Dear Nutritionist, Thank you in advance if you choose my question for your column. I really enjoy reading what you write and the videos you link to sometimes. I like that you don’t talk down to readers. Anyway, I have my own question about overeating. I have had this problem as long as I can remember. It obviously affects my weight. And as much as people talk about body positive this and that, it’s not fun being a fat woman. Everytime I go to the doctor I get “if you’d lose a little weight.” I know I need to, don’t get me wrong, I just don’t know how to! I don’t do well on diets because I’m always hungry. Like I mean ALWAYS. I will finish a meal, then probably an hour or hour-and-a half later be hungry. I’m wondering if you know why this happens or what I can do to stop it. It causes me a lot of shame and I am tired of feeling this way. I want to have self control. Thank you if you can help me. — Tina
It takes courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable publicly, so thank you for writing in with such a candid question. I admire your courage and you have touched on something other people may be struggling with. I’m happy to tell you I can explain the symptoms you are experiencing and give you a starting point to address them. They are indeed a symptom of an underlying dysfunction and it’s not because you are weak willed, so you can lay the shame down. It’s actually a matter of metabolism.
You will observe that the overweight patrons will be filling their plates with carbs. Noodles, fries, breaded food, desserts, etc, often with a soda on the side. The thinner people will be filling their plate with meat and possibly some veggies or a small dessert at the end. With water or tea/ coffee on the side. You will see they both fill their plates. Who doesn’t fill their plates at all you can eat?! But the guy eating 3 plates of crab legs looks spry while the guy eating 3 plates of pastries is 3x a healthy size. Of course, there are exceptions: when young people are very active or if a person is an athlete they can overeat carbs and stay lean while they’re young. But it catches up over time, as their set point slowly increases or their liver fails to keep up. We’ll get to that later. For now I just want you to observe. This is when we learn the most!
This theory holds true for the same reason you are hungry all the time: because of the way our metabolism works. So I’m going to geek out on it a bit.
Our bodies sustain themselves via energy created by the breakdown of food. Basically, we can use food for energy now or store it for later. We can create energy from three sources:
- Glucose (starches, sugars)
- Amino acids (proteins)
- Fatty acids (fats)
When our bodies rely mostly on starches and sugars for energy, we can get energy from the food very quickly, so we often feel “up” pretty soon after. But then the hormone insulin is secreted to get the extra sugar out of the bloodstream and into the storage sites (muscle, liver, and fat cells) and when that happens we experience a drop in energy. This is hardly noticeable at first when we’re young.
But, when we eat too much sugar or starch at once or we eat them too often, our insulin response changes. The cells get sick of insulin hijacking all cellular activity so they start to become resistant to letting it in. At this point our bodies excrete more and more insulin to get the sugar stored where it should be. When so much insulin is excreted, the blood sugar often drops too low, and energy, mood, attention, and strength are all affected.
At this point we typically feel hunger or extreme fatigue or hangry (hungry angry) or very strong cravings for another hit of starches or sugars to lift our energy back up again.
The problem is that this can quickly become a vicious cycle, especially with dietary recommendations to eat five or six small meals a day composed of 50 to 60 per cent carbohydrates. With such recommendations we are almost certainly going to become insulin resistant over time. It’s a recipe for disaster.
It gets worse. Since insulin is a hormone it impacts and signals other hormones, because hormones work in cascades. One triggers another triggers another triggers another sort of thing. Think dominoes. So when insulin is chronically high and the fat cells get full, the hormone leptin gets triggered a lot. This is the hormone that tells our brains that it’s time to shed some extra weight — the storage tank is getting too full.
Normally that would decrease our appetite and rev up our metabolism to help us shed the excess fat. It’s a built-in safeguard. However, leptin can send the signal all it wants; if insulin is high the body can’t burn the stored fat. Insulin simply shuts down the process. This is absolute proof we are not meant to consume starches and sugars regularly because these foods create regular insulin spikes, which hijack our bodies’ metabolic negative feedback mechanisms. So the body sends more leptin. If insulin is still high the cycle repeats. Over time with this cycle the body becomes resistant to leptin, as well.
At that point, a person is going to feel hungry a lot, with almost insatiable cravings, because although she is eating and eating none of the food she’s eating is being converted into energy. It’s immediately shoved into her fat cells. She feels she is starving no matter how much she eats. She simply has no energy or satiety.
The key to reversing this is really not that complicated. It requires a ketogenic diet for long enough to get down to your desired weight and stay there for well over a year. Why keto? Well, because carbs (starches and sugars) are what spike insulin and to reset this hormonal cascade, insulin needs to be removed from the picture. That’s the basis of a keto diet.
Why for a year at your ideal weight? Well a year is long enough for the body to start to accept that as your set weight. The goal isn’t to lose weight. It’s to reset your set weight.
You see, our bodies have a weight range that they consider “normal” and they try to keep us within that range by adjusting our metabolic hormones accordingly. Our set weight is biologically wired to be neither too lean nor too plump — we should have enough body fat to be able to survive when food is lean but not too much to run from wild animals and be active as needed for the survival of the tribe.
But our set weight can creep up over time as our eating habits change. When we are healthy and lean as youth, it’s much harder to gain weight than when we have carried excess weight for years. This is because when we maintain a weight for years that becomes our new set weight and our bodies regulation systems fight to keep us there. The answer to reset this? Lower insulin long enough to get down to your optimal weight and then stay there long enough to make that your new normal. We need to reset our set weight.
But What About Hunger?
What most people don’t realize about hunger is that it’s signalled by a hormone that spikes and drops within 20 minutes. They typically happen when our bodies have grown to expect food. So if we eat at 5 p.m., the hunger might start at 4 or 4:30. But when we alter our schedule for a while, our bodies express hunger according to that new schedule. It usually only takes half a week to a week. So if you stop eating three meals and day and only eat two or even one, the body adapts and only expresses hunger around those eating times.
Cravings are signals that our bodies have low energy or are tired or need nutrients they aren’t getting. Craving chocolate? You likely are low in magnesium. Crave chips? Your thyroid may be a bit low. Craving sugar? You aren’t eating enough vitamin Bs for energy, so your body wants to bypass that to get a fast hit of energy. Craving coffee? You’re either not sleeping deeply enough or again lacking Bs.
In essence, cravings are the way our bodies speak to us. Just like symptoms. If we listen, we can usually figure out what they’re about. Sometimes they are even emotional in nature. We can crave a food because it’s associated with celebration — like cake. We only need to become more aware to understand this. Then fill up with healthy food when the craving hits and wait 20 minutes. If they just won’t go away, it’s time to get tested for imbalances and deficiencies. And for food intolerances. We often crave the foods we’re most reactive to.
So What’s The Fix to Hungry All the Time?
The answer is to incorporate fasting into our diet to allow our insulin to settle down long enough to start to burn some of our body fat and allow the satiety hormone to be regulated again. This is most easily done by consuming two meals a day, within an eight to four-hour window. People who are extremely overweight can even try an OMAD diet, which is one meal a day, if supervised by a professional to ensure they are meeting their nutritional needs. For more on fasting I recommend readers look up the word of Dr. Jason Fung.