Hungry all the time and obsessed with food? Balancing your hunger hormones–leptin, ghrelin, insulin, and cortisol–helps you to actually feel full, satisfied, and at peace–all while creating a healthy relationship with food. We'll teach you how!
This guest post is from Tisha Riman, a nutritionist, food stylist, recipe developer and the blogger behind The Nourished Mind: where self-care meets nutrition. There you’ll find lots of gluten-free recipes, as well as tips on how to improve gut health, practice intuitive eating and reduce stress. Whether it’s a green smoothie or a glass of wine, Tisha believes that a well-balanced lifestyle is one that you actually enjoy. Over to you, Tisha!
As a nutritionist, people often find it hard to believe that I used to struggle with binge eating. But I did. For years I battled with disordered eating in the form of binging and purging—with no end in sight. The problem wasn’t that I wasn’t eating well—or at least, at the time what I thought was well, according to the Food Guide. The problem was that I was always hungry.
It didn’t matter how much I ate—there would be times my stomach would be full and aching; I’d even have to unbutton my pants—but I couldn’t stop eating. I felt out of control. For someone so interested in health from such a young age, why couldn’t I find that self-discipline? Where was my willpower?
Throughout my teens and early twenties, this eating pattern kept me feeling guilty and forever obsessing about food. How could I eat less? How many calories was that? Would anyone notice if I just ate the celery sticks? How did I eat that whole pint of ice cream in one sitting?
Everything around me—articles in magazines, wellness sites, endless internet searches—told me this was my fault. I needed to learn self-control. (Spoiler alert: it’s not and I don’t.)
The end of my vicious cycle of binging and purging came about by accident. I was advised to go gluten-free by my doctor for other health issues, and, unable to find any real gluten-free alternatives on pantry shelves in 2010, I stumbled upon a diet that was gluten-free by default: the paleo diet.
Following a paleo protocol, I started eating more protein, more healthy fats, lots of greens and complex carbohydrates in the form of sweet potatoes. I cut out refined sugar and processed foods. And for the first time ever, for as long as I could remember, I felt full.
While I’m not a strict paleo eater now, and I prefer a whole foods approach to wellness, going paleo for a few years helped me discover the role that food has in balancing hormones and managing hunger.
It would still be another few years (plus some cognitive behavioral therapy and lots of nutrition education) before I’d be able to let go of the diet mentality that was holding me back and making me miserable. But being able to feel full gave me the freedom to start that work, go easy on myself and give me peace of mind.
For the first time, I could think about something else beyond what I was going to eat for dinner—and that was so powerful. While a healthy relationship with food is crucial to long-term happiness and sustainability, I understand that if you always feel hungry it can be hard to not spiral into these cycles of guilt-eating and shame.
That’s where balancing your hunger hormones comes in.
If you’ve ever felt saying no to food is impossible, even with practices like intuitive eating, this post is for you. We’re talking about the four big hormone players when it comes to hunger, and what you can do to manage hunger while still creating a healthy relationship with food.
WHAT ARE THE HUNGER HORMONES?
Hunger Hormones: Leptin
Leptin is your “satiety hormone”—it’s a hormone produced by your fat cells, and it’s responsible for regulating your hunger and telling your body how much to eat. (source) When the system is working as it should, leptin is carried through the bloodstream to the brain, where it signals to the hypothalamus that you have enough body fat and can stop eating. (source) The more body fat you have, the more leptin you have, telling your body to eat less.
Conversely, the less fat you have, the less leptin you have, which signals to the brain that you need to eat more. From an evolutionary standpoint, this system would have been essential for our survival: making sure we’re eating enough to stay alive.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for this system to get out of balance and experience leptin resistance. This is when you have high body fat, and therefore high leptin levels—meaning your body should be getting the signal to eat less—but your brain doesn’t acknowledge it. (source)
The result: you feel hungry because your brain thinks you’re starving.
Hunger Hormones: Ghrelin
If leptin is the hormone that tells you that you’re full, ghrelin is the hormone that tells you that you’re hungry. (source) Ghrelin is produced in your gut, and its main job is to signal to your brain that you need to eat more and store fat. (source) The more ghrelin you have, the hungrier you are, and the less you have, the more full you are.
