You always had a pretty normal appetite – maybe even below average. But then you switched to Paleo, and suddenly, you’re ravenous all the time. Half an hour after eating, your stomach is growling for more. You put back huge heaps of food, but nothing seems to satisfy you: help!
Sound familiar? It’s pretty common, and it’s certainly frustrating. But even though it feels so alarming, it’s not actually a sign that you’re about to gain 50 pounds in the next week. Take a look at the reasons why you might feel constantly hungry after switching to Paleo, and what you can do:
You’re Not Eating Enough
The most basic reason why people get hungry is that they aren’t eating enough food.
But you’re eating mountains of food? That can actually be misleading: sheer volume on your plate is not a sign that your body is getting all the energy it needs. If your body needs 500 calories of energy, downing 7 cups (50 calories) of spinach will not do even though it’s a massive amount of food on the plate.
This might suddenly start being a problem on Paleo if you’re eating the same physical amount of food, but replacing energy-dense grains with energy-poor vegetables. Grains are dried out, meaning that they have very little water weight. This makes them easy to store without going bad, but it also means they pack a lot of calories into a very small space, since only a tiny amount of that space is water. Vegetables (even more energy-dense starchy vegetables like potatoes) have a whole lot more water weight, so they do not pack anything like the same amount of calories into the same space.
To illustrate this, think of one cup of flour. One cup of flour has the same number of calories as 4 cups of diced potatoes or nearly 15 cups of broccoli.
But wait…isn’t lower calorie density one of the main reasons why Paleo works so well for weight loss? Isn’t the availability of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods one of the main reasons for weight gain? Yes – but there’s also a flip side. Having too large of a calorie deficit can also be unhelpful; for one thing, it makes you hungry all the time! For weight loss, it’s slower but more sustainable to make up a part of that deficit with Paleo foods, so you aren’t miserable and starving all the time.
The fix: when you switch to Paleo, you’ll have to revise your mental estimation of a “normal” plate full of food. When you get away from grains, you need to eat not only more vegetables, but also larger portions of energy-dense foods like meat. Instead of trying to eat 15 cups of broccoli at a sitting (which is a surefire recipe for a stomachache), most people feel best if they do some combination of the following:
- Increase portions of meat and eggs.
- Increase use of cooking fats and oils.
This gives your body fat and protein, the main sources of fuel it needs to run on. You might find that once you’re eating enough of these, your hunger simply disappears, because your body no longer needs to prompt you for more food.
But what if you really are eating enough meat and fat, but you’re still constantly ravenous? If you’re still in the first few weeks of your Paleo journey, the hunger may be just a part of the transition.
Think of it this way: if you were dying of thirst in the desert and someone came up to offer you a water bottle, you’d gulp it down and ask for more right away, right? The same thing can happen in your body with nutrients. If you ate a nutrient-poor diet before, you may have some built-up deficiencies. Now, suddenly, your body is getting all the foods it needs to fill those deficiencies. Its response: “yes, this is wonderful! More, please!” – and the signal for “more, please!” is that you feel hungry. Very hungry. All the time.
It might be frustrating, but it’s understandable. The good news is that it subsides once those deficiencies are filled. Try eating very nutrient-dense foods (like liver or other organ meats). If you’re craving one thing in particular, you might even be able to identify what exactly you’re missing, and then speed up the transition process with a well-chosen supplement.
Too Much Protein
But wait, isn’t protein supposed to make you feel full?
It absolutely does, up to a point. But there’s a catch: your body can only process about 30% of daily calories from protein. That number has some individual variation (one person may be able to handle 35% while the next can only manage 25%), but it’s a good average. Beyond approximately the 30% mark, the calories are going into your mouth, but they’re just going right back out the other end without doing you any good…and you’re still hungry.
This is called “rabbit starvation” (named after the horrible symptoms that the Inuit suffered whenever they had to rely on very lean rabbit meat without any added fat).
This may be you if your daily menu looks like this:
- Breakfast: skinless chicken breast with steamed broccoli.
- Lunch: can of tuna over salad greens with mustard and vinegar, and just one tablespoon of olive oil.
- Dinner: poached tilapia fillet with fresh tomato slices and cauliflower roasted in coconut oil.
This day of food is a jaw-dropping 48% protein! (Plus 39% fat and 13% carbs). That’s rabbit starvation waiting to happen. And on top of that, it doesn’t provide nearly enough calories for an adult.
The fix: adjust your macronutrient ratios to be less protein-centric, and get more healthy calories from fat and carbs. In the meal plan above, you could make the following changes:
- Breakfast: leave the skin on the chicken breast, and melt a tablespoon of butter over the broccoli.
- Lunch: add two hard-boiled eggs to the salad, and eat an apple with 2 tbsp. of almond butter on the side.
- Dinner: replace the tilapia with salmon, and add a baked or roasted sweet potato with butter.
That day of food is looking a little more reasonable at 27% protein (although that’s still quite a lot of protein!) and also is beginning to approach the daily calorie requirements for an active adult (although it’s still quite low).
Not Enough Carbs
Even independently of how much protein you’re eating, a low-carb diet is a common trigger for hunger and cravings. It’s a common myth that carbs make you hungry: that happens in people who already have metabolic impairment, but not in healthy people eating an appropriate amount of carbs for their needs. In these people, insulin (the hormone that you produce to digest carbs) is a powerful signal for satiety, or feeling full.
Cravings are not the same as hunger. Hunger comes from the body; cravings come from the brain. Hunger is when your stomach rumbles; cravings are when you have a bad day and your thoughts go straight to the ice cream freezer even though you just had dinner. But since both show up as the desire to eat, people often confuse them.
If you’re confusing hunger and cravings, you might be trying to satisfy a craving by eating healthy food. The thought process goes something like this: “Man, I’m so stressed. I really want a cookie right now. But I know that’s not good for me – I’ll have some hard-boiled eggs as a snack instead.”
The problem here is that you didn’t need “a snack;” you needed stress relief. Hard-boiled eggs are not comfort food: you will eat them and still want the cookie afterwards, because you have not actually solved the problem that drove you to eat in the first place. You can continue in this vein, eating more and more healthy food, and feeling like a bottomless pit because you’re never satisfied.
The fix: stop trying to fill non-food “hungers” with food. Learn to recognize when you’re physically hungry, and when you’re “hungry” for love, comfort, stress relief, attention, or something else.
Is that all?
Not by a long shot. There are all kinds of other causes of hunger (including growth spurts for teenagers, pregnancy, menstrual changes, temperature…); this was just an overview of some of the most common. But if you’re aching for food all day long, there’s probably a good reason behind it, and there’s probably something you can do.
It might be as simple as not eating enough, or it might be as emotionally messy as an unmet psychological need that you’re trying to fill by eating. But there is a cause – and typically there’s also a way to recognize and address that cause, so you aren’t just left scarfing down mountains of food without ever feeling full.