The Low Down on Hunger: Health, Hankerings and Habits

Perhaps you’re stuck in an afternoon meeting after having skipped lunch to finish off a project. You can feel your glucose levels plummeting twenty stories. Your stomach is making noises reminiscent of Sasquatch depictions. Your concentration is quickly waning, and that donut your co-worker is eating across the room suddenly has you locked in and drooling like Pavlov’s dog. (Why does he get to eat now?) You glance at the clock, and it seems like an eternity separates you between the droning lecture of the moment and the chef’s salad waiting in the office frig.

Hunger, as you’ve probably imagined, has both physiological and psychological bases. On the physical side, there’s the decrease in glucose (a.k.a. blood sugar), which initially causes you to feel unfocused and eventually leaves you helpless and sloth-like in your desk chair. It’s even possible that your body temperature has dropped subtly as a result of several hours without food.

As your energy dips, the hypothalamus in your brain sends chemical messages to your stomach and intestines to start the flow of acids and digestive juices. (Fido clearly expects to be fed at this point.) The release of the fluids and their subsequent activity are often what cause that monstrous clamor in your stomach – the one that you try (in vain) to conceal with a well-timed clearing of throat or repositioning in your chair.

Fast forward an hour, and there you are with a full belly and happier disposition. Your current satiety is linked to both the brain (that hypothalamus dude again) and the stomach. The stomach is usually the first one to say uncle. Even if we’re technically full, however, doesn’t mean we’re fully satisfied. Perhaps that same coworker walks by with yet another donut. (Man, is he running a Dunkin D franchise out of his cubicle or what?) Even though you just ate an enormous salad, that donut is suddenly calling your name.

Two forces might be at work here. On one hand, there is an apparently biological urge to satisfy the various “tastes” we have as humans: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory). Perhaps you better pack some fruit next time. Though cravings are mostly psychologically associated, some research shows that appetite satiety is linked to these tastes as well as to a rise in glucose and stomach expansion. A simple explanation for this potential biological instinct may be our ancient ancestors’ natural impetus toward a varied diet.

On the other hand, your hankering might have nothing to do with real hunger. The smell, sight, sound and even thought of particular foods have the power to trigger the chemical process associated with hunger. Though you just ate lunch and have no real need for that donut (Do any of us really?), the sight triggers an all-too-pleasant memory of its taste, smell and texture. Advertisers frequently tap into these food associations with suggestive close-ups, amplified sounds, rising steam, hazy backgrounds and warm lighting. Downright disgraceful!

Besides the sensory impulses, there are plenty of other external factors that influence a person’s psychological perception of hunger – and satiety. It’s common to feel hungry at typical mealtimes, even if you’ve recently eaten. Studies show that people who are obese responded to this association more than those subjects who were not obese. Researchers have also found that people tend to eat more in social settings than they do alone. (I guess there’s a good reason to eat alone in the lunch room.) Higher food intake has also been linked with everything from larger plates to a wider variety of available food. Healthy Diet Tip: Skip the buffet.

SuperFantastic Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

5 Tips to Avoid Temptation

A Case for Starvation?

Waisted: Emotional Eating

Sponsor note:
This post was brought to you by the Damage Control Master Formula, independently proven as the most comprehensive high-potency antioxidant multivitamin available anywhere. With the highest antioxidant per dollar value and a complete anti-aging, stress, and cognition profile, the Master Formula is truly the only multivitamin supplement you will ever need. Toss out the drawers full of dozens of different supplements with questionable potency and efficacy and experience the proven Damage Control difference!

Subscribe to Mark’s Daily Apple feeds

About the Author

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

6 thoughts on “The Low Down on Hunger: Health, Hankerings and Habits”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. It is always fascinating to me the bodies natural responses to things like hunger or fear or even exercise. The chemicals that get released and why things are the way they are. Simply fascinating.

  2. I think the strong feelings of hunger people often feel could be due to suboptimal insulin/glucose function. I’m talking about fatigue, stomach grumbling etc.

    In the past few months, I’ve reduced carbs in my diet and begun doing 24-hour fasts from time to time. I feel hunger differently than I used to. I can skip meals easily, and I can even exercise vigorously afterward and have plenty of energy.

    Maybe when your body learns to use fat as a fuel more efficiently, it can burn your own fat reserves when you skip a meal, rather than relying on a steady stream of carbs from the diet for energy.

  3. Ah, Pavlov. Consequently, is it possible to train the brain to become “un”hungry when smelling certain smells or stimulating certain senses. Wouldn’t it be great if you could ring a bell and feel full?

  4. Hi guys. I’m having an issue with staying full now that I’m not doing grains. What am I doing wrong and what can I do better? Any suggestions? Thanks!

  5. Hi Jenna, i hope i’m not too late. I would recommend adding more healthy fats and protein to your diet.

  6. I know this is an older post, but I’m hoping that perhaps I can get some answers. I eat pretty healthily: small meals with veggies, grains like quinoa or brown rice, saturated fat in the form of butter or coconut oil, and protein via eggs, fish, or locally sourced meat. My snacks are usually toasted walnuts, chia seeds, yogurt, or sunflower seeds (unless it’s during or following a workout, in which case I’ll indulge in a granola bar or similar). But for the past couple months, even when I’m eating four meals a day, I feel constantly hungry and like I can’t eat enough. What can I tweak about my diet to remedy this?