Unlike leptin, just because you have more body fat doesn’t mean you have more ghrelin. In fact, those with more body fat tend to have less ghrelin than people who are leaner, but are more sensitive to it. (source)
And one way that is sure to increase ghrelin? Dieting. (source) In fact, research suggests that the longer you diet, the higher your ghrelin levels rise. This makes sustainable eating practices all the more important.
Hunger Hormones: Insulin
You might already be pretty familiar with this hormone: insulin is a fat-storage hormone produced in your pancreas, and its main responsibility is to balance blood sugar. When working optimally, insulin is secreted after eating, where it sweeps up glucose in the blood and stores it away for later use.
Insulin resistance is when cells stop responding to insulin, so the glucose has nowhere to go (think of it like someone knocking on the door, and the person on the other side won’t open it).
This can happen for a variety of reasons, including the overconsumption of processed carbohydrates and sugar, which can create blood sugar spikes and crashes. (source) As insulin resistance occurs, the body produces more insulin to help regulate blood sugar, and the elevated insulin levels can increase hunger. (source)
Hunger Hormones: Cortisol
This one might be a surprise to you, but cortisol, the “stress hormone” produced by the adrenal glands, actually has a role in hunger. It turns out that elevated stress levels can trigger a hunger response. (source)
One study found that women with binge eating disorder, who underwent stress (in the form of submerging their hands in ice water for 2 minutes) had increased cortisol levels and a greater desire to binge than the control group. (source)
Not surprisingly, dieting and decreased calorie intake can actually increase cortisol levels, leaving dieters to feel more stressed out and hungrier. (source)
HOW TO BALANCE YOUR HUNGER HORMONES
As you can see, our hormones actually play a significant role in how hungry we feel, and can therefore influence and shape our relationship with food.
So what can we do?
- Eat Enough. This may sound counterintuitive, but making sure you’re getting enough nourishment can actually help you to regulate hunger, increase your metabolism and even lose weight, as your body no longer feels like it’s in starvation mode. As you already saw, restrictive dieting can increase hunger, and research shows that periods of higher calorie intake can decrease ghrelin levels. (source) Opt for whole, unprocessed foods as the staple of what you’re eating—and don’t forget to leave some guilt-free space for your favorite foods and treats!
- Add Some Protein. Protein is a very satiating food, and it can help to increase feelings of fullness by decreasing levels of ghrelin and improving insulin resistance. (source) (source) Healthy sources of protein include grass-fed steak, pastured chickens and eggs, sustainably-sourced seafood, beans, legumes and organic, non-GMO tempeh and tofu. (Get it: Butcher Box high-quality meat delivered to your door!)
- Increase Your Fiber. Fiber-rich foods like beans, lentils, avocados, apples and root vegetables help to keep you full, while also improving gut health, which can help regulate ghrelin. (source)
- Balance Your Blood Sugar. Reducing processed foods and refined carbohydrates is one of the most significant changes you can make to help balance your hormones and regulate your hunger. This is where my love for paleo baking comes into play—there are so many delicious recipes for paleo baked goods that offer up more fiber, fat and protein than your typical desserts, without sacrificing flavor. (Make it: Paleo Vegan Salted Caramel Brownies)
- Eat Healthy Fats. Fats like omega-3s (found in fatty fish like salmon) and monounsaturated fats (like avocados and olive oil) can help bring down fasting insulin levels and increase satiety. (source)
- Manage Stress. Prioritizing stress management techniques, like meditation, can help to reduce stress levels and cortisol. (source) Make sure you’re carving out time for things you enjoy, and reducing activities that bring you stress (like that side job that’s not paying you what you’re worth anyway). And if food is a source of stress for you, consider working with an expert, like a cognitive behavioral therapist or a dietitian, to foster healthy relationships around eating.
- Get Some Sleep. As if you didn’t need more encouragement to get some shuteye, not getting enough sleep can both decrease leptin levels and increase ghrelin, leaving you feeling hungrier the next day. (source) Make sure you’re sticking to a regular sleep routine as best as you can, and for the nights where complete rest was not an option, have a little compassion if you find yourself reaching for a donut the next day.
Thanks again, Tisha, for sharing your wisdom with us!