11 Reasons Behind Excessive Hunger

May 16, 2024
Man eating a giant cheeseburger

Nothing is worse when trying to manage your weight or improve your athletic performance than feeling constantly hungry. Hunger causes physical symptoms such as stomach cramping and growling, shakiness, headaches, and a lack of energy, as well as emotional symptoms such as irritability and poor mood.

Medical conditions or hormonal changes may cause increased hunger. For example, many women have an increased appetite in the second half of their menstrual cycle when progesterone is dominant. However, in most cases, with a few lifestyle and diet modifications, you can get your hunger under control.

Poor Sleep

Several hormones and adipokines regulate hunger, including leptin, ghrelin, adiponectin, resistin, and orexin.1

  • Leptin modulates satiety, and ghrelin stimulates hunger.
  • Low adiponectin is linked to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.
  • Resistin stimulates the accumulation of fat cells.
  • Orexin is associated with metabolism and sleep regulation. It increases your cravings for food.1

Ghrelin increases hunger even when you just think about food. Ghrelin speeds up stomach emptying, increases glucose metabolism and fat storage, and tells your brain through smell and taste sensations that food is especially pleasurable. Proteins are the most effective nutrient for suppressing ghrelin release.2

Average sleep duration and quality worldwide have declined. Up to a third of adults have difficulty sleeping.1 Poor sleep is associated with increased ghrelin and decreased leptin levels.2 If fact, a single night of sleep deprivation can increase ghrelin levels and feelings of hunger.3 If you are always hungry and do not prioritize sleep, a lack of sleep may explain your increased appetite.

Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of high-quality sleep each night to prevent excessive hunger.

High Stress

Excessive, persistent stress causes the adrenal gland to secrete too much cortisol. Cortisol mobilizes glucose from the liver and makes it available for muscle and brain cells to use to fight or flee. Excessive cortisol secretion can cause blood sugar spikes and rapid depletion of energy stores. Hunger increases to increase appetite to restore stored glycogen. Even psychological stress can trigger cortisol release and increase appetite.4

Learn how to manage stress, consider yoga, breathing techniques, time in nature, or exercise as stress-reducing options.

person with the word stress on shirt

Low Protein Intake

Unlike carbohydrates and fats, your body does not store protein. Balance is key. You must consume enough protein to build muscle and other body tissues, but not so much that it is stored as fat or puts undue strain on the kidneys. Animal products, including dairy, eggs, fish, and meat, are high in protein. Proteins are the most effective nutrient for suppressing ghrelin release.2

Protein has the following potential benefits:5

  • Increased satiety
  • Increased metabolic rate, which augments energy expenditure
  • Increased lean muscle mass
  • Improved metabolic profile
  • Better body composition
  • Better blood sugar control

An increase in protein consumption to about 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day or around 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal, while keeping total calories the same, may promote satiety and weight loss. Satiety may vary depending on the protein type and source.5,6

Boost your protein intake while keeping calories the same (unless you have a medical condition in which a lower protein intake is recommended).

Low Fat Intake

Fat promotes satiety better than carbohydrates but not as well as proteins. However, fats have a higher energy density, with nine calories per gram, compared with the four calories per gram in carbohydrates and proteins. The higher energy density and lower satiety value of fats make it easy to overconsume.7

However, consuming a low-fat diet can increase cravings for carbs and simple sugars.8 And, frequently, food manufacturers replace fats with carbs in low-fat foods, which means you may eat more calories and still feel hungry.

Certain fats are more satiating than others, and genetics makes a difference. Some people have a genetic constitution that allows them to eat a high-fat diet and not gain weight.9

Fats slow digestion and increase satiety. Choose healthy sources of fat to incorporate into your diet, such as flaxseed, avocado, salmon, tuna, mackerel, full-fat yogurt, and eggs, while being mindful of overall calorie consumption.

Low Fiber

High-fiber foods slow stomach emptying and take longer to digest, so you feel full longer.

Research shows an inverse relationship between consuming fiber and whole grains and conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.10 Dietary fiber is rich in resistant starches, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. These nutrients reduce hunger and protect body tissues from oxidative stress.

Potential health benefits from a high-fiber diet:10

  • Better weight management
  • Lower risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity
  • Lower risk for heart disease
  • Reduced LDL and total cholesterol
  • Better blood sugar control
  • Reduced tissue inflammation
  • Reduced gastrointestinal cancer risk

Consume nutrient-rich, high-fiber, whole foods to keep hunger under control and reap these other potential health benefits. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes are all high in fiber.

healthy foods

Too Many Refined Carbs

A glycemic index is a number assigned to foods based on how quickly they raise blood sugar. Multiplying the grams of carbohydrates in a serving by the glycemic index equals the glycemic load.7  Refined carbs are highly processed and have a high glycemic index. Processing breaks up fiber and strains out vitamins and minerals.

