I’m Starving: 5 Overlooked Causes Of Hunger

Your diet leaves you feeling empty and you can’t figure out why. Here are five possible culprits to assign to your fix list.

Feeling famished on your diet? If so, you have probably considered boosting your fiber intake, adding protein, drinking plenty of water, and other classic strategies to help combat hunger.

But what if these strategies fail you? What do you do when you still have a hankering so intense, you struggle to focus on anything else?

That's when you need to take a look at your lifestyle and assess whether any of the following five issues may come into play.

1. Excessive Low-Level Cardio

Multiple studies in recent years have suggested that cardiovascular exercise is an effective way to suppress and manage hunger.

One recent study suggested that appetite can be better controlled by exercise than by simple restraint-take note, dieters who struggle to say "no!" But if you're chained to the cardio machines for hours on end at a moderate intensity, it could send your hunger soaring.

A study of German cyclists found that their production of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin rose significantly after a 120-minute low-to-moderate intensity exercise session, but not nearly so much after high-intensity workouts of any duration.

Other recent studies have reinforced the notion that high-intensity workouts don't dramatically stimulate appetite. If you're stuck on the moderate intensity cardio bandwagon and feeling ravenous, now might be the time to up the intensity.

Of course, not all cardio is the same. One recent study, for instance, suggested that swimming can have a tendency to stimulate appetite in the hours following exercise.

If you find yourself climbing out of the pool and racing for the bakery, consider mixing cross-training into your routine.

2. Lack of Sleep

It's no secret that sleep deprivation can damage your workout performance and make for a miserable recovery period, but it may also influence how well you can stick to your diet plan.

A study in the Journal of Sleep Research found that a single night of sleep deprivation caused subjects' reported hunger levels and their appetite-stimulating ghrelin levels to rise drastically. Other studies have reported similar findings for subjects who slept poorly over multiple nights.

These studies suggest a simple relationship: The less you sleep, the more you put yourself at risk for uncontrollable hunger. You probably don't need an academic study to tell you that if you're feeling tired and cranky after a bad night's sleep, it's going to be hard to stay positive about a diet.

3. The "See-Food" Diet

Speaking of temptation, a growing body of research suggests that exposure to delicious food increases cravings. Big surprise, right?

The food you see in pictures, on television/Internet commercials, or on your coworker's desk can create a feeling of hunger in you. Smell is another powerful hunger stimulant. If you walk into a room filled with the aroma of delicious food, don't be surprised if your stomach starts rumbling.

It's almost impossible to totally shield yourself from hunger-spiking "food porn," but if you're feeling famished, it's probably a good idea to try.

One recent study found that people who struggled with weight control in the past are especially susceptible to the temptation brought on by exposure to food. If that describes you, do your best to build a wall around you!

4. Time of Day

Most of us have been conditioned to grow hungry at the typical meal times: in the morning after waking up, at midday, and in the early evening.

If you've switched over to a higher frequency meal plan, don't be surprised if you still experience some hunger when those old meal times hit.

This may be especially acute if those around you are eating, since hunger can be socially triggered.

If nostalgia for those three-squares-per-day impacts your ability to stick with your diet, then you may want to consider being flexible about your meal times and moving at least a couple of them in-line with the traditional times.

Your body will probably catch up to your new system with time, but you might feel a powerful hankering until it does!

5. Drinking Your Food

High-protein, low-carb diets have been shown to help control hunger and increase feelings of post-meal satisfaction, but when it comes to suppressing hunger, how you get that protein still matters.

If your shaker bottle has taken the place of your knife and fork, take note: A pair of recent studies at the Nutrim School of Nutrition found that solid protein meals are more effective in suppressing hunger than similar liquid protein meals.

The subjects received the same nutritional benefits from nutrient shakes and chicken breasts, but the difference was after the shake, they still felt hungry.

So while those supplements may help you to reach your fitness goals, don't forget that they're supplementing food!

  1. Born, J. et al. (2008). A single night of sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels and feelings of hunger in normal-weight healthy men. Oxford, UK: Journal of Sleep Research( pp. 331-334).
  2. Erdmann, J., et al. (2007) Plasma ghrelin levels during exercise: effects of intensity and duration. Bochum, Germany: Regulatory Peptides(pp: 127-35).
  3. Houben, Katrijn, et al. (2011). Too tempting to resist? Past success at weight control rather than dietary restraint determines exposure-induced disinhibited eating. Birmingham, UK: Appetite(pp 550-555).
  4. King, JA, et al. (2011). The acute effects of swimming on appetite, food intake, and plasma acylated ghrelin. New York: Journal of Obesity(Epub).
  5. Martens, MJ, et al (2011). A solid high-protein meal evokes stronger hunger suppression than a liquefied high-protein meal. Silver Spring, MD: Obesity(pp522-7).
  6. Martins, C., et al. (2008) Effects of exercise and restrained eating on appetite control. London: The Proceedings of the Nutritional Society(pp 28-41).