Hunger: Why am I hungry all the time and how to make it stop

Hunger is related to your hormones.. and those hormones are not necessarily related to your body’s caloric needs.  

Hunger vs. calories needed

For years I believed that hunger was my body’s signal that it needed more calories.  So I ate the calories reasoning “I’m hungry therefore I must need the calories”.  Now this wasn’t always the case.. I mean I may not have been hungry when I got a slice of cake but the cake was good and I ate it.. and then a couple hours later (long before the calories should have run out) I was hungry again.  This vicious cycle (and total misunderstanding of hunger) lead to weight gain which landed me a starring role in our modern “obesity epidemic”.  Along the way it never occurred to me that my body was lying to me (or that I was interpreting the signal wrong).

One of the most surprising things to me when I started Keto was that the hunger signal completely stopped.  I know you hear it on a lot of diets “I’m following {this diet} and I’m just not hungry”.. but I’d never really experienced it.  On Keto I just wasn’t hungry.  I didn’t feel the need to nibble.  I wasn’t hangry.  In fact I was able to skip breakfast and barely even notice.

So for a while there I just didn’t eat.  My calories were barely breaking 1k per day and I was losing weight like crazy and I wasn’t hungry.  It seemed like magic until one day I had an incident of hypoglycemia (super low blood sugar).  Then a few days later it happened again.. and then again a few days after that.  With each of these incidents it felt like the room was incredibly hot and my heart starting beating super hard and then I was dizzy and a bit out of it and then finally super hungry.  Then I ATE ALL THE THINGS.

In the span of two weeks I had three incidents of hypoglycemia.  On the last incident I checked my blood sugar during the episode and it was at 38 (below 70 is “deeply concerning”).  This scared me.  I stepped back from keto (relaxed into mostly low-carb and raised my calories to the 1600-1800 range) and the weight loss skidded to a stop.  I also didn’t have any more incidents of hypoglycemia.  For the last three months I’ve pretty much hovered at that same spot weight-wise.  I’m still puzzling over what to do going forward to lose weight but these hypoglycemic incidents have led me to a HUGE epiphany about hunger.

Hunger is related to your hormones.. and those hormones are not necessarily related to your body’s caloric needs.

Hunger hormones run amok

Insulin signals your body to store energy in fat cells and Glucagon signals your body to liberate energy from fat cells.  Ghrelin grows your appetite and leptin lowers it.  Ideally these hormones would all play in harmony but unfortunately our diet and lifestyle push these hormones out of whack leading to not-expected-by-nature effects.

Specifically, the high sugar/high carb/low sleep environment of modern life has led to higher than normal insulin and ghrelin levels leading to obesity.

Here’s a graph from “A Recipe for Life by the Doctor’s Dietitian” p. 20 (a fabulous book about clean eating/low carb which I highly recommend) summarizing research by David Cummings, M.D. and colleagues at the University School of Medicine in Seattle about ghrelin:


I saw this graph years ago when I first learned about ghrelin and leptin but I didn’t really comprehend what it was telling me.  It wasn’t until I (mostly) eliminated carbs from my diet and I experienced this first hand that I finally understood what it was showing me.

We eat carbs.  This raises our blood glucose.  Our body releases insulin to lower the blood sugar.  Insulin signals our body to move the glucose out of our blood stream into our fat cells.  The level of ghrelin (hunger hormone) initially lowers but then raises significantly making us even more hungry so we eat more carbs restarting the whole cycle.  Each time we go through the loop we end up storing more and more calories as fat.

In the keto diet we mostly eliminate the carb line leaving us with the protein and fat lines.. so after we eat, our ghrelin (hunger hormone) goes down and stays down for much longer.  In fact you need to take special efforts to make sure you don’t under eat and slow your metabolism.

Given a moderate amount of carbs consumed with protein and fat this hunger level would work to hold our bodies at a “healthy” weight.  Unfortunately the Standard American Diet has pushed this all out of whack and we’ve ended up with our very modern problem of an “obesity epidemic”.