Pair high-carbohydrate foods with protein to avoid insulin spikes. A high-carbohydrate meal will cause your blood glucose to spike, triggering the release of insulin and then a steep fall in your blood glucose, leaving you feeling irritable and hungry.

Avoid highly processed, refined carbs. Instead, choose whole foods that are high in complex carbohydrates and fiber. You will feel full longer and avoid energy slumps from plummeting blood sugar.


Water is essential for every chemical reaction in your body. It also helps you digest your food, absorb nutrients, transport them to your cells, and eliminate waste. Drinking water also makes you feel less hungry. Researchers used MRI scans to determine how water consumption affects hunger and satiety. Participants who drank more water felt more full and less hungry than those who did not.

Researchers also tested the effect of drinking water before meals on weight loss. Participants who drank water before all or most of their meals lost 5 to 9 pounds more than those who did not over three months.11 Drinking water before meals can reduce calorie consumption and appetite.12

Drinking plenty of water throughout the day is good for overall health and may make you feel less hungry.

woman exercising


A sudden increase in physical activity can trigger an increased demand for energy, which increases hunger. Exercise can increase lean muscle mass and resting metabolic rate. However, researchers found that a single bout of exercise rarely increases immediate post-exercise food intake or even in the following 24 hours. Repeated exercise triggers a partial compensation for calories burned with increased food intake.13,14

The correlation between exercise and appetite is not clear. For some people, strenuous exercise is an appetite suppressor, while for others, it stimulates appetite. However, if you are trying to lose a few pounds, multiple studies show that people rarely lose weight commensurate with the number of calories burned during exercise. This may be because of an increased appetite after exercise or a decreased activity level for the rest of the day.15

Exercise has many health benefits and is unlikely to cause uncontrolled hunger. Keep track of your diet, exercise, and activity levels throughout the day to see how exercise might affect your appetite and calorie intake.

Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol increases appetite, reduces self-control, increases food intake, and is full of empty calories.16 However, the relationship between alcohol consumption and weight is not entirely known because epidemiological data suggest that moderate alcohol intake may protect against obesity, especially in women.17,18

While the effect of alcohol consumption on appetite is unclear on a population basis, it may impact your appetite, lead to poor food choices, and increase cravings for salty, fatty foods. Most people do not reduce their food intake to compensate for the calories in alcohol, which may lead to weight gain.19

Drink alcohol in moderation or not at all. Reduce calorie intake from food by the number of calories in alcohol to prevent weight gain.

Medication Side Effects

Some medications affect metabolism and hunger hormones and, therefore, can cause hunger. 

Some medications in the following drug classes are associated with increases in appetite:

  • Oral contraceptives
  • Corticosteroids
  • Antipsychotics
  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors
  • Antihistamines
  • Antiseizure medications
  • Beta-blockers
  • Alpha-blockers
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Opioids
  • Lithium
  • Diabetes medications

Talk to your doctor to see if your medications may cause excessive hunger.


Underlying Medical Conditions 

One of the most important medical conditions affecting appetite is increased thyroid hormone production. A condition called hyperthyroidism. Thyroid hormone increases metabolism. Increased thyroid hormone increases hunger to support the body’s increased demand for energy.

Cushing’s syndrome is an endocrine disorder caused by secreting inappropriately high cortisol levels. Cortisol causes cravings for sweet, fatty, and salty foods, which causes increased hunger.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common endocrine disorder that is defined by these three symptoms: irregular periods, excess androgens, and polycystic ovaries. PCOS can also cause infertility, excessive hair growth on the face, chest, abdomen and upper thighs, severe acne, and patches of thickened, velvety, darkened skin. Most people with PCOS have insulin resistance, which can cause wildly fluctuating blood sugar levels and extreme hunger.

Depression and anxiety also affect appetite and hunger. Anxiety, like depression, can cause an increase or decrease in appetite. Anxiety can cause a stress response in your body and an increase in cortisol secretion. When your cortisol levels increase, your appetite and cravings also increase. 

Some people respond to anxiety by losing their appetite. Uncomfortable physical sensations associated with anxiety or depression can cause appetite loss.  

Excessive hunger is a message from your body that it needs more energy. Assess your diet and lifestyle by tracking diet, exercise, sleep, and stress levels for a few days to look for trends.

Author: Leann Poston, M.D.
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