Why do people get hungry?

Whether you're trying to lose weight, build muscle, or even just maintain a healthy weight, your hunger is one of the biggest considerations. Here we investigate why we get hungry to help you understand your body's cravings better.

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Whether you’re trying to lose weight, build muscle, or even just maintain a healthy weight, your hunger is one of the biggest considerations. Here we investigate why we get hungry to help you understand your body’s cravings better.  

We all know we need food for vital nutrients. We eat so that we are healthy and have enough energy throughout the day to do the important things on our schedules. But what about the actual act of being hungry? For instance, when you wake up from a full nights sleep and your belly cries: feed me! Or when you’ve had your breakfast at 7am and then around noon you feel a bit dizzy and your stomach starts grumbling! Figuring out why we get hungry may be the answer to aiding our general fitness. So, why does this happen? 

The HQ of hunger pangs

Your body is constantly responding to a multitude of bodily processes and your brain is the headquarters where everything gets translated into different behaviour. Including basic eating behaviours such as putting a sandwich into your mouth. And when you put said sandwich into your mouth, it’s your brain that registers your level of satiety. 

There is an ongoing relationship between our brain and body. Bodily processes are in a constant state of flux, and it’s our brains interpretation of these processes that affects how we feel. This includes feelings of hunger. The specific part of the brain that controls hunger is the hypothalamus. It interprets the signals from hunger regulating hormones, to tell you when to eat.

What hormones cause hunger?

There are a few hormones that have been found to trigger feelings of hunger and fullness, but the two main hormones associated with hunger regulation are leptin and ghrelin. Research has shown that even though these two hormones are secreted from other parts of the body they affect the hypothalamus. 

What is Leptin?

Leptin is primarily secreted from adipose tissue (fat), as well as a few other parts of the body. It moves through the circulatory system and eventually into the hypothalamus where it tells our body that we have enough fat, so we can eat less or stop eating.

Think of cravings! We all get them sometimes. If you are someone who wants to stop craving food so much, an increased amount of leptin would be what you’re looking for. It’s meant to tell the body that it has sufficient fat, but in some cases, it becomes less effective at communicating this message. 

In studies of people who are obese, research has found that their leptin level is increased, but that the hypothalamus has become resistant to it, this leaves people still hungry after eating. This can cause a vicious cycle that makes it very difficult to lose weight.

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What is Ghrelin?

Ghrelin is secreted primarily by the lining of the stomach when it’s empty, and it’s this hormone that increases hunger and stimulates our appetite, making us feel the desire to eat. It’s thought that ghrelin moving through your bloodstream to your brain is a primary reason for that famed ‘hunger pang’ feeling.

Depending on how your total hormonal balance differs from another person’s, you can be more, or less, prone to react when the ghrelin kicks in.

What is Insulin?

You know that shaky feeling you feel when you haven’t eaten all day? That’s your blood sugar levels asking for a top up. When the opposite is true, and blood sugar is high, insulin is released to control your blood sugar level and guide glucose to where it’s needed, or to store it as fat. Insulin is a suppressor of hunger.

What is neuropeptide Y?

Another area to consider is neuropeptide Y, or NPY. A study showed how stimulation of the NPY pathway by exercise, fasting, and energy loss is followed by increased appetite and food intake, along with suppression of energy expenditure. It tells your body to rest, recover and refuel after exercise.

How to curb the cravings?

The NHS has provided helpful insights in their guide on Why do i feel hungry? 

According to the NHS:

“...Eating at regular times can help reduce irresistible feelings of hunger. Quick diets won't make you feel less hungry, but changing habits can help reduce hunger. Make small, long-lasting changes to diet and exercise. Stick to a list when shopping and don' t shop when stressed. Eating smaller portions from smaller plates can also help you eat less while not feeling hungry any quicker.”

Hormones are sensitive secretions that have a strong influence on how we feel, and the careful balance can be disrupted by modern lifestyle factors. Well known culprits for deregulating appetite and increasing hunger are:

  • Stress, 
  • lack of sleep, and 
  • Consumption of processed food. 

So make sure you’re getting enough sleep, cutting out the processed food and practicing mindful techniques (like meditation or yoga) to get your appetite regulating better. 

Adverting is aimed to make you crave more, more often

Ever crave a burger right after a MacDonald’s advert? Or start salivating for a steak right after driving past your favourite steak house? Or even felt like biting into a chocolate after seeing a famous actor find ecstasy from biting into a new brand of chocolate on Tv? That’s the power of advertising!

Advertising is structured in a way that is meant to convince us that we’re hungry or need to eat when we probably don’t actually need food in that moment. Crisp packets are even designed to be loud so that when someone tries to open a bag in secret, they can’t. The more people hear the packet, the more people crave it, the more people eat it, the quicker its finished; and then more is bought at your next visit to the store. In this way, advertising works by creating signals that your brain learns as: EAT (this) FOOD NOW! And that’s when your cravings tickle your fancy. Recognising when this happens around you can be a huge help in resisting those brief urges.

In summary

Although these hormonal processes are continuously occurring in our bodies, we are not slave to them. We can choose how we respond to those feelings, and take steps to more easily to regulate our hunger hormones. Now that we know the reasons why we get hungry, we are can take the right steps in our eating behaviours towards making sure we’re eating when we truly are hungry. 

 Helpful quick reminders to reset appetite control:

  • Regular exercise. Exercise is known to re-sensitise the body to leptin and insulin, making those hormones more effective at blunting hunger. Intense exercise is also known to suppress hunger in the short term.
  • Control stress when possible.
  • Get more sleep. Lack of sleep reduces leptin, and increases ghrelin, making overeating much more likely.
  • Eat a diet of whole foods. Protein and fibre are particularly effective for feeling full, while processed foods short circuit hunger regulation pathways.
  • Be conscious when you eat. Eating while distracted, such as watching TV, can make it easier to ignore your bodies cues to stop eating.

If you’re looking for a simple, personalised and easy to follow plan to improve your fitness and nutrition, getting a DNA test has never been easier than before. With guidance from our expert dietitian’s and sport scientists you can now be even closer to your fitness goals.

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