might have reduced their insulin, but the theory didn’t really translate into magical weight loss. Given all that contradiction, what can we say about the low-carb approach?
Skip breakfast, cut calories at lunch, eat a small dinner, be constantly mindful of the calorie count, and you poke the hunger tiger
The theory and the experiments might be right as far as they go, but they miss the most important point. They emphasise how calories are deployed in the body instead of emphasising the motivated state of hunger. It would be encouraging to see more studies on how different diets affect hunger regulation. It is now well-established that a high-carbohydrate diet increases your hunger. A low-carb diet removes that stimulant. Taking all this together, the evidence suggests that a low-carb diet doesn’t make you lose weight because of its effect on your energy utilisation. It makes you lose weight because you eat less. Or (perhaps more accurately), the ridiculous, super-high death-carb diet stokes up the hunger mechanism and your eating goes out of control.
Because that hunger state runs mostly beneath consciousness, it’s easy to misattribute the result. But in the end, if you follow the death-carb diet to its conclusion, you can’t help noticing the effect on your appetite. Extremely obese people reach a point where they’re always hungry, never full. They can eat six dinners’ worth until their stomachs feel stretched and terrible, about to split in the middle, but the brain isn’t satisfied.
The low-fat craze works the same way. I grew up in the era when public service commercials on TV warned us about the dangers of fat. Poor data and a rush to conclusions might have led the medical community to that recommendation. Don’t eat butter. Don’t eat eggs. Don’t drink whole milk. Take the skin off chicken. Eat low-fat yogurt (which is still chock-full of sugar). Dietary fat might have its medical downside; I don’t think the data are perfectly clear yet. But cutting out the fat has led to a disaster. As numerous studies have now established, fat reduces hunger. Take it away and the hunger mood soars. It’s not a simple relationship, and the effect is gradual. Remember, your hypothalamus takes in complex data and learns associations over time. Give it a few months of training with a diet that’s stripped of fat, and it will ratchet up your sense of hunger.
But the most insidious attack on the hunger mechanism might be the chronic diet. The calorie-counting trap. The more you try to micromanage your automatic hunger control mechanism, the more you mess with its dynamics. Skip breakfast, cut calories at lunch, eat a small dinner, be constantly mindful of the calorie count, and you poke the hunger tiger. All you do is put yourself in the vicious cycle of trying to exert willpower and failing. That’s when you enter the downward spiral.
All three of these effects – high carb, low fat, and calorie counting – are increasingly evident in the scientific literature on diet, and also showed up in my self-observations. Amazingly, even a small tweak to one meal on one day had a noticeable effect on my hunger mood.
At the end of all my self-observations and meditations, the time had come to put the theory to a test. I tried a simple formula. First, moderately low-carb. The Atkins and Paleo diet purists would scoff. I reduced my carbohydrate intake by about 90 per cent and in doing so came nowhere near a low-carb diet. I wanted to avoid the super-high death-carb diet that most of us eat most of the time. Second, a little higher fat. I know some people swear by high fat and snack on entire sticks of butter. I don’t know what the research is on that kind of thing, but all I wanted was to avoid the extremity of a diet stripped of fat. Third, I could eat as much as I like at each meal. That last proposition was the hardest. When you want to lose weight, it’s hard to wrap your mind around the concept of eating more. I simply had to trust a bizarre psychological twist: if I try to eat less, I’ll end up eating more.
I could give a list of foods – salmon, peanut butter, pork chops, apples, tomatoes, chicken with the skin, tofu, eggs, and on and on – but really the concept is more revealing than the details. The diet had nothing to do with standard health advice. It had nothing to do with how those particular foods chemically affect my body. I wasn’t thinking of my arteries or my liver or my insulin. The approach was designed to speak to my unconscious hunger control mechanism, to encourage it to eat less. And it worked at a slow drip of about two pounds a week, trailing off finally to a much more comfortable weight. Twenty years of accumulation, 50 extra pounds (I cringe to admit it) went away in a few months.
There is no effort in an all-I-want diet of moderately fat comfort food. I simply sat back and watched my brainstem do its thing
The beauty of the method was that it required no effort. By effort, I mean that dubious concept of willpower. Pitting long-term goals against short-term rewards. When the hunger mood rises, the personal struggle is heartbreaking. I know all about that struggle and the weird thing is, the struggle is alluring. It might be dreadful, and it might be counterproductive, but it makes you feel like you’re doing something. Our society is impressed by hard work. Think of those people exercising maniacally on that TV show The Biggest Loser. We expect progress to be punishing, and we admire the people who push themselves to super-human limits. Another psychological trap, I guess. None of that self-flagellation turned out to be necessary. I had to reconcile myself to what felt like a lazy method. There is really no effort in an all-I-want diet full of moderately fat comfort food. I simply sat back and watched my brainstem do its thing.
I don’t think I’m alone in this experience. Others have tried a similar diet, though perhaps for other reasons. Advocating for one particular weight-loss diet isn’t my point. My message is this: your weight is in large measure about your psychology. It’s about the hunger mood. Obesity is a crippling social problem, but to our detriment the research has almost uniformly ignored this aspect of the situation. Consider this to be a call to science to focus a great deal more on the psychology of the hunger mood.
In some ways, the hunger system is like the breathing system. The brain has an unconscious mechanism that regulates breathing. Suppose that system got shut down so that it was up to you to consciously control your own breath, adjusting its rate and depth depending on factors such as blood oxygen, carbon dioxide level, physical exertion, and so on. What would happen? You’d die in about 10 minutes. You’d lose track of the necessities. The intellectual, conscious mind is not really good at these matters of regulating the internal environment. It’s better to leave the job as much as possible to the dedicated systems that evolved to do it. What you can do with your conscious mind is to set the general parameters. Put yourself in a place where your automatic systems can operate correctly. Don’t put a plastic bag over your head. Likewise, don’t eat the super-high death-carb, low-fat diet. Don’t micromanage your brainstem by counting every calorie. You might be surprised at how well your health self-regulates.
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is a neuroscientist, novelist and composer. He is Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University in New Jersey. His latest book is Consciousness and the Social Brain (2013).