The answer, not surprisingly, is: It’s complicated.
First, it helps to understand why we feel hungry — the hunger sparked by needing more calories to run our bodies.
“This is a physiologic type of hunger that occurs when we haven’t eaten in a long time,” Dr. Lisa Neff, an assistant professor in the division of endocrinology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told TODAY. “We feel discomfort in our stomachs. There’s a rumbling that typically builds gradually. We may feel a decrease in energy and the ability to concentrate. Sometimes there’s a headache or irritability. As we go longer and longer without food, the hunger and stomach pangs get worse.”
How do you know it's a real need for sustenance?
“You can eat carrots or an apple and you will feel better,” said Neff.
Ultimately, what causes us to feel hungry when we need to eat is the release of certain hormones, including ghrelin, said Tom Hritz, clinical nutrition manager at the Magee-Womens Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “And there are opposite hormones that signal when you’ve eaten enough and your belly is full. These hormones send the message that you can stop eating now.”
Overtired and stressed
When we’re overly tired, the same hunger-sparking hormones appear, Hritz said. So, even though we might not need more calories, we actually do feel hunger pangs.
Stress can also lead to a release of hunger hormones, said Hritz. Once our fight-or-flight response is triggered, the body starts looking for more nourishment but we don't actually need all those extra calories.
That's when it's important to find distraction from food rather than eating.
There are also times when we think we’re hungry and we’re really not physically primed to look for food, said Neff, adding that it’s not uncommon for people to feel the urge to eat when they are sad or lonely. When it’s emotionally-driven eating, carrots or an apple just won’t fill the void.
“People tend to lean towards foods that are going to provide an emotional boost — and those foods are ones that are rich in sugar and/or fat,” said Neff. “Those foods are thought to stimulate the same receptors, dopamine and opioid, that are stimulated by certain addictive drugs. They produce a pleasurable response in our brain.”
Another concern with emotionally-driven eating is that may increase the risk of binge-eating and other eating disorders like bulimia, according to a study published in the June 2020 issue of Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, which analyzed how the eating styles and emotional states of 80 women in Salzburg, Austria, were reflected in changes in their appetites.
Thirst can also fake you out, Danyale McCurdy-McKinnon, clinical psychology director of the Fit for Healthy Weight Clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles, told TODAY. That’s because the symptoms of dehydration, such as tiredness, dizziness and lightheadedness, can overlap those of hunger, she explained.
One way to rule out thirst, is to make sure you are getting enough fluid during the day, McCurdy-McKinnon said. “If it’s only been a couple of hours since you’ve eaten and you feel hungry, try drinking some water first. And if you still feel hungry then have a snack.”
And then there’s eating because you have a craving. “That’s when you have a desire for a very specific food, where nothing else will satisfy you,” explained Neff. “It’s often linked to emotional eating, but not always. Sometimes I’m sad and I want a cookie, but sometimes I just want a cookie.”
So how do you determine whether your urge to eat is driven by real hunger or something else?
First, said Hritz, “put your mind down to your stomach. Do you feel your stomach rumbling? If you don’t maybe you should take a walk, drink some water or chew some gum. Those things can eliminate false signals.”
Neff also shared these helpful tips:
- Rate your hunger on a scale of one to 10 to determine how hungry you really are.
- Try eating something healthy that will give you some sense of fullness.
- If you decide you’re not really hungry, try to distract yourself by going out for a walk, calling a friend or finding something else to do while you wait for the emotional trigger or craving to pass.
- If it’s a craving you want to satisfy, find something that tastes like what you desire, but is lower in calories.
- If you’re hungry and tired, said Neff, “the best thing is to go get some sleep. And if you can’t go to sleep the best thing is to be mindful when you’re eating and try to choose low calorie foods.”
And remember, said McCurdy-McKinnon, it’s OK to treat yourself once in a while, so long as you don’t make a habit of it.