On Nutrition

Some folks think they should be able to control, or at least ignore, their hunger, but that’s easier said than done. Hunger is complex, and your body produces more than a dozen hormones that play roles in promoting or suppressing it. Instead of trying to adopt a mind-over-matter approach to hunger, listening to your hunger so you can understand it and work with it is a smarter strategy.

Tips for “tricking,” “outsmarting” or “hacking” our hunger hormones abound, but not only is this deceptive, it implies that we have more control over these hormones than we actually do. Your brain produces many of your hunger hormones, while others are produced in other parts of your body. One hormone may activate or block another hormone, and many have additional roles, such as regulating digestion.

The hunger hormones that get the most attention are leptin and ghrelin. Leptin — a satiety hormone produced in our fat tissue — suppresses hunger. Levels are highest overnight and are also affected by how long ago you ate and how well you sleep. Ghrelin is produced in the stomach, and levels rise before meals to signal hunger, then fall quickly after eating and stay low for about three hours. Because ghrelin is a “short-acting” hormone, it isn’t affected by what you ate yesterday. And if you ignore hunger, ghrelin levels will continue to rise, leading to the primal hunger that can cause what feels like out-of-control eating.

Many people believe — often as a side effect of dieting — that hunger is something to be feared or suppressed, but it’s a normal, natural biological cue that helps keep us alive, just like thirst. Early signs of hunger often include an empty feeling in the stomach or growling sounds. But if you ignore your body’s early hunger cues — perhaps because you’re busy, or simply don’t trust that you need to eat — or if those cues have gone silent from years of denying them, you may become dizzy, lightheaded, headachy, irritable or unable to focus or concentrate. Ideally, you can notice and respond to earlier signs of hunger before you get to this point.

While you can’t “outsmart” your hunger, you can eat in a way that both honors and manages it. Here are some general tips:

  • Eat breakfast. Eating breakfast can help stabilize hunger for the entire day. Include some protein, such as eggs or Greek yogurt.
  • Eat regularly. When you go too long without eating, you may become so hungry that you end up overeating. Depending on the size of your previous meal or snack, as well as many other factors, you may feel hunger every two to five hours. If you don’t feel obvious hunger cues, eating on a schedule may help reawaken them.
  • Eat balanced meals and snacks. When you include protein, carbohydrates and fat in your meal or snack, you cover your bases, as each of those macronutrients stimulates release of different satiety hormones. Carbohydrate foods rich in fiber or resistant (nondigestible) starch — such as beans, lentils, whole grains or sweet potatoes — help the most with satiety.
  • Get enough sleep. Most adults need seven or eight hours per night, and some research suggests that when we short ourselves on sleep, our ghrelin levels will be higher the next day.
  • Engage in regular physical activity. Not only is this good for your overall health, but it can increase levels of certain satiety hormones and reduce leptin resistance.