Why you’re hungry all the time – and what you can do about it

Illustration of an anthropomorphic stomach trying to get the attention of a brain wearing headphones
So do some people just feel hungry all the time? Are we self-sabotaging? Or do our brains work differently when it comes to appetite regulation?
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I only had breakfast two hours ago, and I’m starving. It’s humiliating to feel so out of control. It doesn’t help that my partner, Mike, has a fear of being full and is extremely disciplined. He’ll skip the starter if it will spoil his main course and often misses lunch altogether.

We’re like the comedy version of Jack Sprat and his wife. He eats very little fat; I eat no lean. And it’s always me licking the platter clean.

Like many emotional overeaters, I exercise a lot – but food is my driver. I work from home, so treats become a way of dealing with tricky work calls. I cook from scratch, but the fridge is two minutes away.

So, do some people just feel hungry all the time? Are we self-sabotaging? Or do our brains work differently when it comes to appetite regulation?

Most of us don’t understand the difference between fullness and satiation, explains the clinical psychologist Dr Helen McCarthy, who specialises in appetite retraining.

“Fullness is the physical sensation you get towards the end of the meal, after you’ve eaten an increasing amount of food. Satiation relates to how long you are satisfied before you want to start eating next. So satiation definitely relates to what food you’ve eaten. Stomach stretching is registered by mechanoreceptors in the stomach wall, and as these are nerve fibres, this information is registered by the brain pretty much immediately.

“How full you are immediately after eating a meal relates to the volume of what you have eaten. If you eat the same volume of Coco Pops and falafels, by the end the degree of fullness will be the same, because your stomach has stretched the same amount with the two meals. But the two foods are processed and digested differently, and you’ll be hungry again quicker after the Coco Pops.”

But when Mike and I eat the same meal, why does he feel full more quickly and stay satiated for longer?

When I talk to the nutritional therapist Stephanie Moore, she explains that when stress receptors in the stomach encounter a volume of food, production of the hunger hormone ghrelin is suppressed. So Mike clearly has a very sensitive response. Soon, he’s done.

‘An overstretched stomach is like an inflated balloon’

Moore explains that I am less sensitive, or have stopped listening to the hormonal message of ghrelin, and override it. “You’re over-stretching. And over time, that messaging gets weaker. Because it’s like an inflated balloon, every time you let it down, it wrinkles and never goes back to normal size again.”

It’s all about our hormones functioning properly, she explains. “In addition to ghrelin, there’s leptin, GLP-1, insulin and thyroid hormones. All have a fundamental effect on when you feel hungry, what foods you’ll want to eat, and how strong that message is to stop eating.

“The irony is the food that gives us a momentary hit is almost always detrimental to our gut microbes, even though our gut microbes are programming many of these hormonal responses.”

Why we become ‘volume eaters’

For many people, of course, overeating has less to do with hunger and everything to do with distraction, comfort, swallowing of feelings, or just being a bit bored. “We are chemically shifting how we feel because we want to change our state.

“Various foods and textures give us a dopamine reward when we feel p----d off. We get a high from sugar. Gluten, a protein in wheat, releases certain compounds that are very much like morphine. And casein, a protein in dairy, has opioid-like properties.”

Oh heavens. I am a secret drug addict. Clearly an intervention is needed. So on behalf of “volume eaters” everywhere (the new buzz word for greedy types), I spend a week talking to the experts about the science of hunger and satiety, finding out what my body really needs and trying out their suggestions.

If feeling more hungry than other people is a combination of genetics, lifestyle factors and what we’re actually eating, can those of us with appetites like Labradors really train ourselves to be less hungry? If it is a habit of a lifetime, how can we break it at this late stage?

Over a week I hear about “food noise” and “urge surfing” and “bliss points” as I try to do the food maths. This is what I learnt.

Sometimes the message to stop eating doesn’t reach the brain

When your stomach is empty, it contracts, sending signals to the brain, telling you to eat. Your stomach rumbles, blood sugar levels dip (triggering the release of cortisol and adrenalin, so you might get slightly “hangry”).

Ghrelin is the hormone secreted by the stomach that signals you are hungry. After the body receives food, it will shut down ghrelin and release leptin. Leptin signals the brain to stop eating.

