Why you’re still feeling hungry
We all know the feeling: it’s mid afternoon, you’ve already had lunch, but you’re still peckish. You know logically that you’ve eaten enough food for the afternoon, but you still can’t stop thinking about that packet of cookies in your desk drawer. You know you shouldn’t be, but you’re still hungry.
This feeling can be frustrating, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. But the explanation has more to do with human evolution than with a lack of will power or discipline.
” It isn’t easy to lose weight because our bodies conspire against us,’ says Dr. Tony Goldstone, a medical doctor and endocrinologist at Imperial College, London, who studies obesity, appetite, and the hormones involved. Casting obesity as a moral issue or simple problem is unfair and unwise, he says. “Telling somebody they are fat will not help them, especially now that we live in environments that conspire against weight loss,” we are surrounded by cheap food. And every time we lose weight our bodies kick in to try and prevent us losing any more,’ he says. Hunger is simply a biological reflex, out of our control.
In our distant past, beyond early humans and further back to ancient life forms, finding food was far less simple than going down to the store. Getting enough to eat was a daily struggle and the focal point for much of existence. We have bodies that were built in an age of scarcity, so we have the same drives and desires to eat as though food is hard to come by even though we now live in an age of plenty.
The hormones behind your hunger
Hunger, from that gnawing feeling in your gut to craving thoughts, exists for a reason: it is your body’s way of telling you that you need to give it more energy. If we never felt hungry, we wouldn’t survive. And the key to the way we feel lies in our hormones.
You’re already familiar with serotonin, which is involved in happiness and depress, and estrogen and testosterone, our sex hormones. Here is another one you should know about: ghrelin, a key hormone involved in appetite regulation. Simply put: it’s the chemical that makes you feel hungry. If you haven’t eaten enough, your stomach releases ghrelin, which travels to your brain and makes you think of food.
But it gets more complicated, says Goldstone. Our bodies will produce more ghrelin if we are in more dire need of calories, such as if we haven’t eaten in a long time, or when we haven’t slept enough and need to boost our energy levels. ‘If people have not had enough sleep, or enough slow wave sleep, they will have even higher levels of ghrelin; sleep deprivation increases appetite.’
Ghrelin levels are also jacked up by the body in times of stress, which is why so many of us in high stress office jobs want to snack all the time, counter intuitive as this may seem when working a job that is not physically demanding.
How to curb your hunger
So what can we do about this, saddled as we are with biological constraints? Dr. Goldstone and others are working towards developing drugs that mimic the effects of gastric bypass surgery on the brain to help those suffering from morbid obesity lose weight without going under the knife.
But in the meantime, there are simple measures we can take by keeping our hormonal checks in mind. ‘Eat regularly, don’t skip meals, eat breakfast so you don’t have a big time gap between meals,” says Goldstone. “And try to eat foods that are richer in complex carbohydrates and avoid sugary drinks and white bread so you don’t have a big spike in sugar levels.”