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This January, we’re on the search for quick, accessible hacks to kickstart 2023 in the strongest way possible. Today’s nutrition kickstarter: understanding hunger better.

My friends and family all know that I don’t cope well with being hungry. On a scale of ‘my stomach’s just started rumbling’ to ‘I can’t even string a sentence together I’m so hungry’, I’m pretty dramatic about it, but I have friends who can quite happily rub along with their hunger pangs until lunchtime with no worries.

My hunger symptoms range from feeling queasy and light-headed to full-on furious, so I asked the experts to explain what hunger really does to us. 

Why do we feel hunger?

It sounds pretty simple to say that we feel hunger because we need to eat. On the most basic level, of course this is true: we need nutrients to survive, and hunger is our evolutionary warning system that we’re running low on fuel.

But that doesn’t explain why even when we’re not hungry, the sight or thought of food can trigger a rumbling belly and salivation, and our hunger signals can also be driven by our body clock – so you’ll feel hungry at lunchtime, regardless of when you last ate. 

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It’s evolutionary

Our early ancestors were hunter-gatherers who captured and ate food as and when they found it. Sometimes they would have to go days without food, so the ability to feel hungry almost instantly upon seeing prey was incredibly useful, enabling them to eat as much as they could when food was available.

While how we live and eat has changed dramatically since then, the hormone responsible for creating those feelings of needing to eat, known as ghrelin, remains an important factor in how we recognise our hunger cues.

“When our stomach is empty, the hunger hormone ghrelin is released, signalling to the brain that we need to look for food,” explains doctor and personal trainer Dr Aishah Iqbal. “Once you are full, ghrelin levels will decline as you no longer need food. The higher the ghrelin levels, the hungrier you will feel.”

When our stomach is empty, the hunger hormone ghrelin is released, signalling to the brain that we need to look for food…

How do we know when we’re hungry?

“Hunger is such a fascinating topic,” enthuses Dr Iqbal. “We often think hunger equals belly rumbling and that’s it. However, we all individually have our own hunger cues, which is why some people feel one way and others another. How long we leave ourselves hungry will also impact the way it makes us feel.”

The first hunger signals do indeed originate in our stomachs, where the vagus nerve contracts and sends electrical signals to our brain relating to our state of fullness or emptiness. These electrical signals are reinforced by the secretion of hunger hormones (ghrelin) and also by metabolic cues such as low blood glucose – which might be experienced as light-headedness (hypoglycaemia). 

Tummy rumbling

Did you know that your tummy rumbles constantly, regardless of whether you’re hungry or not? According to Zoe Nutrition, the rumbling sounds are caused by the muscles in your intestines contracting. When you’re full, these help to move your food through your digestive tract, but when your stomach is empty, the sounds aren’t muffled by food – so we are able to hear and feel them.

Feeling sick

The rise in ghrelin when you feel hungry also causes acid levels to increase in the stomach, which can in turn make you feel queasy if you don’t eat. “Nausea and feeling sick is often a sign that you are very hungry,” says Dr Iqbal. “If you’re experiencing this frequently, you should be eating much sooner. Ignoring your hunger cues can lead to you becoming extremely hungry and you could find your focus lacking, decision making is harder and you’re more likely to have overly emotional responses. Also, in some cases getting really hungry can make you light-headed and experience a sense of weakness.”

Getting hangry

“Hangry is such an interesting term,” muses Dr Iqbal, “and it’s a reflection of just how much our hunger can impact our emotions. If we allow ourselves to become overly hungry and our energy levels are crashing, we aren’t able to think clearly and that impacts our behaviour.”

“What I’ve found really interesting about the people I work with is that the hangry aspect can come from their lack of emotional understanding,” says female health coach Abi Adams. “We all have a go-to emotional response which is the same no matter the cause.” In other words, I’m just a naturally angry person.

But if you are in the hangry camp, the good news is you’re not alone – even fruit flies have been shown to suffer. 

Why do some people struggle with feeling hungry more than others?

“Our hunger is impacted by a number of different factors,” explains Dr Iqbal. “Ghrelin levels can increase as a direct result of poor sleep. In addition, when you’re hungry, your glucose levels will likely have dropped in your blood stream. Low glucose levels cause cortisol and adrenaline to be released – the stress and fight-or-flight hormones. Cortisol can impact our behaviour, making some people feel aggressive or agitated.

“Part of the reason that some people get hangry and others don’t is connected to how good we are at managing the emotional responses we have. For some, being hungry and not being able to eat produces the emotions of overwhelm, annoyance and anger whereas others may not carry any emotional feeling towards being hungry at all.”

So, there you have it. I’m off to get some food. 

Images: Getty

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