Technically speaking, hunger is our body's way of saying, "Eat something if you want to live" -- but since reaching for the chocolate bar in your desk drawer two hours after lunch is hardly about survival (even if it’s nice to think so), we begged a dietitian to explain what the hell is going on.
Here are 10 reasons why our bodies, diets, and lifestyles make us think about food all the damn time, even if we just finished eating.
1. Your hormones might be, well, insensitive
Hormones are one way your body talks to your brain, and where hunger is concerned, the hormones leptin and ghrelin are two important, opposing forces. "Ghrelin, which is produced in the stomach, tells us that we're hungry," Nikita Kapur, MS, RDN, CDN, CLT, explains. "And leptin, produced in fat cells, is what's in play when you’re like, 'Oh my gosh I've eaten so much.'"
Unfortunately, regularly eating large portions gets you something called leptin insensitivity, which causes your body to raise its threshold for feeling full. This is associated with weight gain (for obvious reasons), but it’s fixable: in the long term, Kapur says, "your body readjusts to your eating patterns."
2. You're not sleeping enough
Sure, "I'm tired so I need energy" sounds logical, but you're not burning more calories simply because you're groggy. Since your body is strained by lack of sleep, "you're hungry for more processed food and instant energy like sugar and other carbs." Meanwhile, what happens when you listen to that craving and use those foods for support throughout the day? "Your blood sugar spikes and then you crash, your blood sugar spikes and then you crash -- it's kind of a vicious cycle... And that of course affects your sleep the following night, too."
3. Exercise drains your energy (duh)
Kapur told us that within one or two hours of exercising, which cuts into your energy stores and causes your blood sugar to go down, you're most likely gonna want to eat something. But on the flip side, exercise may also make your brain more sensitive to getting the memo that you're full. So it works both ways... psych! Overall, you can bet exercise will be a positive when it comes to staying in shape. Plus, after pushing yourself at the gym, you may be more conscious of eating well -- otherwise what the hell did you just do all that work for, dammit?!
4. Your body's stressing the small (and large) stuff
When shit's going down, your adrenal gland releases cortisol -- this hormone tells your body it's in tension mode, and "induces more cravings for comfort... and comfort is typically sugar," Kapur points out. Some people are the opposite, though, and can't eat a thing before a big presentation. "The way you respond to stress is a habit," Kapur explains. Everyone's accustomed to coping differently, but for those who do tend to stress-eat, she says, "these foods have that calming effect. The next time you experience stress, you react with the same response."
5. You're not quenching your thirst
"When you're dehydrated, you are in essence stressed," Kapur says. Your body needs something, and "that sometimes gets manifested in the sugar craving." You'd think you would’ve sorted this out back in the formative years when you learned the words "hungry" and "thirsty," but trying not to confuse feeling thirst with feeling hunger isn't as easy as you might think.
6. Drinking = bad decision burgers
Fast-forward to ordering falafel at 3am after a night of drinking. Tipsy you is even worse at assessing whether you're actually hungry than sober you, not to mention that all those drinks and mixers were pure carbs, which lead to the blood sugar spike-and-fall that makes you feel famished enough to eat awful pizza you’d never consider during the day.
7. You're eating at all the wrong times
Generally speaking, Kapur explains, eating every four to five hours is a healthy standard -- "and you really want to hover between three and six." If you're neglecting food during an eight-hour workday, how much do you wanna bet the first thing you eat isn't gonna be great for you? "You're not going to want salmon, because it takes a while for your body to break down the protein," says Kapur. "You’re going to want sugar or fried food, which is instant energy."
If you're skipping breakfast, you're very likely to be throwing your eating schedule out of whack, and then you become one of those weirdos eating lunch at 10:58am. Then, in the afternoon, you end up experiencing what Kapur calls "catch-up hunger," which is your body trying to fill in all the calories you missed in the morning. "Starting in the afternoon, there's a seven-to-nine-hour window when your body is like, 'Feed me.'"
8. When you do eat, you're neglecting the good stuff
Ideally, explains Kapur, "the combination of fiber -- which comes from complex carbs and whole grains -- protein, and healthy fat is what gives you the most satiety." Think brown rice with chicken and veggies roasted with olive oil, or a piece of toast with avocado and fresh mozzarella. Admittedly, that does take a bit of work (or at least some grocery shopping), but if you're going for the closest option (your desk drawer or the first fast-food joint you come across in your rush for sustenance), it's more likely going to be simple carbs and fried foods that bring instant relief... and then proceed to make you hungry again.
9. You're basically inhaling your food
Not all messages travel as fast as email: leptin and other hormones that send the message of "you ate just enough, and if you keep eating you will probably get fat" need time to work. All those wise sayings, like "chew your food 20 times" or "wait 20 minutes for seconds" -- ones that seem to have come from a time when people didn’t have anything to do -- were essentially getting at this simple fact.
10. You're caving to peer pressure
"Well, if you insist, of course I'll help you eat those sweet potato fries!" Kapur explains that meal composition and timing have a lot to do with how hungry you are throughout the day, both of which can be thrown off by eating with company. Of course, you don't want to be so inflexible that you become an antisocial health freak, but it's worth thinking about your personal health goals and how your body tends to work -- and whether you like your coworker enough to screw with the balance.
Bottom line: hunger's not always real
"Hunger is a very relative term," Kapur cautions. "You want to ask yourself, is it legitimate hunger?" She suggests considering the points above for context, and particularly thinking about when you last ate, what it was, and whether you’re hydrated. "If you consciously think about these key things, your hunger will start getting regulated," she says. "About 70% of the time, it's probably not hunger."
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Marina Komarovsky is a health writer for Thrillist, and though she was snacking on chocolate while she wrote this article, at least she knows why. For more on nutrition, check out her tweets: @MariKomarovsky.