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The Hunger Games – Is Being Hungry Bad?

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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…

-Try cold exposure - check out this podcast episode to learn more about how cold exposure may help with leptin sensitivity, and read some practical cold exposure tips here.

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.

Summary:

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.

Additional resources:

5 Powerful Calorie Control Tricks To Help You Eat Less Food (article/video)

12 Dietary Supplements That Can Massively Control Your Most Intense Carbohydrate Cravings (article)

How To Stop Carbohydrate Cravings In Their Tracks (audio)

5 Ways To Suppress Your Appetite Without Taking Any Special Pills or Capsules (video)

Questions, comments or feedback? Leave them below!

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6 Responses to “The Hunger Games – Is Being Hungry Bad?”

  1. Dan says:

    So does this mean that when I eat an apple for a snack I could be triggering leptin resistance? Would a better snack be some dry roasted nuts, or better yet tree nuts?

    • Well, this is a tricky question. If you're *already* leptin resistant, then the answer is yes (especially if you're sitting at your office, and not just, say, walking in the door from a run). In somebody who is leptin resistant, fruit and starchy carbs tend to be a big issue.

      But if you're not leptin resistant, it's not a big deal to eat a piece of fruit: A) early in the day when your carb stores are relatively empty, like having a banana with breakfast or B) during or immediately before or immediately after a workout. There's not really any other time it's a very good idea to be eating much fruit…

      …and if you really want to geek out on this, you shouldn't be eating much fruit at all in the winter, because from an ancestral health standpoint, it's not a food you are genetically evolved to metabolize efficiently in cold winter months. Your body just doesn't do too well with bananas delivered on a jet to your snowy home in January, especially if you're trying to lose weight.

  2. Anthony says:

    What gives me food cravings? Vito's pizza on La Cienega in LA. Ohhhhhhh so good. Miso Ramen on rainy days from Jinya on Ventura. Penne alla vodka from Locanda Portofino on Montana. Just a few cravings.

  3. Read the article, and I liked it – but it didn't really answer is being hungry bad? I am trying to retrain myself to eat when my body tells me to. I rarely feel hungry and usually eat because it is time to and I "should" eat.

    What if my body doesn't trigger hunger cravings for extended periods of time? Is it good to basically fast until my body tells me to do otherwise?

    I am pretty low activity at this point due to a neck injury. The most physical activity I can do it walk. I'd love to hear your input. No-one else can seem to answer my questions.

    • Well, basically the answer is that being hungry *is* bad if it is the result of a nutrient deficit or neurotransmitter imbalance.

      If you're body isn't hungry, don't eat *unless* you're actually wanting to gain weight or put on muscle. Otherwise, trust your hunger. It's had thousands of years to develop to work properly.

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