Feel like you have a black hole for a stomach? Bottomless pit jokes aside, there could be a very legit reason why you want to munch all day long. We asked the experts to walk us through the most common causes behind never-ending hunger—and how to deal.
Your Thyroid Is Out Of Whack
Your ginormous appetite may come down to one teeny gland. The thyroid gland controls your metabolism, and therefore, the amount of grub you need in a day, explains Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, M.D., former president of the American College of Physicians and adjunct associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine. “An under-active thyroid can make you feel tired, which we often misinterpret as feeling hungry,” she says. This may be one of the reasons a sluggish thyroid (known as hypothyroidism) is often associated with weight gain.
If you suspect your thyroid may not be working at full speed, talk to your doc. Hypothyroidism can be identified with simple blood testing. Those diagnosed are often prescribed medication to get that lagging metabolism back in check.
You’ve Got Other Hormonal Issues
Thyroid aside, issues related to blood sugar, insulin, and diabetes can also lead to feelings of excess hunger and even weight gain.
When you eat sugar, your body produces the hormone insulin to help control the amount of sugar in your blood, explains Fryhofer. If you chronically eat too much sugar, your body may become unable to control those blood sugar levels, and enters a state called ‘insulin resistance,’ which can eventually become type 2 diabetes. Since stable blood sugar levels are associated with satiety, having out-of-control blood sugar may contribute to feelings of hunger.
If your diet isn’t the best and you’re dealing with wonky energy and appetite levels, as well as weight gain, talk to your doc. You may need to adjust your daily grub and amount of activity, or consider medication, to get your blood sugar back under control.
You’re Missing Out On Sleep
Falling short on Zzz’s can lead to much more than feeling drowsy the next day. Case in point: A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people who averaged 8.5 hours of sleep per night had better weight-loss results than those who slept only 5.5 hours. The study found that the sleep-deprived group lost less fat and more lean body mass than the well-rested group.
“If you don’t get enough sleep, you’re going to have more trouble keeping your weight under control,” says Fryhofer. That’s because sleep affects the levels of hunger and satiety hormones, called ghrelin and leptin, respectively, in your body.
Many of us mistake thirst for hunger. Tammy Lakatos Shames, R.D.N., C.F.T., of The Nutrition Twins, recommends sipping on a hydrating beverage all day long in order to avoid the confusion. “Even when you’re not dehydrated, a glass of water can take the edge off hunger,” Shames says. So if you feel overly hungry at mealtime, try drinking a glass of H20 before chowing down.
You can also help keep yourself hydrated by loading up on water-filled foods, like fruits and veggies, she says.
You’ve Got Booze In Your System
Anyone who’s ever knocked back one too many knows the temptation of late-night pizza that comes along with it. “Alcohol lowers inhibitions, while also increasing thirst, hunger and cravings,” explains Shames.
Since booze is a diuretic (making you pee more and dehydrating you), you may find yourself doing that whole mistaking-thirst-for-hunger thing we just talked about. “Make sure you’re hydrating and not responding to thirst by ordering another cocktail,” says Fryhofer. Order waters between drinks, or swap your cocktail for a sparkling water with lime.
Your Eating Schedule Is All Over The Place
Skipping breakfast may seem like a good idea when you’re running late, but it can just make you all-the-more famished later in the day. “When you skip a meal, your blood sugar drops, and you end up ravenously tearing through your next meal,” says Fryhofer.
Rollercoaster blood sugar levels can trap you in a vicious cycle of energy crashes and exhaustion, as you’re more tempted to reach for sugar to pull yourself out of zombie mode. Try to stick to a regular eating schedule and avoid skipping meals in order to keep your blood sugar stable and your appetite even-keeled. Go ahead—stash a protein bar, a handful of nuts, or a piece of fruit in your bag or car.
You Need To Cut Back On Carbs
Loading up on refined carbs, like white bread and white rice, can create a vicious cycle of hunger. “Because refined carbs lack fiber to slow down their digestion, they cause an energy spike and then a crash,” says Lyssie Lakatos, R.D.N., C.F.T., the other half of The Nutrition Twins. Again, when it comes to feeling ravenous, whacked out blood sugar is a common culprit.
To slow your digestion and prevent that blood sugar spike, swap refined carbs for whole grains, or pair them with foods that contain fiber, such as vegetables, fruits, and beans.
You’re Not Eating Enough Protein
Not only is protein a friend to your body’s lean mass, it’ll also help keep you satisfied until your next meal. “Protein gives you more bang for your buck because it takes longer to digest and keeps you satiated,” says Shames. Load up on lean meats, poultry, Greek yogurt, eggs, nuts, and seeds at meal- and snack-time to hold you over.
Related: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
OR—You’re Not Eating Enough Fat
Fat may be more calorie-dense than carbs or protein, but that doesn’t mean you should exclude it from your diet. While carbs take between one and four hours for your body to digest, and proteins take between four and six, fats take a whopping six to eight hours to digest, says Lakatos.
You Eat Mindlessly
We know it’s easier said than done, but it’s best not to multitask while you chow down. (Yep, that includes catching up on Real Housewives or responding to work emails at dinner.) “When you eat, the stomach begins to stretch and sends a signal to the brain that you’re full,” explains Fryhofer. If we don’t eat mindfully, it’s easy to eat too quickly and ultimately overeat.
“When you’re not mindful about combining energy-revving, wholesome carbohydrates with lean proteins, your food will be digested very quickly and you will be hungry soon after,” Lakatos says. It’s no wonder we want to keep snacking long after blowing through an entire box of cheesy crackers on the couch.
You’re Stressed Out
There’s a reason a rough day at work is more likely to lead you to the drive-thru than to the fresh salad greens in your fridge. “When you’re under a lot of stress, your adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol, which can increase your appetite,” says Fryhofer. Stress may also make you crave high-calorie comfort foods or surrender to your sweet tooth.
When your body goes into this fight-or-flight mode, it burns energy more quickly, signaling that you may need a quick energy boost from food, says Shames. Before you reach for a donut, Shames recommends doing some deep breathing to calm yourself down. “Give yourself a few minutes so that you’re better able to assess if you’re actually hungry,” she says.
You’re On Certain Medications
Some meds—like steroids, hormones, and antidepressants—can kick up your appetite. For example, changes in estrogen are associated with food cravings, which is why some women report a change in appetite when they go on or off the pill, says Fryhofer. She recommends talking to your doctor about this potential side-effect when considering new medications.
Just being conscious that your medication may be triggering that gotta-snack feeling, though, may help you resist the urge, she adds.
You’re On Your Period
Ladies, you know how much your cycle can affect your munching habits. “After ovulation, in the second half of the cycle, the level of estradiol (which decreases appetite) falls and the level of progesterone (which stimulates appetite) rises, potentially leading to more cravings than usual,” says Shames. In other words, it’s not your imagination—your body might really be craving those chocolate-covered pretzels.
“Many women know the period munchies are something we just have to live with,” says Fryhofer. “Just make sure to have healthy snacks, like Greek yogurt or nuts, handy for your time of the month.”
Related: Load your cart with feel-good noms.