Reasons you're always hungry

Does it ever seem like you're hungry all the time? You eat breakfast, and then, 15 minutes later, you're back in the pantry, eating cereal straight out of the box. Or it's ten in the morning and you suddenly get a craving for cookies.

This happens to me all the time. I work from home and I am constantly stopping myself from going into the kitchen and scarfing down whatever happens to be on the counter at the moment.

Why do you get hungry when you've just eaten? How do you stop yourself from being hungry all the time? I went to the experts to find out what causes constant hunger, and how to handle it.

You're bored

One of the most common reasons for hunger is boredom. If you feel like you have nothing to do, often the default becomes grabbing a snack. Dr. Helen Odessky, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, and author of Stop Anxiety From Stopping You, told me, "Boredom can make someone feel hungry. We often reach for snack or food when we are bored and that can lead you to feeling hungry throughout the day."

Erin Oprea, celebrity fitness trainer and USANA ambassador agreed. She said, "Boredom is literally a no-brainer. Being hungry because you have nothing else to do is a leading cause of my clients snacking while sitting on the couch. The kitchen is a natural place to hover around when you have nothing else to do."

I can relate. I often find myself scarfing down crackers when I know I'm not actually hungry. Luckily, you can easily combat your boredom by getting out and moving your body. Oprea told me, "Movement is the biggest key to breaking this boredom eating. Just going for a walk will quite often quench that fake hunger trigger."

You're depressed or lonely

If you're feeling depressed, you may look to food to ease your unhappiness. Dr. Odessky told me, "Some people crave food all day long and feel hungry when they are depressed. When we are lonely, we may use food as a substitute for human connection and to numb our pain and that can lead us to feeling hungry all day."

In addition, if your depression is chronic, you may lose your ability to discern whether you are actually hungry or not. Individual, child, and relationship psychotherapist, Dana Carretta, MS, LMHC, LPC, RBT, told me, "If we are incredibly stressed or have experienced [trauma], there is a disconnect between what we think and what we feel. Our minds may think we are hungry, when in reality, our body is not."

Carretta went on to describe the effects of long term emotional trauma on the body. "If there is a long history of childhood trauma (including abuse, neglect, sexual abuse), that may even cause symptoms of dissociation. Dissociation is when we are disconnected from ourselves, including a disconnect from our own thoughts, feelings, and/or physical sensations."

Instead of focusing on the hunger itself, Carretta suggests, "Work on the underlying emotional issues that drive [you] to feel hungry."

You're stressed out

What's your comfort food? Mine is chicken wings and beer. Not exactly the healthiest choice, but it's what I go to when I am stressed out. And I'm not alone. Many women translate their stress into hunger.

Oprea shared, "Stress causes so many symptoms in your body that it's sometimes hard to pinpoint how it is affecting you. From sleep to even hair loss, stress will cause havoc on your health. Stress eating is a real thing. There's a reason why people choose comfort food instead of broccoli (broccoli is not on the current list of de-stressing foods. Ice cream, however, seems to be the yearly number one)!"

Dr. Caroline Apovian, MD, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at the Boston Medical Center, agreed. She added, "Chronic stress heightens cortisol, which prompts the body to overeat to refuel after fighting off a stressor."

Dr. Apovian recommended that women manage their stress in a healthier way. She said, "Find healthy ways to cope with stress, such as seeking out social support, minimizing or eliminating stressful situations, exercising, and eating a balanced diet."

You skip breakfast

If you're trying to lose weight, you may think that skipping breakfast will be a good way to save some calories. Or you may just get busy in the morning and not have time to eat. Unfortunately, foregoing your morning cereal or eggs will set you up to be hungrier throughout the day. 

"Breakfast is really the most important meal of the day and skipping food can lead to women feeling hungrier than usual," nutrition coach, Amanda Sauceda, MS, RDN, CLT, told me in an interview. "Many times women skip breakfast because they are [so] busy getting ready for work, or getting their kids ready for school, that they forget to eat. Not eating breakfast cannot only cause us to feel hungrier later in the day; it can actually lead to overeating."

If you're too busy to eat before work, slip a granola bar into your bag and eat it on the go. This will set you up to feel more satiated throughout the day. Sauceda recommends, "Eat breakfast even if you aren't hungry. Eating breakfast will not only help [you] get [your] nutrients for the day but it can help curb hunger later in the day."

