There are many different reasons you get hungry, some of them habit, some hedonistic and others hormonal. There's something you can do about all of these but right now, let's get into the business of hormonal hunger.
If I said to you ‘hormones’, you'll probably think first of your lady hormones - oestrogen and progesterone – but your body produces a whole host of other hormones which play a role in health and how you function every day. The one I'm focussing on today is ghrelin - the ‘growth hormone-releasing peptide’ that controls hunger, food intake and combined with growth hormone, fat storage. Keep a handle on that and you have solved a bit part of the hunger problem.
It's not an official statistic, but I'd say that, after years of working with women who want to lose weight, the hormonal drive for food accounts for 75% of feelings of hunger.
Ready? Ok, hold on tight because here it comes...
The science bit... Stimulated by the cells in our stomach, ghrelin sends signals to the hypothalamus in the brain telling your body it’s time to eat. Small amounts are also released by the pancreas and the small intestine. The more ghrelin in the bloodstream, the bigger your appetite and likely, the more food you eat. After food, ghrelin levels are decreased as you’re satiated (that feeling of fullness), and they don’t rise again until your body starts looking for more energy.
If you’re trying to lose weight, you might be wondering how you can keep your levels low. To be clear, ghrelin is not bad. Your hormones are made for a reason - they have a specific job to do in the body. If you weren’t ever hungry, would you take as much joy from the food you eat? How would you know when you’re low on nourishment? How would you function at your best?
It’s when those hormones stop working as they should that you can run into trouble. And, your diet and lifestyle choices have a significant impact on this.
That doesn’t mean cutting calories. This will increase your ghrelin levels, potentially lead to overeating and storage of fat. Interestingly, research has shown lower fasting levels of ghrelin in individuals who are overweight, obese or morbidly obese, this suggesting that over time, overeating can decrease sensitivity to the hormone, meaning you lose this essential control mechanism. However, it’s important to note that ghrelin may be equally as important for weight gain. It’s all about balance. So, I’ve highlighted a few tips here, which will help keep this specific hormone in check and doing its job correctly at both ends of the spectrum.
Eat a diet rich in fibre from fruit and vegetables, legumes and wholegrains.
Fibre slows down our digestion while also keeping our gut bacteria diverse and healthy. Foods high in fibre also tend to be lower in calories and higher in nutrient density meaning you get better bang for your buck.
Limit intake of high GL carbohydrates and processed foods high in sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Refined and processed foods are high in calories and saturated fat and low in nutrients. As well as spiking your blood sugar for a short period, sending your hunger and energy levels on a rollercoaster, they trigger the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward. You start to associate the short-lived high with reward as opposed to the feeling of being nourished and satiated.
Eat protein with every meal
Incorporating a portion of lean or vegetable protein into each meal (eggs, oily fish, organic chicken or turkey, tofu, beans and pulses) will slow gastric emptying, keeping you fuller for longer. It will also blunt the insulin spike you get from eating a carbohydrate-based meal, preventing the sugar cravings which inevitably follow that initial sugar high.
Studies in animals have shown that exposure to chronic stress increases circulating ghrelin and growth hormone levels. It also interacts with the brain’s reward pathways to increase food intake, creating a vicious cycle where you begin to see food as a comfort during times of stress and anxiety. Incorporate yoga, meditation or breathing into your daily routine, get out for a walk or run in nature, find something that works for you to allow you to live (and eat) more mindfully.
Sleep deprivation has been associated with an increase in ghrelin levels, appetite and hunger comparative to sleeping for longer periods. Aim for 7-9 hours per night, practice good sleep hygiene by limiting screen time, avoiding heavy meals and alcohol before bed, and try to stick to regular sleep and waking up times to regulate the circadian rhythm. I know you will have read this countless times before and may just be about to snooze off, but if you are one of those people who find they are often ravenous, it's really worth having a sleep plan. That means really focussing on getting good sleep (think of it as a project) on a regular basis.
Research in recent years has indicated a link between High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), reduced ghrelin and increased leptin levels. Incorporate some high-intensity exercise to your lifestyle each week – circuits, sprints, cycling. Get out and get a sweat on!