You’re trying to rein in your nutrition and stick to a healthy eating plan, but it all seems to backfire when—right after a meal—you find yourself feeling hungry again. “After a meal, people should generally be able to go three to four hours without getting hungry,” say Tammy Lakatos Shames, R.D.N., and Lyssie Lakatos, R.D.N., the registered dietitian nutritionists also known as the Nutrition Twins. “They might need a small snack, but they shouldn’t be ravenous before that.”
If you seem to be starving post-meal, it could be that you’re not eating enough. But that’s far from the only possible reason. We broke down common causes for the hunger pangs you’re feeling and how to deal with each so you’re not munching mindlessly at all hours.
You’re exercising more than usual.
Whether you’re starting a walking program or ramping up your mileage for a marathon, extra activity can leave you really wanting more food. “If you step up your regular workout an extra ten minutes or add some intervals, those might only burn an extra 50 or 150 calories but can really increase your hunger. You might be ravenous,” Lakatos Shames says. Be careful, as you can easily consume way more calories than you just torched. She’s seen people start walking regularly and consume an extra 300 calories after even though they burned only about a third of that. Her advice: Figure out how much more you’re exercising and whether it really warrants eating extra food.
You’re not eating enough protein.
“Often we have clients who have just a salad for lunch with lots of greens but not much protein, so it’s not a lot to fill you up and keep you satisfied,” Lakatos says. Why protein is so important: It takes four to six hours to digest, unlike carbs, which only take one to three. Protein and fiber also keep blood-sugar levels in check, so you don’t crash shortly after eating. Aim for about 20 grams of protein per meal.
You’re not eating enough fiber.
“Fiber is your friend when it comes to staying full without adding calories,” says Jen Bruning, R.D.N., media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “We can’t fully digest fiber, so it’s not adding calories to our meals, but it helps us feel full for longer.” Her advice: Swap out low-fiber foods for higher-fiber alternatives (try switching white bread for whole-wheat). Plus, try to have both lean protein and fiber (such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, and whole fruits and veggies) with every meal and snack. As a general rule, you should aim for 5 to 6 grams of fiber per meal or snack, or 20 to 25 grams per day, Lakatos Shames says.
You’re not drinking enough water.
This is a big one, especially if you’ve worked out that day and maybe didn’t hydrate correctly during or afterward. “So many people think they’re hungry but are mistaking thirst for hunger,” Lakatos says. “Water takes up space in your stomach, so it automatically makes you feel fuller. But it also helps keep you satisfied because it swells the fiber you’ve eaten.” Another bonus for sipping more H2O: It eases digestion.
“If you’re hungry at a time that doesn’t make sense to you, like if you’ve eaten recently, try drinking a glass or two of water and see if that helps,” Bruning suggests. To be sure you’re downing enough water in general, check out the color of your urine, Bruning says. It should be pale yellow.
You’re emotionally eating.
Ask yourself: Am I truly hungry? “Sometimes people are so out of tune with their sense of hunger—sometimes it’s emotional hunger,” Lakatos says. To determine whether emotions are at the root of your hunger, consider eating carrots. If those don’t sound appealing, you’re not really hungry, she says. If you’re feeling run-down or drowsy, that could be another culprit, Bruning says. “Lack of sleep can lead to higher production of ghrelin, a hormone that causes us to feel hungry.”
Your meds are making you hungry.
Sometimes medications such as antidepressants can really increase appetite. Some people on antidepressants find themselves never satisfied after a meal and craving more carbs in particular. If you seem to be hungry all the time, talk to your doctor about all the meds you’re taking. There may be an alternative that won’t leave you unsatisfied and wanting all the snacks. If you’re not medicated and notice constant hunger, it might still be a good idea to consult with a doc. An undetected health issue could be the culprit, Bruning says. “Excessive hunger can be a sign of diabetes, especially if accompanied by excessive thirst or weight loss. Hyperthyroidism can be another underlying cause.”
You waited too long to eat.
“If someone waits too long to eat, sometimes they feel a lot hungrier. So if they eat their typical meal, it won’t leave them satisfied,” Lakatos says. That being said, you’re right not to double up on portions, as waiting too long doesn’t warrant extra calories. Your best bet is to set mealtime at regular hours to help keep your blood sugar stable and avoid peaks and valleys.
You’re not eating enough.
Bruning says this is generally the cause when clients tell her they’re hungry right after a meal. “What I see the most of is people simply eating too little to sustain themselves through the day,” she says. “It’s mostly when they’re following a restrictive diet—either too few calories or a diet that cuts out whole food groups.” Meet with a nutritionist and talk through your diet. They’ll be able to identify what’s missing to help keep you feeling full, satisfied, and able to cut down on all the snacking.
If you’re hungry right after eating, take all eight of these factors into consideration. Look at not only how much you’re eating but what foods you’re eating. If you consistently experience hunger after eating, talk to your doctor to make sure there isn’t an underlying medical condition causing your issue.