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.
Several hormones and adipokines regulate hunger, including leptin, ghrelin, adiponectin, resistin, and orexin.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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
Talk to your doctor to see if your medications may cause excessive hunger.
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.
1. Lin J, Jiang Y, Wang G, et al. Associations of short sleep duration with appetite-regulating hormones and adipokines: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews. 2020/11/01 2020;21(11):e13051. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.13051
2. Müller TD, Nogueiras R, Andermann ML, et al. Ghrelin. Mol Metab. 2015/06/01/ 2015;4(6):437-460. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.molmet.2015.03.005
3.Schmid SM, Hallschmid M, Jauch-Chara K, Born JAN, Schultes B. A single night of sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels and feelings of hunger in normal-weight healthy men. Journal of Sleep Research. 2008/09/01 2008;17(3):331-334. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2869.2008.00662.x
4. Epel E, Lapidus R, McEwen B, Brownell K. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2001/01/01/ 2001;26(1):37-49. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0306-4530(00)00035-4
5. Paddon-Jones D, Westman E, Mattes RD, Wolfe RR, Astrup A, Westerterp-Plantenga M. Protein, weight management, and satiety. Am J Clin Nutr. May 2008;87(5):1558s-1561s. doi:10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1558S
6. Leidy HJ, Clifton PM, Astrup A, et al. The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance. Am J Clin Nutr. Jun 2015;101(6):1320s-1329s. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.084038
7. Aller EE, Abete I, Astrup A, Martinez JA, van Baak MA. Starches, sugars and obesity. Nutrients. Mar 2011;3(3):341-69. doi:10.3390/nu3030341
8. Martin CK, Rosenbaum D, Han H, et al. Change in food cravings, food preferences, and appetite during a low-carbohydrate and low-fat diet. Obesity (Silver Spring). Oct 2011;19(10):1963-70. doi:10.1038/oby.2011.62
9. Samra R. Fats and Satiety. In: Montmayeur J, le Coutre J, eds. Fat Detection: Taste, Texture, and Post Ingestive Effects. Press/Taylor & Francis; 2010.
10. Lattimer JM, Haub MD. Effects of dietary fiber and its components on metabolic health. Nutrients. Dec 2010;2(12):1266-89. doi:10.3390/nu2121266
11. Parretti HM, Aveyard P, Blannin A, et al. Efficacy of water preloading before main meals as a strategy for weight loss in primary care patients with obesity: RCT. Obesity. 2015/09/01 2015;23(9):1785-1791. doi:https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21167
12. Muckelbauer R, Sarganas G, Grüneis A, Müller-Nordhorn J. Association between water consumption and body weight outcomes: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. Aug 2013;98(2):282-99. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.055061
13. Blundell JE, Caudwell P, Gibbons C, et al. Role of resting metabolic rate and energy expenditure in hunger and appetite control: a new formulation. Dis Model Mech. Sep 2012;5(5):608-13. doi:10.1242/dmm.009837
14. King JA, Wasse LK, Stensel DJ. Acute exercise increases feeding latency in healthy normal weight young males but does not alter energy intake. Appetite. Feb 2013;61(1):45-51. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.10.018
15. King JA, Wasse LK, Stensel DJ, Nimmo MA. Exercise and ghrelin. A narrative overview of research. Appetite. Sep 2013;68:83-91. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.04.018
16. Caton SJ, Nolan LJ, Hetherington MM. Alcohol, Appetite and Loss of Restraint. Curr Obes Rep. Mar 2015;4(1):99-105. doi:10.1007/s13679-014-0130-y
17. Yeomans MR. Alcohol, appetite and energy balance: is alcohol intake a risk factor for obesity? Physiol Behav. Apr 26 2010;100(1):82-9. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2010.01.012
18. Traversy G, Chaput JP. Alcohol Consumption and Obesity: An Update. Curr Obes Rep. Mar 2015;4(1):122-30. doi:10.1007/s13679-014-0129-4
19. Yeomans MR, Caton S, Hetherington MM. Alcohol and food intake. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. Nov 2003;6(6):639-44. doi:10.1097/00075197-200311000-00006