Here are some reasons people feel hungry, even after eating a meal.
Eating ultra-processed foods
Research has shown that hunger isn’t the same for all foods. If you’re hungry, you probably crave calorie-dense foods — such as those high in sugar, carbohydrates or fats. That might be why people rarely say they’re craving an apple. Instead, we tend to want tortilla chips, cookies or pizza.
It sounds counterintuitive, but eating certain foods might also be making you feel hungrier. Carbohydrates don’t suppress hunger hormones for as long as fat or protein. Ultra-processed foods appear to promote appetite, though scientists are still unclear as to why. And liquid sources of calories — such as smoothies — are less filling than solids.
High-calorie foods, at least in rodents, cause inflammation in body-weight regulating areas of the brain that increases consumption of these foods. Eating as much as they can while food is plenty makes sense for bears about to hibernate, for example. But if the same inflammation occurs in the brain in humansit could create a cycle of feeling hungry and opting for high-energy foods over and over.
Your hunger could also just be a matter of how life’s priorities affect energy needs. Think about your eating pattern: When do you get hungry? After vigorous exercise? At night? People can feel less hungry immediately after exercise but much hungry hours or even days later.
You might be limiting food intake during the day because of a busy schedule or efforts to manage your weight, but then experience cravings or a lack of fullness in the evenings.
A common — but often overlooked — factor in your appetite is whether you recently lost weight.
Bodyweight is a tightly regulated biological system. After weight loss, hormones in the blood signal the brain that energy stores in the form of fat are being depleted. Energy availability is critical to survival, so the brain acts to save energy and boosts our drive to eat.
This happens regardless of the weight you started at and even if you were having health problems related to your weight.
Approved experts that the brain powerfully defends the level of body fat and that this can drive weight regain after weight loss. This accumulated research is why many scientists think we should consider obesity to be a chronic disease and why treatment recommendations more often include medication as well as lifestyle changes, especially for those with serious health concerns related to their weight.
In general, if you aren’t meeting your body’s total daily energy needs to maintain your weight, your brain will motivate you to eat. Skipping meals or going long periods of time without eating stimulates appetite through hormone changes and the brain. You might experience this as a growing stomach, but also as cravings or urges.
It’s worth checking your medication list with your doctor as well. Some medications for diabetes (glyburide, glipizide), neuropathy (gabapentin) and depression (mirtazapine) are associated with increased appetite and weight gain.
If your appetite has noticeably changed, especially if you’ve been gaining or losing weight, it’s important to be evaluated by a physician. Loss of appetite can accompany serious illnesses, including diabetes, cancer or depression. Increased appetite and weight gain are symptoms of hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian syndrome and sleep disorders.
If your hunger issues began as a child — when you were 5 years old or younger — rare genetic conditions could be the cause. Genes are another powerful influence: Studies have shown that the brain responds to food similarly in identical twins, who also have a similar baseline appetite level. Hormonal changes of puberty, pregnancy and premenstrual syndrome commonly affect appetite.
If you experience a sense of loss of control or feeling numb and consume large amounts of food to the point of discomfort, or are purging after you eat, then you should be evaluated for an eating disorder.
Stress, emotions and sleep
Stress levels, boredom, food cues, emotions and poor sleep can trigger your urge to eat. In those cases, mindful or intuitive eating might be a good strategy to investigate, as can addressing the underlying cause, such as ensuring you get good, quality sleep.
It might take time to sort out these issues, so be kind to yourself. Feelings around food, weight and body image can be intense. Many people have experienced bias or discrimination because of weight stigma, including from health professionals. So if you’re being blamed or shamed, look for medical help elsewhere. Everyone deserves to feel safe and supported when discussing issues of weight and appetite.
Remember that there’s a reason urges to eat are so powerful. Though our food system and diets have changed in modern times, our brains are still wired for survival. Even when we aren’t aware of it, this biological drive shapes our behavior.