What triggers hunger?

Paula Greer
Midwifery Nursing
One of the things I learned on my weight loss journey is that there are internal and external cues that could trigger my overeating.

Internal cues where things like the hunger pains I thought I was having when my hormones gremlin and leptin went to war or my body’s confusion of thirst vs. hunger.

External cues were the triggers in my environment. These were easier to control when I learned what they were and started changing my habits and behaviors.

Some external cues/triggers you may want to watch for:
  • The sight of food
  • Smells of food
  • Watching television, especially commercials for foods and snacks
  • Watching other people eat
  • Being in my car
  • Being offered food
An external cue can be anything that makes you think about food, start craving it and then eventually eating it. Identifying your internal and external cues/ triggers and planning how to avoid them will be an important part of making the lifestyle changes you need to be successful in your quest for weight loss and enjoying better health.
Manuel Villacorta
Nutrition & Dietetics

Hunger hormone ghrelin triggers hunger as Dr. Oz mentioned. You can control ghrelin by making sure you eat throughout the day. I normally recommend my clients to eat every 3-4 hours and to make sure include protein and healthy carbs when eating. 

For example, if you eat a salad, add chicken, fish, or tofu (protein) as well as a healthy whole grain such as brown rice, quinoa, or beans (carbs). Use this technique when snacking too. Try an apple (carb) and some string cheese (protein). 

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Your stomach and intestines do more than hold food and produce Richter-worthy belches. When your stomach's empty, it releases a feisty little chemical called ghrelin. When your stomach's growling, it's this gremlin of a hormone makes you want to eat. Yes, ghrelin is the culprit that's sending desperate messages that you need to devour a dozen chili dogs immediately.

To make things worse, when you diet through deprivation, the increased ghrelin secretion sends even more signals to eat, overriding your willpower and causing chemical reactions that give you little choice but to line your tongue with bits of beef jerky.

Ghrelin also promotes eating by increasing the secretion of growth hormone (ghre is the Indo-European root word for growth). So when you increase ghrelin levels, you stimulate that growth hormone to kick in, and growth hormone builds you not only up, but out as well.

An interesting note: scientists found how ghrelin works accidentally: In gastric bypass surgery, doctors cut out the part of the stomach that secretes ghrelin. They soon realized that it wasn't just the smaller stomachs, but the reduced ghrelin production that helped surgery patients eat less food. The eat-everything signal was shut off, clearing the way for the satiety center to take care of its business.
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Hunger can be triggered by physiological, environmental and emotional factors, and so it can be difficult to figure out the best times to eat and not overdo it.

People can often recognize physical hunger by a growling stomach or a slightly nauseous and/or light-headed feeling. This usually happens after an extended period without food (anywhere from approximately three to six hours). Eating is the appropriate response to signs of physical hunger and learning skills to identify your hunger signals are important for lasting weight management.

Eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re satisfied can prepare the way for managing other types of hunger.

Weight Watchers offers a comprehensive approach to weight loss that can help you reach your goals.

Various physiologic feedback mechanisms involving the mouth, stomach, intestines, and brain all work together to increase or decrease your hunger. Many hormones play a role. When your stomach is empty, the hormone ghrelin, which is produced mainly in the stomach, signals your brain that you need to take in food. Your body produces more ghrelin during fasting (such as between meals) in order to stimulate hunger, and it produces less after food is consumed.

Another hormone, leptin, which is produced in fat tissue, helps regulate your body fat by affecting hunger. As your fat stores increase, leptin signals the brain to decrease your level of hunger and food intake.

Once food enters your mouth, sensory signals are sent to the brain that tell you whether or not to continue eating. The feedback mechanism is very much affected by your prior experience of tasting that food.

Joel H. Fuhrman, MD
Family Medicine
We commonly call the feeling of wanting or needing to eat "hunger," but to understand hunger, we need to address four important considerations: volume, nutrients, calories, and addictions.

1) Volume: You must consume an adequate amount of food, and fiber from that food, to physically feel satiated.

2) Nutrients: You must consume enough nutrients in your food for your body to meet its biological need to thrive. Even if you have adequate volume, if it's from low-nutrient food, your body will have a nutrient deficit, and you will feel you require more food.

3) Calories: You will be driven to overconsume calories unless you get enough volume and nutrients for your body to feel satiated.

4) Addictions: You must put an end to your addictions to food, which often manifest themselves in discomfort and cravings. If you don't, your body will not be able to regulate its caloric needs appropriately.

As you can see, each of these dimensions addresses your body's need for food, but none of them exists independently. If one dimension is not tended to, the others will be thrown off.
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Laura Katleman-Prue
Nutrition & Dietetics
Here's how to identify eating triggers:
  • Notice that a craving is on the scene and get yourself the heck out of the kitchen!
  • Ask yourself, "What am I needing right now that is causing me to want some pleasure?" If the answer is appreciation, comfort, or understanding, in your imagination, give yourself what you need -- a hug or words of consolation or praise.
  • Alternatively, ask yourself, "Is there something else here that's whole and complete and doesn't need anything?" This will help you see the real you, the you that doesn't actually need what you may think you need.
  • Ask yourself, "Is there something I need to address inside myself, with another person, or in my life?" Get curious about what that could be and be prepared for insights to arise. Then, take action to address any disharmonies or imbalances.
  • Ask yourself, "What is it that is aware of the thought 'I want food right now'?"
  • Next, ask, "Is that thought or impulse to eat really me? If I am aware of it, how can it be me?" Once you realize that this thought is not you, you automatically dis-identify with it, and it loses its power.
  • Tell yourself, "Oh, that's just the ego's Child (pleasure-seeking impulses). No big deal. For a minute there, I thought I wanted to eat something, but it was just what the Child wanted. She wanted to distract me. Thank goodness it's just the Child and not me."
  • Notice that an impractical food thought is on the scene and imagine flicking it away, the same way you would flick away an annoying mosquito.
  • Remember the whole picture of food. The pleasure of eating a particular food is so short-lived! Imagine how bad you will feel if you overeat.
  • Ask yourself if you are physically hungry. This is different from just wanting to taste something nice. One of my workshop participants uses what she calls "the cottage cheese test." She likes cottage cheese, but the only time she actually wants to eat it is when she's truly hungry. If she could eat cottage cheese, she knows she's hungry. If she couldn't eat cottage cheese and she wants to eat something, she knows that she's not physically hungry and something else is going on. If you answer no when you ask yourself if you're physically hungry, ask yourself, "What's going on that's causing me to want to move toward food when I'm not hungry?"
Skinny Thinking: Five Revolutionary Steps to Permanently Heal Your Relationship With Food, Weight, and Your Body

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Kelly Traver
Internal Medicine
Triggers could be actual emotions such as anger, loneliness, frustration, stress, or sadness. Or there could be a certain time of the day, such as when you come home from work, or a certain activity, such as when you are watching television or doing your homework, that can trigger you to eat.

First, identify these triggers. Then, think of a few alternative strategies you could try in place of eating. Remember, whenever you have a food craving, try waiting 15 minutes to see whether the craving passes.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.