Many of my clients come to me with a common complaint: “I just ate a meal, but I just don’t feel full. Why do I feel hungry after eating? What am I doing wrong?!”
The truth is, there could be several reasons why you’re still hungry after eating! And I’ll bet some of them you haven’t considered. I’ve compiled a list of questions you can ask yourself to help you explore your hunger (and your fullness) more. Let’s talk through them together:
“Did I eat enough at my meal or snack?”
This one seems like a “duh,” but many of my clients aren’t eating enough at their meals, which means they feel hungry soon after finishing. “Why do I feel hungry after eating the recommended serving size? Isn’t that enough?” My answer is: Not always! It’s ok to eat more (or less) than the serving size listed on the nutrition label, especially if eating a little more promotes a stronger sense of fullness at meals and snacks.
“What food groups were on my plate?”
Balance matters when it comes to fullness! Each of the food groups—carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and fruits/vegetables—digest at different rates, meaning some stay in your stomach longer than others, creating a longer lasting sense of fullness. Carbs, for example, are digested faster than proteins and fats, which digest much more slowly. Fiber, found in fruits, vegetables, and some carbohydrates (like whole grains) also promotes a sense of longer lasting fullness.
For example, if you eat two slices of dry, white toast you might feel hungry again soon after. Whereas if you ate a slice of whole wheat toast (carbs, fiber), topped with avocado (fat), a poached egg (protein) with a side of blueberries (fruit, fiber) you will stay full for several hours!
Want to learn more about food groups and how to create a balanced plate? Check out our gentle nutrition guide here!
“Why do I feel hungry after eating ‘air foods’?”
“Air foods” are foods that fill up your stomach but carry little sustenance or nutrient density. Examples might be foods like rice cakes, popcorn, puffed cereal, celery, iceberg lettuce, carbonated beverages, and even water. “Why do I feel hungry after eating an entire bucket of popcorn– it was huge!” The answer is air foods might fill your stomach for a brief period of time if you eat enough of them, but our bodies can’t be tricked into believing these foods are a real meal and will send hunger signals soon after you finish eating.
There’s nothing wrong with eating foods like rice cakes or celery, just make sure you’re eating other more filling and nutrient dense foods with them. For example, rice cakes topped with hummus, cucumber and feta cheese, or celery topped with peanut butter and raisins.
“Did I enjoy what I ate?”
Satisfaction and pleasure really matter when it comes to feeling full after eating. Even if you ate a balanced plate, if you disliked all the foods being served, you will feel a nagging emptiness after eating. This is why it’s important to make peace with foods and allow yourself permission to eat the foods you actually crave. Many of my clients find that when they eat the foods they actually want, not only do they feel fuller and more satisfied, they actually tend to eat less overall.
“Was I distracted as I ate?”
Distracted eating will decrease overall satisfaction at your meals simply because you aren’t paying enough attention to how the food looks, feels, smells, and tastes. And satisfaction, as we know, is important to feeling full. I encourage my clients to eat at a table, away from their phone, tv, or computer, and notice the difference in their fullness and satisfaction. It’s not uncommon to feel distracted when eating at social gatherings or with family and friends. Try mentally checking in with your hunger and fullness halfway through your meal to encourage more mindful eating.
“Did I eat too quickly?”
When we eat too quickly, not only are we not focused on the food, our fullness, or our satisfaction, but we also aren’t giving our body a chance to send signals to our brain to say “Hey! We’re full now! We can stop!” It usually takes about 20 minutes for our stomachs to communicate fullness to our brains. So if you’re wolfing down your meal in 5 minutes and still feel peck-ish, it might be because your brain just hasn’t had time to catch up.
Try slowing down your eating by eating with your non-dominant hand, setting your fork down between bites, or taking time to mentally describe to yourself what each food on your plate feels, looks, smells, sounds, and tastes like as you eat it.
“Did I eat enough for my meals earlier in the day?”
Sometimes my clients come to me frustrated, saying that after eating their full, balanced, satisfying dinner they are still hungry. “Why am I still hungry after eating a huge dinner? What gives!” The answer is that sometimes fullness isn’t just about what you’ve eaten at one single meal—it’s about what you ate over the course of the whole day! If you skip breakfast, eat a handful of almonds for lunch, and miss all your snacks, of course dinner isn’t going to fill you up!
I tell my clients this is called “digging yourself into a hunger hole.” One adequate, balanced meal at 7pm won’t fill up the emptiness from not eating enough during the day. When these clients incorporate breakfast, lunch, and 2-3 snacks before eating dinner, they typically find their nagging hunger at night suddenly disappears.
“Is my hunger physical hunger, or another kind of hunger?”
Physical hunger is the hunger we feel in our stomachs. It often presents as an empty, grumbly feeling. If ignored too long, physical hunger may also lead to mood swings, low energy, or headaches. Physical hunger is satisfied with consistent, adequate, balanced meals. Using a hunger scale can be helpful to determine what level of physical hunger you are feeling. If you’ve tried all of the above, and you still feel a nagging hunger sensation, maybe you’re feeling another type of hunger.
Taste hunger is different from physical hunger in that it can really only be satisfied by one particular food or flavor. Honor taste hunger by checking in with yourself before eating and choosing foods you like and enjoy. Sometimes you will be physically full and still have a taste craving. It’s ok to honor taste hunger with whatever it is you’re craving, AND it’s ok to delay taste hunger until you are less physically full. After all, eating something you enjoy is a lot less enjoyable when you are overly stuffed and feel sick from eating too much.
Emotional hunger arises when we try to meet an emotional need with food. And while it’s true that food can be comforting, soothing, or joyful, other times, food may only be a short-term distraction from what you’re really feeling. It’s ok to eat in response to your emotions, though it’s important to have more than just food in your emotional coping skills toolbox.
“Am I getting enough sleep?”
What does sleep have to do with hunger and eating? A lot, as it turns out! Some research suggests that appetite can increase by as much as 30% in response to sleep deprivation. The same study also found that cravings for sweet foods can increase by up to 35% and cravings for salty foods can increase by up to 45%. Try changing up your sleep routine or seeing a sleep specialist who can help you identify what’s preventing you from getting adequate rest at night.
Some days you might just be hungrier than others…and that’s ok!
Some days you might just simply be hungrier than others, despite trying all of the above. That’s normal and ok. Other days you might be less hungry. That’s also normal and ok. Hunger is not a disease that needs to be cured. And it’s not something to fear. Feeling hungry is just as normal and healthy as feeling sleepy or feeling the need to pee.
Your hunger is also unique to you. Just because someone else is hungry doesn’t mean you must also be hungry. Likewise, just because someone else is full doesn’t mean you must also be full. You can trust your body to tell you what it needs!
When it might be something else
Sometimes constant, nagging hunger despite addressing all of the above can mean something else is going on. I recommend working with your doctor who can help identify if your hunger is related to another condition like nutrient malabsorption, insulin resistance or a thyroid hormone imbalance, among other things.
Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Kristin specializes in eating disorders and intuitive eating, and is an advocate for weight-inclusive care for all her clients.