But for some people – including me – the bell doesn’t ring and we never experience satiety. This means the message to stop eating doesn’t reach the brain. Dr Giles Yeo MBE, an obesity expert and professor of molecular neuroendocrinology at the University of Cambridge, says that never feeling properly full after eating is “not an innate moral failing, but a hormonal discrepancy”.

Normally when we eat, our gut hormones go up, making us feel fuller. But in some people the gut hormone levels don’t go high enough, so we eat more. In the past, being hungrier than others was an asset, “making you the hunter in your village, more willing to go after the antelope”, says Dr Yeo. But with today’s sedentary lifestyles and fast food, it’s a disadvantage.

The brain doesn’t care what we’re eating

“When our brain gets what it needs, it’s happy,” says Pauline Cox, a functional nutritionist and the author of Hungry Woman: Eating for Good Health, Happiness and Hormones.

“But our brain is a diva. Its main focus is survival. So it doesn’t care what we’re eating, it just needs to eat. If it could talk, it would say: ‘give me the essential fatty acids and more protein’. But all we hear is, ‘I need food’, and the smells of the bakery as we walk past shout out to us, spiking our dopamine.

“We’re constantly fighting this food environment that is addictive for our brain. So to quieten down its shouting, we need to give it what it needs.”

“The rational, educated part of ourselves is easily undermined by our amygdala, our emotional neediness,” says Moore. “And in that moment, when you’re exuberant, happy, sad, whatever, that’s what’s going to be driving your decision to eat, in spite of a much more intellectual part of your brain saying: ‘Really, is this a good idea? We know better, don’t we?’ A push and pull goes on all the time.”

Our body cares about nutrients, not calories

“We are sabotaged by a food industry that makes food hyper-palatable. So people are overfed, but undernourished,” says Moore.

“The problem is that we don’t have a calorie sensor in our body, so it has no way of knowing how many calories we’ve eaten. It does have exquisite nutrient sensors, so if we are eating wholesome, nourishing food, the signal of ‘I’m done, you’ve met all my nutritional needs’ is ticked.

“But eating ultra-processed foods devoid of anything useful means we keep eating, because there’s no point where the brain goes: ‘Oh, yes, I’ve hit my vitamin E and D quota, thank you.’ Instead it says: ‘We’ve got the calories. But there’s been nothing good yet. So I’ll keep eating.’”

Protein can transform your hunger

Getting a good amount of protein in your first meal can be transformative for managing hunger, advises Cox. It benefits appetite control throughout the entire day and has been shown to reduce late-night eating.

“The building block of protein, amino acids, can reduce cravings and increase our sense of satiety. Many people deficient in protein try to fill up on foods that convert quickly into sugar, such as breads and pasta. Eating more high-quality protein such as eggs, Greek yogurt, fish, chicken, feta, will help you feel fuller for longer.”

Vegetable proteins including chickpeas, beans and peas also keep you satisfied. “If you’re vegan, upping your protein helps to reduce cravings, because it gives the brain the amino acids it needs for its serotonin, dopamine, but also for all of the tissues of the body.”

“Research has shown that protein has the strongest signal of being well fed. It is incredibly easy to eat 300 calories of crisps, or snack food, and much less easy to eat 300 calories of steak.

“It’s the same calories, but an entirely different hormonal response. So if you want your body to understand you’ve eaten enough, you need to be protein-centric,” says Moore. So goodbye toast, hello mushroom omelette.

How manufacturers aim for the ‘bliss point’

“We evolved to survive unpredictable food supply, but many of us now live in an environment where there’s an oversupply, but biologically, we’re still ancient,” says Dr McCarthy.

“We’ve got that inbuilt biology of storing fat and behaviourally being attracted to sweeter, fatty foods. We have cravings for particular combinations and those are the ones that have been manufactured to perfection.

“The ‘bliss point’ is a term coined by food scientist Howard Moskowitz to describe the perfect combination of sugar, salt, and fat that makes us crave more of a certain food. Food technologists develop and engineer particular combinations of flavours and textures, then do rigorous market testing to see which things consumers find the most palatable or moreish.

“We’ve got this enormous pressure pushing us towards consumption. As a result, what we’re consuming is calorie-dense, energy-dense foods that aren’t necessarily very nutrient-dense. So we’re driven to keep eating.”

If you eat too much, you might need more sleep

Sleep deprivation can cause an elevation in ghrelin. “An increase of 15 per cent in our hunger hormone and a reduction of 15 per cent in satiety hormone is seen with poor sleep,” says Cox.

