The other day, I was doing an indoor bike workout while watching the 1993 replay of the Hawaii Ironman triathlon.
A portion of the video was devoted to “Chuckie V“, the crazy 1990's bad boy of triathlon who sported a mohawk and actually got banned from racing in Ironman Hawaii due to some controversial race antics.
As Chuckie is standing on the road stuffing his face post-workout, he jokes through mouthfuls, “The only thing that sucks about eating…is having to take the time to “breathe.”
How about you?
Are you constantly hungry?
Do you finish one meal and immediately begin thinking about or planning your next meal?
And is being hungry all the time like this bad or mean something is wrong with you or your physiology?
Why You Get Hungry
When you eat, the fat cells in your body release a hormone called “leptin”. Increased levels of leptin reduce your desire and motivation to continue eating or eat more. Within a few hours after you've finished eating, your leptin levels drop, and this drop in leptin causes a release of a different homone, ghrelin, which is released by your stomach and pancreas and makes you feel hungry.
This is one reason why many people have a harder time controlling their appetite or stopping after they've eaten enough: they're leptin resistant.
Leptin resistance can be a bit of a vicious cycle, because a large intake of calories over a long period of time (i.e. eating too much when you were in college for 4 years) causes chronic hyperleptinemia (high leptin levels) and the appetite controlling activity of leptin eventually become less and less effective.
So it's possible to eat yourself into having a chronically high appetite.
If leptin is acting correctly, it triggers the satiety signals in a part of your brain called your hypothalamus, and this makes you stop feeling hungry. Leptin can also inhibit the hunger signals from the hypothalamus.
The other interesting part of this equation is that those chronically high leptin levels cause chronically low ghrelin levels. This makes your hypothalamus hypersensitive to ghrelin, so that when small amounts of ghrelin are released, you get very hungry, very fast.
In addition to spending much of your life eating too much, other lifestyle choices that can cause a leptin-ghrelin imbalance include lack of sleep, stress, and – even if you're not over-eating – eating “hyper-palatable foods”, such as processed or packaged foods that were designed to be addictive (potato chips, anyone?).
So is leptin resistance all that can make you hungry?
Absolutely not. Other reasons you get hungry include:
–Expecting yourself to be hungry. This 1998 study showed that the memory of what you've eaten actually accounts for a significant portion of your hunger, and being full is partially a matter of recalling whether you've eaten a meal appropriate for the occasion. For the same reason that you might be reluctant to eat dinner foods like spaghetti or steak for breakfast, you may simply feel full after meals because you expect to be full, and you may simply get hungry because you expect to get hungry (which may be why frequent snackers have such a hard time switching to eating 3 times a day).
–Changing your weight significantly. There is a theory called “set point theory” that suggests that your body has a specific weight range in which it is comfortable, and this is usually somewhere around 10% of your body weight. So if you weight 200 pounds, you have a 20 pound range and can generally avoid any intense hunger pangs if you're at 190 pounds or above. But whether due to genetics or an internal “help-I'm-starving” signal, when you venture too far outside your set point, your body seeks homeostasis and begins adjusting your metabolism to maintain weight. And part of this adjustment can include craving food.
–Burning lots of calories. Let's face it. Whether due to a naturally high metabolism (I've personally been tested and I burn 2500 calories a day just lying on the ground), and/or due to extremely high amounts of activity (you're an Ironman triathlete like my “Chuckie V” example), your body just needs more nutrients and more calories to keep from self-cannibalization.
–Having a dopamine or serotonin deficiency. Chronic use of anti-depressants or “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors” (SSRI's), in addition to a very low fat diet, inadequate protein intake or a high-stress lifestyle can all lead to disruptions in brain neurotransmitters that help to control cravings or help you be more satisfied or happy with the foods that you do eat.
Finally, due to our inherent survival mechanisms, just the sight or smell of food can make you hungry, even if there's no physiological need for calories or nutrients, which is why buffets can be a very risky experience if you're limiting calories.
Is Hunger A Bad Thing?
First, it's important to understand that in a normal situation, the leptin/ghrelin interaction and the hunger it produces is completely necessary for your survival.
Starting from the time when you were a baby, if you never got hungry, you'd have very little incentive to eat. No eating would mean no nutrients or calories, which severely limits your growth and survival.
But if there is no physiological need for hunger, and you have ample energy stores from food or own fat stores, then there's probably something wrong if you're constantly hungry, and here's what I'd recommend you do:
1) Re-sensitize yourself to leptin. Try 4-8 weeks of completely changing your lifestyle and eating patterns that may be contributing to leptin resistance. Here are some top ways to do it:
-Avoid fructose sugars – they tend to be a real trigger for leptin resistance…
-Exercise in moderation (no stressful marathon workouts) – try this workout instead…
-Control stress and cortisol – I recommend a mix of Chinese adaptogenic herbs and a stress-relieving activity like regular nature walks or Yoga…
2) Avoid Hunger Triggers. Certain eating patterns and foods have been proven to be correlated with higher amounts of hunger. Here are some tips for controlling those triggers:
-Keep sweets and snacks out of the house or hidden in opaque containers…
-When you're eating, keep any extra food on the countertop, or put it away (i.e. into the fridge) before you begin your meal…
-Avoid higher carbohydrate or fast sugar release foods that spike the blood sugar and cause a hunger response very soon after a meal…
-Limit your options by having small amounts of simple, real, raw foods around the house – no big Costco variety packs or easy to grab cans and bags.
3) Know What You Ate. As mentioned earlier, food memory and knowledge of calories consumed is enormously helpful in controlling hunger. Try:
-Keeping a food log. I personally log all my food for my clients. The way I do it is I have a free, private blog on Posterous.com – then I just send a daily e-mail with what I ate, and it auto-posts to that blog.
-Using photos. DietSnaps is a great app for taking food photos and recording what you ate, if writing isn't your thing.
-Not snacking too frequently. It's almost impossible to keep track of food and calories if you're snacking 5-10 times a day (as many nutritionists sadly suggest). Instead, just eat 2-3 square meals, and then, if you have a workout, only eat either before or after the workout.
-Making your own food. The less you eat out at restaurants, have other people prepare your food, or eat out of packages and containers, the easier it will be to keep track of and know what you ate.
Being hungry is not a bad thing if it is because you have a biological need for more calories or nutrients. But if not, it usually indicates a hormonal imbalance or psychological trigger that may need to be addressed.
5 Powerful Calorie Control Tricks To Help You Eat Less Food (article/video)
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