Humans are highly sensitive beings. As we go about our lives and are exposed to the stimulus of the world around us, we develop our natural intuition. This natural intuition, when listened to, provides us with all of the guidance we need to maintain our health and adapt to changes in the environment around us.
The trouble is that as modern lifestyles have drifted so far away from our connection to the natural world that it has become increasingly difficult to hear and understand our natural intuition. This is particularly true when it comes to our relationship with food.
Historically our diets were based on seasonal eating and locally grown/foraged/hunted foods. Now, a majority of the world's calories come from a few mass-produced crops like rice, corn, and wheat. We have lost so much variety in our diets through the consolidation of our food production systems and the reliance on processed and artificially flavored foods around the world. Many of us have lost the ability to discern flavors, and flavors are indicators of nutrient content in foods.
In addition to a distorted relationship with food, as more people live sedentary indoor lives and have minimal exposure to sunlight, they fall out of sync with healthy circadian rhythms. These foods and behaviors depress our energy and dull our senses, making it hard to interpret the signals that our bodies give us.
With all that in mind, it's not hard to believe that sometimes we don't know what we should eat and we feel hungry even though our stomachs are full.
In my experience, there are four primary reasons for feeling hunger or cravings: Dehydration, low nutrient density of foods, macronutrient imbalances, and chronic sleep issues.
Cravings caused by dehydration
This one is the most common reasons for sugar cravings and it’s also the easiest to fix. If you have access to clean water, be grateful for that and keep your body hydrated!
When I’m out in the hot sun or I’m rehydrating during a workout, I like to add some salt to the water to help with maintaining a balance of electrolytes. For me it also seems to mitigate feelings of nausea that I might experience from just drinking pure water during strenuous exercise. Chugging lots of water without replacing electrolytes is a bad idea, and can even be fatal when taken to the extreme (see “water intoxication”).
Many chronic and easily avoidable health problems arise from dehydration, so address this first before making any other changes.
Hunger due to an imbalance of protein, fat, and fiber in the diet
Having a balance of macronutrients in the diet (carbohydrate, protein, fat) will slow the speed of digestion and help to maintain stable blood sugar and energy levels.
When you rely primarily on large portions of high glycemic carbohydrates (e.g. white rice, pasta) and quickly digested proteins (e.g. whey protein, egg whites), you will tend to be hungry again shortly after finishing a meal. While this may be helpful for those trying to gain weight or for post-workout meals, they aren’t a good choice for quelling your hunger for longer periods of time.
Including dietary fiber (legumes, veggies) and fat (animal fats, nuts, oils) slows down digestion. When protein is digested, the breakdown of amino acids provide the material your body needs to synthesize neurotransmitters that regulate your mood and overall brain functioning.
Hunger related to poor micronutrient density of foods
Healthy plants and healthy animals make healthy food for humans.
The way I see it, if the crops that I eat require all manner of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers to survive, then they must be lacking the nutrients that would naturally provide disease resistance and stimulate growth.
If the plants are lacking the nutrients that prevent disease, then we will also be lacking those nutrients. The same goes for livestock that are raised in a way that makes them sick and dependent on antibiotics, hormones, etc.
Our bodies have a natural intelligence. We intuitively know that food is lacking in nutrition when it lacks flavor and color. That’s why food processing companies use all sorts of artificial colors and flavors to make food more appetizing. The problem is that this approach only mimics the appearance and flavor of natural foods and doesn’t actually provide the same quality of nutrition.
When we rely on these deficient foods, we will instinctively want larger portions to make up for the low concentration of nutrients. This is why I advocate for eating the highest quality food you can buy (or grow yourself). Not only does it taste better, but its also more satiating, and you won’t need to eat as much!
Sugar cravings caused by sleep deprivation
Sleep is obviously essential for your overall health, but often overlooked is the role that it plays with regulating your appetite. This is why I never recommend cutting sleep short in order to get in an early workout. Not only does it decrease your performance and reduce your recovery ability, you’ll also tend to crave sugar and high-carb foods all day long!
Your body synthesizes neurotransmitters during your sleep cycle, and these neurotransmitters are essential for healthy brain function and mood. One of these neurotransmitters is serotonin. Serotonin synthesis can also be stimulated by the consumption of carbohydrates.
Therefore, a lack of sleep will tend to create a serotonin deficiency which depresses your mood and results in carbohydrate cravings.
The connection between sleep deprivation and cravings is important to make, because many people will chalk up sugar cravings as just “having a sweet tooth” or a lack of willpower. And instead of identifying the root causes of their problems, they beat themselves up because of their struggles in sticking to a healthy diet.
Listening to your body's signals
Hopefully you have gained a few helpful insights into why you may be experiencing excessive hunger that leads to fluctuating energy levels, overeating, mood swings, and weight gain. We should all strive to become more aware our bodies’ signals when we feel out of balance. Ultimately, this will help you to take control of your health and keep your body functioning at its best!