What is Hunger?

Mar 09, 2022
What is Hunger?

Hunger is caused by a complex set of hormonal signals to your hypothalamus in your brain. This drive comes from your body’s need for energy, a desire for pleasure, habits, and environmental factors.  Your lifestyle including sleep, stress, and exercise also impact hunger. Also, you may not be fully in touch with your “true hunger” signals.

There are many hormones that regulate appetite with the hypothalamus to control both hunger and satiety. I will briefly describe three to focus on: insulin, leptin, and ghrelin.

Insulin is a hormone that helps to regulate blood sugar and store energy.  When someone is insulin resistant, their cells do not respond normally to insulin and blood sugars.  This leads the pancreas to overproduce insulin to fix the issue.  When insulin is chronically elevated, it is harder for the body to efficiently burn body fat for energy.  And over time, the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin eventually cannot keep up the pace, which can lead to a diagnosis of prediabetes and then ultimately diabetes.  The ways to help reduce insulin include eating fewer carbohydrates (especially the processed types) and eating less often and in smaller portions.

Leptin is a hormone that our body fat makes to tell us we are full.  However, just like insulin resistance, leptin resistance can occur so that we do not get the signal that we are full and have eaten enough.  Leptin follows a circadian pattern with high levels between midnight and early morning hours (keeping us more full) and a low level from noon to midafternoon.

Ghrelin (often known as our “hunger hormone”) is a hormone our stomach makes to tell us when we are hungry.  It normally rises just before we normally eat and falls after beginning to eat.

Desire is also a big driver for eating.  When you cut back on food to lose weight without addressing desire, you can inadvertently increase your cravings and desire.  When you eat food, your brain is given a dopamine reward; this is normal and essential to our survival as a species.  However, concentrated foods that create highly elevated dopamine levels can cause an “overdesire,” and your brain puts an urgent importance on these foods.  Your primitive brain is driven by seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, and being efficient, so a simple thought “I want that” can easily create desire and the reward then intensifies this desire.  Also, when you start to use food to avoid other unpleasant feelings, you can easily find yourself turning to food to numb pain or escape. 

Traditional hunger (“homeostatic hunger”) comes when you have not eaten for a period of time.  Your stomach starts to grumble in response for the body’s need for energy.  When energy starts to run low, ghrelin starts to increase.  Once you start eating, ghrelin levels start to decline and other hormones rise leading to fullness.

Another type of hunger is called “hedonic hunger” or “non-homeostatic hunger.”  This is the type of hunger that is driven by urges, not due to ghrelin alone. This reward-based hunger can override the homeostatic pathway during times when we have enough energy already by increasing the desire to consume foods that are highly concentrated and lead to a large dopamine response. It is the type of hunger that drive you to eat dessert or have an extra serving of food when you are already full. 

Whole foods with fiber, protein, and healthy fats can help minimize traditional hunger. The jury is still out on foods with artificial sweeteners; they can potentially confuse the brain into thinking you have not eaten much.  Ultra-processed foods, which are often eaten for pleasure, complicate things even more.  They can cause a very strong dopamine response followed by a withdrawal, leading to an uptick in cravings and urges that ultimately overpower normal feelings of fullness. When you reduce hunger and reduce desire, it is much easier to maintain a normal weight. 

If you want to learn more about how restrictive dieting may be undermining your weight loss efforts and you want to learn more about weight coaching, send me a PM or email to learn more.


DISCLAIMER: Sarah Smith MD is a medical doctor, but she is not your doctor, and she is not offering medical advice on this website. If you are in need of professional advice or medical care, you must seek out the services of your own doctor or health care professional.