Your sweet tooth goes into overdrive every afternoon when the clock strikes 3 p.m. Your craving for chips and guac peaks as you pack up your bags for the day. And despite eating every two to three hours, you can’t seem to tame your appetite. Rest assured, it’s not just you asking, “Why I am always hungry?”
But getting the real story behind your hunger signals can be tricky. Are your hunger pangs for real or something else in disguise? There are a variety of factors that can cause your mouth to salivate and your stomach to growl — morning, noon and night. We asked Torey Armul, RD and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to help us identify the culprits. The next time you hear your belly rumble, walk through this checklist before you walk straight to your fridge.
Why Am I So Hungry? Your Ultimate Hunger Checklist
“Emotional hunger comes on quickly and urgently whereas physical hunger arrives slowly.”
1. Am I tired?
While you may think you’re hungry, it could actually be fatigue or exhaustion instead. “Feeling sleepy or lethargic creates that urge to eat to boost your energy and to stay awake,” says Armul. “This happens most often during the mid-afternoon slump at work and then again before bedtime.”
Before you give into the munchies, Armul suggests taking a nap (or simply going to bed if it’s nighttime) or take a five-minute break from work. “Observe whether you’re really sleepy and in a slump or if you’re legitimately hungry,” she says. And be sure to build a good baseline of sleep. Armul recommends aiming for at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
2. Am I thirsty?
Our body’s thirst signal is uncannily similar to our hunger signal. “People often mistake [thirst] signals and reach for food when their system really wants fluids for hydration,” says Armul.
Instead of digging into your snack drawer, ask yourself what you’ve had to drink today — water, coffee, tea and even fluid-rich fruits and vegetables all count. “Try drinking one to two cups of fluid,” she says. “If you’re still hungry five minutes later, it’s probably true hunger.” Or, do a quick pee check in the bathroom. “If you notice that your urine is a dark apple juice color, it’s more likely that your body is just dehydrated and the signals are actually thirst signals,” she says.
3. Am I troubled?
One of the quickest ways to set off hunger signals? Your emotions. “Certain emotions like sadness, anger, boredom and loneliness are big triggers for eating. And they’re triggers for eating certain kinds of foods like junk food and comfort food — and large amounts of these foods,” says Armul.
“It’s estimated that 40 percent of people eat more when they’re stressed.”
The good news? You can easily identify emotional hunger. “Emotional hunger comes on quickly and urgently whereas physical hunger arrives slowly. Emotional hunger wants specific comfort foods whereas physical hunger thinks just about anything sounds good,” says Armul.
Before you hit your secret stash of chocolate, take a moment to observe your body’s cues and emotions without judgment. “Mindfulness lets you check in with yourself, listen to your emotions and see what’s going on,” says the RD. “So many people tend to push out those negative emotions and think it’s unacceptable to feel sad or lonely. Part of dealing with emotional eating is allowing yourself to feel those emotions.”
4. Am I stressed?
Raise your hand if your snacking increases when you have a deadline looming. You’re not alone. “It’s estimated that 40 percent of people eat more when they’re stressed. 73 percent of people say they snack more under stress,” says Armul.
“We can usually anticipate when we’re going to have a stressful day so build a game plan around that,” says Armul. That means have healthier foods at home (or in your snack drawer), exercise or schedule plans with a friend. If and when you do eat, sit down at a table and eat slowly. “Avoid eating on the run, standing up, in front of the TV, computer or smartphone. Bring your attention back to your food,” says Armul. “This helps you get in tune with your body’s satiety cues, which are really easy to miss.”
5. When was the last time I ate?
Did you eat 10 minutes ago or five hours ago? If your answer is more than a few hours, you may be hungry…really hungry. “Waiting too long between meals increases hunger levels, but it starts to increase hunger for the wrong types of food,” says Armul. Cue high fat, high carb foods.
To keep your hunger levels in check, Armul recommends eating every three to four hours. And be sure to include produce and protein. “The fiber-protein combination is will fill you up and then keep you feeling full,” she says. (These homemade protein bars will be your new BFFs.)
6. Is food nearby or visible?
“Research shows that visibility and proximity of food increases consumption. [One study found that] when people leave a candy jar on their desk, they were more likely to eat it because they were looking at it all day,” says Armul. Meanwhile, the people with no candy in sight ate less. Make sense. “When you see food, your body is already starting to anticipate eating it,” like increased salivation and simulation of dopamine. Out of sight, out of mind should be your mantra here.
7. Did I exercise today?
Exercise-induced ‘runger’ is no joke. Whether it’s a long training run or you’re just starting a new exercise program, working out can spike your hunger levels. Armul notes that it may take some trial and error to figure out the right fueling (and refueling) plan based on your workout schedule. Regardless, stay hydrated. “And if you’re still feeling hungry, then it’s probably a smart idea to have a snack with protein and fiber,” she says. (We’re partial to these.)
8. For women, is it that time of the month?
There’s a reason behind the clichéd association of chocolate, ice cream and PMS. “Hormones can impact our hunger levels,” says Armul. And you may also feel tired, thirsty and troubled — three main hunger triggers — during the days surrounding your period. (Don’t believe us? Read up on exercise and PMS here.) “If you’re regular, you know it’s coming every month so don’t make homemade cookies that week or tempt yourself with food at home,” says Armul. “It’s anticipating it and setting yourself up for success.”