Chew more, eat less and never in the car

“People who chew more eat less calories,” says Dr Megan Rossi from The Gut Health Clinic. “Food sits in your stomach for longer, a residue may stay in your mouth, activating the different hormones so you feel more satisfied.”

“Slowing down allows time for hormonal signals to kick in, telling you you’re full, or for you to tire of eating,” says Moore. One of her pet peeves is people eating in the car. “It’s easy to overeat when you’re not paying attention.”

Don’t ban any food

“A technique I find helpful with clients is rather than saying ‘never again’, which can be overwhelming for someone who feels reliant on highly palatable, addictive foods, is to say: ‘just not today’,” says Cox.

“And the more of those ‘just not today’ decisions you make, it snowballs and your dopamine pathways become sensitised again. You find pleasure in the umami flavours, saltiness, natural sweetness in blueberries and strawberries. Foods we’ve lost interest in taste incredible, our palate literally changes.”

“Always think about what you can add to your meal rather than what you can take away,” says Abigail Green, a nutritionist at Nuffield Health.

“Add more nourishing things to a snack so it looks like a mini meal. If you want crisps, go for it, but add veg sticks or fruit. If you combine foods, there is more satiety, particularly if you have protein and fibre and healthy fats.”

Fibre, fibre, fibre

“Dietary fibre slows down digestion of the food in the gut, which activates the fullness hormones more quickly. Fibre also feeds the gut bacteria in the lower part of the intestine, and produces chemicals called short-chain fatty acids, which help to regulate our appetite hormones,” says Dr Rossi.

Soon I’m adding milled flax seeds to meals, eating potato with the skin on, as well as opting for beans and lentils over grains. Gritty, but filling.

Meanwhile, a new clinical trial by science and nutrition company Zoe has found a huge reduction in hunger for 88.6 per cent of participants who followed the Zoe method, as well as weight loss and reduced waist circumference. “We know that a fibre-rich diet and lots of whole plants, nuts, seeds and legumes is what stimulates the production of hormones in the gut that make us feel full.

“They’re called satiety hormones, things like GLP-1, which is what Ozempic mimics, except you can make them yourself through diet,” says Dr Federica Amati, Zoe’s head of nutrition.

I find it empowering that our body can make its own weight-loss drug.

When the gut microbes have enough fibre to break down, they produce chemicals that tell the endocrine cells to produce hormones in the gut. These get sent to the brain to tell it we’re full. She recommends I cook a lentil daal with spinach, carrots and onions. “You get a vast amount of micronutrients and phytonutrients and polyphenols for a relatively small amount of energy.”

Don’t fear fat

As a child of the 1970s I was brought up to avoid butter and full-fat milk. But it has a slower digestion rate, and sits in your stomach for longer, activating the stretch receptors. “They are called intelligent fats for good reason. They’re needed for the structure of our brain,” says Pauline Cox.

“When we’re low in essential fatty acids, not only do we have this persistent hunger even if we’re eating all the time, but we suffer with our mood and mental clarity. You’ll find Omega-3s in flax, chia seeds, walnuts. Oily fish can really help with cravings.  Or there is ahiflower, a plant-based alternative grown regeneratively in the UK, sold in a supplement form called Regenerative Omegas.”

Eat dessert straight after a salad

As we get older, our insulin works less well. For women in menopause, hunger levels often go through the roof, explains Cox. “Insulin is a crucial hormone for transporting glucose from the bloodstream after we eat and into the brain cells.

“However, high sugar consumption over a long period of time results in insulin no longer being able to open the door to allow glucose into the cells. If the hypothalamus (part of the brain responsible for hunger) becomes insulin-resistant, we can lose our sense of feeling full, driving us to want to eat more to satisfy the brain’s need for glucose.

“And you’re thinking: ‘I only ate an hour ago.’” Eating fibre alongside foods with a higher glycemic index (sugar load), will lower the impact on our blood sugars. “A large salad with your pizza reduces the blood sugar spike from pizza. Eating dessert immediately after a fibre-packed lunch lowers the blood sugar impact of the dessert.”

She also recommends intermittent fasting to improve insulin sensitivity. “When you stop eating for certain periods of time, your body turns to its own reserve of fuel in the way of fat.

“And when we burn fat, we release ketones, these amazing compounds that push themselves into the brain cells. When our glucose fuel system goes a bit awry, ketones can be really helpful.”