You don't eat enough protein

Do you include protein in every meal? Do you keep protein-rich snacks around, like hard-boiled eggs and turkey cold-cuts? If you're subsisting mainly on carbs, lack of protein may be the cause of your hunger.

Sauceda told me, "Protein is needed for everything from healthy skin and hair, to hormones. Many of us reach for snacks that are grain-based, and while carbohydrates are important, it is protein that helps keep us from feeling ravenous. Protein is one of the most satiating nutrients."

Sauceda recommended eating a lot more protein throughout the day. She suggested, "Include protein with every meal and snack. The protein will help not only keep you full but also help with regulating blood sugar."

Amanda L. Dale, MEd, MA, personal trainer, nutritionist and wellness coach, agreed. She added, "Many of my female clients tend to undereat protein and overeat carbohydrates — leading to lethargy, higher body fat levels, and fatigue. A higher-protein diet — combined with vegetable carbohydrates, and healthy fats — can improve muscle tone, raise energy levels, and help you wake up feeling more rested and light."

You eat too much sugar and junk food

Ever wonder why, an hour after eating an entire bag of chips, you feel ravenous again? It's because, even though those chips tasted delicious, they provided no nutrients.

Nutrition and diet expert, Dr. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, and the author of The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Women's Health and Hormone Balance, told me, "There can be several reasons for always feeling hungry. One is the food that you are eating. Junk food and simple carbs are loaded with empty calories. You are not getting the nutrients that you need from the food so you are still hungry and craving more food."

Not only does junk food not fill you up, it actually causes cravings. Dr. Dean continued, "Simple carbs and sugars convert quickly to glycogen and wreak havoc on blood sugar levels, giving you instant energy and then a crash with resulting hunger and cravings."

Abbey Sharp, RD, agreed, saying, "When you eat foods that are low in fiber, protein or healthy fats, and instead only eat foods that are rich in refined carbs, it spikes your blood sugar, and leaves you ravenous again soon after." She recommends, "Include high fiber, slow-burning carbs in your diet, like whole grains and vegetables, plus lean protein and healthy slow-digesting fats like nuts and avocado."

You don't eat enough

When women skip meals or eat too little food throughout the day, it results in constant hunger. You may feel like you're doing yourself a favor by cutting down on the calories, but you will end up feeling ravenous all the time.

Sharp told me what goes on in your body when you don't eat enough. "When you undereat chronically, your blood sugar crashes and your body responds by ramping up your hunger hormone (ghrelin) and reducing satiety hormones (like leptin)."

Dr. Jennifer Bowers, PhD, RD, spoke to me about the problem of women cutting calories and drinking diet soda instead of healthy foods. "Face it, we need calories for fuel and fat for satiety. Women who down loads of diet soda all day long in order to reduce their overall calorie intake are bound to feel hungry later. There is no nutritional value and no satiety in overdoing diet soda." Instead, she suggested, "Reach for high-fiber, nutrient-dense snacks instead, such as veggie sticks and hummus, peanut butter and apple slices, or fresh oranges and sliced cheese."

You don't pay attention to your body

Sadly, many women don't pay enough attention to their bodies. Do you pay more attention to the rules of your current diet than to what your body actually wants? Do you focus on your food when you do eat? If not, you may be feeling hungry because you are out of touch with your body's natural needs and signals.

Sauceda told me, "Dieting culture is pervasive and when women go on and off diets they lose touch with internal hunger cues. When we are young, we learn to eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full, but as we get older, or when someone is a constant dieter, we lose touch with this ability. Losing touch with internal cues also means hunger can become pervasive."

Sharp added that you may be hungry if "you are eating mindlessly in front of the TV, or other technology, so your mind doesn't register that you, in fact, have eaten." She recommended that you "power down and tune into your body's hunger and satiety signals in a quiet, mindful place."

Carreta agreed, and added, "Mindfulness is an amazing way to create a stronger sense of awareness of your physical sensations and feelings, including hunger. Engaging in mindful eating can also help one to have a stronger connection to what it feels like when they are hungry and when they are full."

You're actually thirsty

If you feel hungry all the time, you may want to drink more water. Keep a water bottle with you throughout the day, and when you feel hunger pangs, drink water before going for a snack. Sharp told me, "Often, we inappropriately respond to thirst with eating rather than drinking. If you aren't sure if you're hungry, start with a large glass of water. If that doesn't satisfy your hunger, then enjoy a small snack."

