Coaches are often asked why am I hungry all the time? It seems basic but it’s not surprising that you don’t know why you’re hungry.

Appetite is part of an exquisitely sensitive and complex dance that our body performs for our benefit. Years of ignoring appetite while dieting, under eating, overeating, and binging numbs us to its voice. This is why the advice to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full is difficult for those with a history of dieting and restriction.

Emotional hunger is frequently the first assumption, but there are other reasons for feeling hungry.

We often look past the obvious which is that our hunger is a sign that we need to eat. This is your body’s normal and natural response to needing food and it’s important to honor it. Under eating will undermine your efforts to heal and will trigger binging. Healing means coming back into balance where you are neither routinely under nor over eating.

Getting back in tune with hunger and fullness takes time, practice, and patience. It also requires letting go of perfection and letting your body lead. Over time you will learn to trust your body’s rhythms.

You may find that you are more or less hungry in response to your monthly cycle, stress level, sleep, or mental or physical activity. You may find that the hunger occurs during or immediately after, or even well after these events. For instance during a taxing time you may unconsciously under eat and not feel hungry due to the stress but in the following weeks you may feel more hungry than usual.

Another reason you may feel hungry is habit. Our bodies respond to what has been our general routine. If you normally eat lunch every day at noon your body will begin anticipating and preparing regardless of earlier eating. This preparation includes feelings of hunger. Try ignoring the hunger for a bit to see if it returns. If it’s habit it will go away whereas if you’re needing food it will shortly return. Go slowly when attempting to change your eating rhythm so that you can eliminate the force of habit.

A second reason for feeling hungry is that your body prepares for eating upon the sight or smell, or even thought of food. That’s why you may not have felt hungry at all before seeing an ad or catching a whiff of something good. Emotional hunger gets triggered in this situation as well. You can test this by removing yourself from the trigger for a few minutes to see if the hunger urge remains or goes away. If emotional hunger is present it will manifest in a craving for a specific food whereas physical hunger is generally satisfied by any food.

A third reason for hunger is lack of nutrition. You may have eaten plenty but if the food eaten was lacking in nutrition your body will continue to signal hunger. Trying upping your intake of nutritionally dense food to see if that helps. Cravings for specific nutritionally dense food, such as eggs, may signal a nutrient deficiency. Unfortunately cravings for cookies do not signal a chocolate chip deficiency!

A final reason for hunger is blood sugar and hormonal imbalances. Insulin spurs your body to store excess energy intake as fat. Once stored you will become hungry again as soon as your body and brain start running low of glucose. This is why you find yourself hungry again even after extreme overeating. Try eating regularly with a focus on fewer refined carbs and more fat and see if this helps. If not it’s time to talk to a doctor or nutritional expert.

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This week I’m reading Rethinking Thin – The New Science of Weight Loss and the Myths and Realities of Dieting by Gina Kolata. It’s a book from 2008 that remains relevant as the author follows the progress of four determined dieters through a two year study comparing a low carb diet to a traditional low fat/low calorie diet. It will open your eyes, and may make you angry that so much weight loss advice was disproven a decade ago.

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