As we know, there is more to feeling hungry than simply calories in/calories out. A properly portioned diet rich in clean protein, fiber, and fresh fruits and vegetables is the main contributor to a well-regulated appetite in healthy people.
But what does it look like when things are, well, off?
The “I’m hungry” hormones
According to nutritionist and author, Kelly LeVeque, feeling hungry is driven by eight different hormones.
Insulin, the "Storage" Hormone: When our insulin is off, maybe due to a high carb, high sugar diet, our feelings of hunger and cravings are elevated. Additionally, our bodies work to burn off those carbs first, preventing fat cells from being broken down.
Leptin, the "Satiety" Hormone: When our bodies are experiencing chronically elevated insulin levels, inflammation, and/or obesity, we end up with leptin resistance. Since leptin’s job is to tell the brain when there is enough fat stored up, we’re bound to overeat when it’s missing. Sleep deprivation, inflammatory foods, and lack of exercise are all linked to leptin resistance.
Ghrelin, the "Hunger" Hormone: Ghrelin is released when the stomach is empty and stops when the stomach lining is stretched. Unfortunately, studies show that ghrelin doesn’t decrease when the stomach is full for everyone, particularly those experiencing obesity. By eating whole grains, lots of fiber, and healthy protein instead of white carbohydrates and sugary drinks, the stomach lining is stretched and ghrelin is successfully decreased.
Glucagon-Like Peptide-1 (GLP-1), the "Full" Hormone: This hormone reaches the brain to let us know that food has entered our intestines and that we are full. When not activated due to chronic inflammation, we constantly feel hungry. By avoiding sugary, inflammatory foods and eating lots of leafy green vegetables, our bodies are generally able to reactivate GLP-1.
Cholecystokinin (CCK), the "Satiety" Hormone: When we aren’t getting enough healthy fat and fiber in our diets, we can feel lacking in energy and unsatiated. With the healthy production of CCK, thanks to a diet robust in good fats, whole grains, and clean protein, we feel satiated.
Peptide YY (PYY), the "Control" Hormone: Chronically elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance are the main contributors to impaired production of PYY. Because this hormone is key for regulating appetite, we’re going to feel hungry when it is absent. With a diet heavy in clean proteins and fiber, our bodies are able to produce the PYY they need to keep feelings of hunger at bay until we’re actually hungry.
Neuropeptide Y (NYP), the "Stimulate" Hormone: While PYY controls feelings of hunger, NYP stimulates our appetite for carbohydrates. When we’re producing too much NYP due to fasting, food depravation, and lack of protein, we’re more likely to overeat. Consistent access to healthy foods is important for regulating NYP levels.
Cortisol, the "Stress" Hormone: Ah yes, stress. When we’re stressed, our bodies produce cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol often leads to overeating and weight gain.
What are the common threads in this hunger hormone narrative?
Consider the three main factors contributing to the imbalance of these “I’m hungry” hormones.
1- High sugar, inflammatory diets.
2- Lack of healthy sleep.
3- Increased stress.
What are the effects?
We already know that diets high in sugar and carbohydrates are linked to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
But what we might not have known that low-income Americans have been shown to have a 20% higher rate of risk for heart disease than middle income adults. We’ve also learned that poverty is the leading cause of Type 2 Diabetes in the US.
The main reasons stated for heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes by these studies?
1- Lack of access to healthy food.
2- Increased levels of stress.
3- Lack of access to quality health care.
Does that seem like an unhealthy cycle to you, too? Fortunately, there are people working very hard to break it.
What are the solutions?
Non-profit activist organization WhyHunger doesn’t see hunger as the problem. They see hunger as the symptom of a problem. By focusing on social justice, human rights, and supporting grassroots activism, WhyHunger is building the movement to end hunger and poverty by connecting people to nutritious, affordable food, all while inspiring self-reliance and community empowerment.
By better understanding how stress, lack of access to healthy food and poor healthcare all contribute to the cycle of poverty and hunger, we can place even larger value on getting those living with food insecurity the healthy nutrition they need to live, work, rest, and enjoy the quality of life we all deserve.
Orgain has partnered with WhyHunger to donate clean, healthy nutrition, support their programs, and bring awareness to how we can all help #ShakeHunger.