Inside Scoop: If you’ve ever wondered “why am I hungry” even after a meal, then read on.
This post was submitted by Evan Porter, founder of The Trusty Spotter and passionate for busting fitness myths, fighting misinformation, and simplifying fitness for others on their own journeys.
Have you ever eaten a small but nutritionally balanced meal and thought… why am I hungry, like still sooooo hungry?
Almost anyone who’s ever made a switch to a more mindful eating style can relate!
You try to be “good” and not overindulge, but you can’t help it — You’re hungry and feeling drained. So, you snack some more, or pile on extra portions, even though you really don’t want to.
And what do you find? The extra munching actually doesn’t make you feel any better or more energized, just sluggish and guilty.
What’s going on here?
The majority of the nutrients from your food don’t start being absorbed by the body until about 3-6 hours after you eat. That’s right, 3 to 6 hours! That means that after you eat, your body needs a bit of time to digest the food before you start feeling the positive effects of all that nutrition you just took in.
Why does this matter? For starters, it allows you to totally reframe the way you think about hunger and nutrition.
Don’t get me wrong, you should eat nutritious and delicious foods; and plenty of them. But you should also start to internalize that fullness is not always a great representation of what your body actually needs, and eating until we feel stuffed and satisfied is a quick path to overeating.
Let’s take a deeper look at how our bodies turn food into energy and how we can use that knowledge to make healthier food choices and keep hunger at bay!
WHY AM I HUNGRY? AND WHAT TO EAT INSTEAD
Sugars and simple carbs absorb quickly but don’t give long-lasting energy.
When food enters our bodies, our digestive system has a lot of work to do. It’s looking to extract vital nutrients like proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and more.
It’s also on the hunt for anything it can break down into glucose for energy.
The easiest thing to break down into glucose is, you guessed it, glucose!
That’s part of why sugar and other simple carbohydrates (like corn syrup, fruit juices, and most of what’s inside white bread and white pasta) give us such a warm, tingly feeling. We’re evolutionarily designed to crave more and more sugar because it’s such a quick and easy source of energy.
Some forms of carbohydrates can even be absorbed into your bloodstream relatively instantly while the food is still in your mouth!
So, what’s the downside? Because sugars move through your system so quickly, the energy they give is fleeting and often hollow. It’s a big burst of glucose released into your bloodstream all at once! And then it’s gone. And you’re left craving more.
I’d never tell someone to cut sugar from their diet completely (what would be the point of life without warm brownie or a cone of ice cream?), or even to eliminate white breads and pastas completely. It’s just something to be aware of — a meal made up of lots of simple carbs might feel great in the moment, but you’ll be craving more before you know it.
In addition, during periods of stress or in times when we’re lacking sufficient sleep, our hormones and gut microbiome can get disturbed, and this results in more intense cravings for carbs. It’s important to be aware of when this may happen and be prepared with healthier choices at hand.
Protein and fats take longer to break down, and are key building blocks of a healthy body.
Contrary to what you might have heard a decade ago, fat is back.
Yes, it turns out that (certain) fats are extremely good for you and even vital to your body functioning properly. And protein? Probably the most important macronutrient there is (after all, who’s ever heard of a low-protein diet!).
Fats and proteins are far more difficult for your body to break down. The process takes longer (think that 3-6 hour mark), which is a good thing! A diet full of healthy fats and proteins will keep you fuller, longer and provide a slow release of vital nutrients.
From the time they hit your stomach, fats and proteins take different paths. Fats are split into glycerol, which can be turned into glucose for energy, and fatty acids, which aids in muscle movement, inflammation, and hormonal balance. Basically, fat helps you feel your best.
Proteins are broken down into amino acids and shipped off to strengthen and rebuild your muscles, hair, nails, and other tissues.
Both proteins and fats can be used for energy, and even though they’re not your body’s preferred source, they are important fail-safes to have at the ready.
However, if you are craving that full-bellied feeling, a meal with a hefty serving of lean protein and healthy fat (like olive oil, beans, nuts, and seeds) should more than do the trick.
Complex carbs are the king of healthy, sustainable energy.
OK, so if simple carbs and sugar break down too quickly, and protein and fats take a longer time and mostly do important things OTHER than giving energy, how do you keep from feeling like crap all the time?
The answer is… complex.
Complex carbs, that is.
Yes, a diet full of whole grains, brown rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and even fiber-rich fruits and veggies is the key to steady, sustainable energy flowing through your body at all times.
These carbs digest far more slowly than their simple cousins because they are rich in fiber and give you that sweet, sweet slow release energy all day long.
This is exactly why fibrous fruits like apples are an amazing source of energy. The natural sugar in the apple gives you a quick shot of happy energy, but the fiber breaks down more slowly and continues to give you a little bit of energy over the next couple of hours. They’re also more filling than they look because they hold so much water.
The trick is to combine whole grain carbs with protein and healthy fats for the ideal meal, so your plate might look like this Warm Kale & Lentil Taco Bowl. You have slow release or complex carbs and fiber from the sweet potatoes and lentils, plant-based protein from lentils and healthy fats from the dressing, and you can even add some avocado.
What if you still find yourself a little hungry after? Remember that it takes some time for your brain to switch off your hunger signals, so savour each bite and eat mindfully and slowly.
And, if your sweet tooth kicks in there are always delicious and healthier dessert options available.
What about having small snacks all day long so you never get hungry?
Let’s put this myth to bed once and for all.
Experts agree that frequent snacking or grazing will NOT curb your hunger, help you burn fat, or boost your metabolism.
In fact, it can have the complete opposite effect. Because snacks don’t fill you up, people often end up feeling deprived on these grazing diets and will compensate by binge eating at the end of the day.
Not to mention that the constant influx of food means your insulin levels stay elevated all day long, putting your body into an absorptive and storage mode, rather than fat burning mode.
Intermittent fasting (having a small eating window each day, or basically the opposite of grazing diets) can be a great eating strategy, but it’s hard to follow for everyone. Whatever you do, just stick to nutritious meals and try keep extra snacking to a minimum — it’s a habit that might take a little time to build, bt it’s totally worth it!
Putting It All Together
It sounds obvious to say, but a balanced and nutritious diet really is best.
You want to eat plenty of lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs for the right balance of fullness and long term energy.
And, of COURSE, indulging in sugar and delicious simple carbs has its place, too!
Just remember that if you’re having trouble adjusting to smaller meals or more mindful eating, it could be that your food choices aren’t doing you any favors. Plain salads seem like a healthy choice but aren’t as good at filling your belly up as the addition of protein and fats. White bread, white pasta, and sugar make you feel energized faster, but ultimately leave you wanting more and more.
If you feel like you’re always hungry after you eat, there’s a good chance your diet is high in simple carbs. If you balance your meals and fill your plate with half veggies, a quarter protein and a quarter healthy carbs at every meal, you’ll likely feel drastically better.
Now you have the math to prove it!
When Evan turned 30, he was finally ready to make a change and ditch the dad-bod. He hasn’t missed a workout in 2 years, and now has a passion for busting fitness myths, fighting misinformation, and simplifying fitness for others on their own journeys. He's written for Upworthy, Healthline, AskMen, and more. You can read more from Evan on his blog, The Trusty Spotter.