Dale added, "Lots of women know that it's easy to mistake thirst for hunger — but it is also the case that dehydration can lead to effects similar to chronic fatigue. Especially if you start the day with coffee and nothing else, it is difficult to recover from the dehydration that naturally happens while we sleep, meaning you already wake up feeling groggy and hungry."

Dale suggested drinking water first thing in the morning. "Waking up and drinking down a 16-ounce bottle of room-temperature water — bonus if you throw in some slices of lemon — can decrease morning hunger pangs and set the day up for a more balanced, normal appetite."

Oprea shared instructions for how much water you should be drinking, recommending, "Everyone should take in at least half of their body weight in ounces each day. For a 140-pound person, that means at least 70 ounces. Keep in mind though, that if you work out or drink coffee, that number goes up."

You're not getting enough sleep

Have you ever heard of leptin and ghrelin? Leptin is the hormone that signifies to your body that you are full. When you don't get enough sleep, your leptin drops, which is why you feel hungrier the day after a poor night's sleep. Gherlin, the appetite hormone, spikes when you don't get enough rest. So lack of sleep causes you to feel hungrier and not to register satiety — a combination that will make you ravenous.

Sharp told me, "When we're sleep deprived, our body's natural hunger hormones get out of whack . Our leptin (satiety hormone) drops and our ghrelin (hunger hormone) rises, so our appetite gets out of control." Instead, she suggested, "Go to bed early and turn of all of your electronics at least an hour before bed to start to get yourself in the mood for sleep."

Dale agreed, saying, "I've actually sent sleep-deprived clients home from personal training sessions because I know this — the combination of sleeplessness and a hard workout means the appetite is going to be raging for the rest of the day — not a great thing. Lack of sleep causes an overproduction of the appetite hormone, ghrelin, and because the body is so tired, it is constantly seeking energy in the form of food, which makes it release the hunger hormones. At least seven hours per night nips this in the bud."

Your hormones and minerals are out of whack

Your constant hunger may have little to do with your actions and instead be caused by hormone or mineral imbalances in your body.

Sandie Gascon, functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner and holistic healing coach, told me, "Too much or too little estrogen and progesterone will cause cravings. We see this often before our periods when our progesterone is not at optimal level. The joys of PMS. Hormone imbalance goes hand in hand with neurotransmitter imbalance. Low serotonin, dopamine, and GABA in the brain will lead to hunger and cravings." In order to make sure your hormone levels are where they need to be, she recommended "working with a holistic practitioner to balance sex hormones and neurotransmitters."

A lack of magnesium contributes to hunger, as well. Dr. Dean told me, "Sugar stresses the body and depletes magnesium, a mineral that is important to over 700 to 800 enzyme actions within our body including controlling cravings through insulin control and energy production. Magnesium activates enzymes that control digestion, absorption, and the utilization of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates which is important for curbing cravings."

Dr. Dean suggested that you supplement your diet with magnesium citrate powder. She said, "Not all forms of magnesium are easily absorbed by the body. Magnesium citrate powder is a highly absorbable form that can be mixed with hot or cold water and sipped at work or at home throughout the day."

Take action to lessen your hunger

If you feel hungry all the time, don't despair — you can make changes that will combat your constant hunger.

The first step is to figure out why you are so hungry. Sauceda suggests keeping a food diary to determine the cause of your hunger, saying, "Writing down the foods someone ate and rating not only hunger before the meal but also fullness after the meal will help to look at meal pattern and timing. Oftentimes we don't realize we aren't eating enough or the foods we are eating aren't very satiating. The diary will also help to tell if the person is eating because of normal or abnormal hunger."

Gascon recommends listening to your body. She says, "Instead of following the latest fad diet…learn to listen to [your] body. Eat foods that make [you] feel full, satisfied, and give [you] consistent energy."

Dale suggested using the power of distraction to handle your hunger, telling me, "Because so much of hunger is mental, sometimes to ward off a craving, you just need to turn your mind onto something else. I recommend clients take a walk, make a phone call, occupy their hands (a manicure is great for this!), or simply take a short nap. Often times we are not hungry but stressed, bored, or tired, and diverting the craving into something else is a better strategy for success."