Reshape what fullness feels like

“We give people a scale of hunger from zero to 10,” says Dr Rossi. “Halfway through your meal, assess where you’re at. Do the same at three quarters through, and you shouldn’t go over eight out of 10 for satiety.

“Reshaping what fullness is is really helpful for people who eat until they feel uncomfortable,” says Dr David Creel, a psychologist and registered dietitian, and author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time.

The verdict on avocados

If you crave avocado, which is a nutrient-dense but also calorie-dense food, have a quarter and bulk it up with nutrient-dense but low-calorie foods like stir-fry vegetables and legumes.

It’s important that volume eaters do have some of these calorie-dense, nutrient-rich foods, because they feed the gut microbiome. “We need to have that wide variety of plant diversity, because those more prone to obesity seem to miss bacterial diversity,” says Dr Rossi.

Try ‘urge surfing’

“Hunger has a bad rap,” says Dr McCarthy. “But if you learn to tolerate mild levels of hunger, it’s a massively helpful skill if you want to lose weight, because you’re doing that little bit of fat-burning between meals.

“And while you’re not digesting food, your body can switch to other processes like cell repair and gut cleaning. And the more hungry you get, the greater the sharpness of your taste perception is. When you’re not hungry, your taste perception is dulled.”

Dr Creel calls it “urge surfing”, sitting with the cravings but not giving in. Maybe light a candle, put on some classical music. “When you’re home, don’t cook dinner immediately. Read for 20 minutes, have a shower. Break the routine,” advises Abigail Green.

The search for dopamine

Activities such as sex and eating stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter or brain hormone dopamine,” says Cox.

If we’re feeling low, or stressed, we can push our emotions down through eating, and it gives us that dopamine spike, which makes us feel good temporarily.

The problem with dopamine, as with alcohol, drugs, gambling and porn addiction, is the high is succeeded by a drop, driving us to eat more sugar to maintain the high. Food manufacturers understand this. Which is why pasta sauce and breads have hidden added sugars, because that spike is going to drive you to want more.”

Hard food is better than soft food

“Foods higher in fibre require chewing rather than just drinking our calories,” says Dr Creel. People who eat foods with more complex textures eat significantly less food during the meal overall, as there is time for the fullness signal to reach the brain.

So a lunch of hard foods (white rice, raw vegetables) is better than a soft lunch (risotto). “How the food is delivered – an apple versus apple sauce versus apple juice – can make a real difference.”

What to eat when it’s late

I’m out late most nights at the theatre. What do I eat to silence those hunger pangs and still sleep? Dr Rossi recommends a handful of nuts or steamed veg with garlic and soy sauce.

Cox keeps hardboiled eggs in her fridge and eats a couple with high-quality salt.

“Boiled eggs are the simplest fast food, you get every nutrient you need apart from vitamin C.” I try it one night. Bingo – I feel satiated, and I’m asleep an hour later.

Why we all need to know about the satiety ratio

One thing I found incredibly helpful was knowing the satiety ratio of foods. A scale called the satiety index was developed in a 1995 study by University of Sydney in Australia.

The study tested 240-calorie servings of 38 foods, separated into six food categories (fruits, bakery products, snack foods, carbohydrate-rich foods, protein-rich foods, and breakfast cereals with milk).

Foods that are more filling have numbers higher than 100. Foods that are less filling have numbers lower than 100. Protein was found to be more filling than either carbohydrates or fats.

Foods rich in fibre also rank high and contain few calories (because fibre is not digested, it provides bulk and helps you feel full longer as it slows down emptying of the stomach and digestion time).

Carbohydrates are also good if you exclude sugar and unrefined carbs. Fatty foods are, surprisingly, not filling.

Highly satiating foods tend to have more volume for the same amount of calories; this means they take up more space. They are also generally less processed. Joyfully, I could have potatoes (so long as you go easy on butter, cheese), wholemeal bread and popcorn, which is a whole grain high in fibre (but ditch the oil or butter).

Foods that score lower on the satiety index

If you really want yogurt, opt for live yogurt that is 50 per cent protein, 50 percent carbohydrates, says Dr Rossi. If you’re mad about peanuts (as I am), switch to almonds and walnuts. These are energy-dense, nutrient-rich snack options, high in healthy fats and protein.

Illustrations: Jason Ford

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