Why am I always hungry?
It's Wednesday. You started the morning a little behind so you grabbed a cup of coffee and half of a leftover croissant from the Break Room at the office.
By 10 a.m. your stomach was making rude noises but you're committed to healthier habits. You decided to skip the other half of that croissant and wait for lunch. Lunch included a taco salad and some chips & guacamole at at the new Mexican restaurant down the street. Around 1:30 you could barely keep your eyes open so you made your way to the coffee pot for your afternoon pick-me-up (two creams, one sugar)...but by three o'clock you're 'hangry' and looking for something to tide you over until dinner. You knew this moment would come and you have a box of granola bars in your desk drawer for just such an occasion. You grab one and finish out the day with one more stop at the coffee pot (but opt for decaf this time). By the time you got home at six, you were worn out from the day and decided that dinner tonight would be something simple - a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a piece of fruit - and your late night snack was a new low-fat chocolate flavored yogurt that a friend recommended.
What if I told you that hanger (definition: anger caused by hunger) and exhaustion isn't how it's supposed to work?
Let's talk about hormones.
Hormones get a bad rap sometimes but when they're all working together correctly you feel good and you have the energy you need to thrive. When they're out of balance though, things can spiral quickly.
First, you have two hormones that are inversely related: Leptin and Ghrehlin. Ghrehlin is your "I'm-hungry/I-need-more-nutrients" hormone and leptin is your "I'm-full/I-have-enough-stored-energy-to-survive" hormone. The levels of these two hormones are influenced by many things, not the least of which is the type of food you consume. When ghrehlin is high, your body needs food. When you eat that food, your blood sugar rises. Carbohydrates - simple and complex - both end up in your blood as glucose which is then used to fuel your metabolism. The difference is that simple carbs don't carry very many nutrients.
Hear me on this: Carbs aren't bad.
Carbs are the kindling on the fire that is your metabolism. They're the source of the quick energy (fuel) you need to walk across the street or chase your toddler across the backyard. You need carbs. They key is getting the RIGHT carbs.
Ok, back to blood sugar.
Too much glucose in your blood is a bad thing so your body responds by dispatching insulin. Insulin grabs the extra glucose and stores it in your cells as fat to be used later. The next time you need a quick dose of energy, glucagon (another hormone) is released and it pulls that stored energy (fat) out of your cells and cortisol (yet another hormone) helps to convert it back into glucose to be burned as fuel.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work. Buckle in, this is going to take a minute.
Our American diet is fraught with highly-processed, "super-normally stimulating" foods that contain very little nutrition that elicit a significant insulin response from your body (i.e. most of the foods in your hypothetical day above). The result is a conflict between your gut and your brain. Your brain enjoys the taste, texture and smell of these foods - and the dopamine (the "feel-good" hormone) that is produced as a result. But your gut knows that your body isn't benefiting from these foods. Your gut tells your brain it's hungry so you reach for more food in an attempt to get the nutrients that it lacks. Bottom line: You keep eating more and more food that your brain enjoys but your gut knows the truth - it's not getting what it needs - so you feel hungry and you eat more food...and the cycle continues.
In their book, It Starts With Food, Dallas Hartwig and Melissa Hartwig assert that "Chronic consumption of nutrient poor, super-normally stimulating carbohydrates leads to chronically elevated triglycerides [excess glucose stored as fat] and blood sugar levels, which promotes leptin resistance and an increase in fat storage, accompanied by greater insulin resistance." Remember that leptin is the "I'm-full/I-have-enough-stored-energy-to-survive" hormone - so if you are leptin resistant, you brain doesn't know when to stop and, besides, it really enjoys the hit of dopamine...remember that habit/craving we talked about last week? This is where it starts. Now you crave more of that super-normally stimulating, nutritionally deficient food because of the dopamine reward. This leads to insulin resistance. If you're insulin resistant, your body doesn't respond to elevated blood sugar quickly enough so you're always operating with more than enough glucose (fuel) in your blood and your body never has to draw on your stored energy (fat)...which means that stored energy, aka fat, stays on your body. And because you aren't getting the nutrients you need and your I'm-full/I-have-enough-stored-energy-to-survive-hormone is handicapped, you keep feeling hungry, eating more food, and storing more fat.
So how do you get off that merry-go-round?
By eating the RIGHT kind of food - including protein, good fats, and the RIGHT carbs (i.e. vegetables, whole grains and a little bit of fruit. Remember that fruit is still a source of sugar. Fructose still elicits an insulin response - more on this later).
Depending on your specific circumstances, this is where I can help. Hormonal issues like diabetes or pre-diabetes should be treated by your primary doctor but a nutritionist can round out your health care team and provide support that complements your care plan. Let's work together to come up with a plan to get off the merry-go-round!