What’s the buzz?
Is your desire to snack a physiological need or just a habit?
What does the science say?
Hunger is the sensation of your body signaling the brain that you want (or need) to eat. Physically it makes your stomach growl, gives you hunger pangs, or may even leave you feeling lightheaded or hangry. This typically happens about 2-3 hours after you’ve eaten a meal, when a hormone known as motilin takes over the digestion process and causes your stomach to grumble. At the same time, ghrelin (AKA the hunger hormone) tells your brain that you are hungry. This process is known as homeostatic hunger — signals from your body to balance your energy needs.
Though homeostatic hunger tells your brain when you are hungry or full, hedonic hunger, or pleasure-based hunger, can cause the brain to override the feeling of fullness and make you feel hungry even when you physically are not. Your brain never wants to run out of energy, so everything from food advertisements to smelling food or your mood notifies the brain energy is available and can stimulate a desire to eat — despite the actual need for food. However, research on hedonic hunger is still limited, so the best way to fight it is to be in tune with your body’s hunger cues.
A quick assessment of your hunger will help you better understand when you need to fuel versus when a psychological desire to eat is calling your brain. Signs of hunger may include a growling stomach, headache, light-headedness, lack of energy, feeling shaky or weak, and/or being hangry. Check-in and if those physical cues are missing and/or you’ve eaten recently — cravings, stress, or boredom may be triggering hunger. In this case, give yourself 5 minutes or distract yourself and take a break from what you’re doing to see if the feeling persists.
What’s the takeaway?
True hunger builds gradually, and most any type of food eaten will relieve the physical hunger. If your appetite is suddenly insatiable, look at your food environment. Cravings or emotional eating are not physical signs your body is hungry and can often be curbed by distraction techniques or simply evaluating your hunger before you eat. You may be out of practice listening to hunger cues, so be gentle with yourself as you practice and retrain your body eat more intuitively.