For a few months now, I've been hungry all the time. I mean all the time — in the morning, at night, while eating, and even after a big meal. I snack all the time but it doesn't seem to change much. I exercise regularly (but not excessively) and try to eat healthy and I don't seem to have gained much weight. I try to fill myself up with healthy snacks like fruit and nuts. I'm a vegetarian, so I do wonder if the constant hunger could indicate that I'm not getting enough protein, but I haven't eaten meat in years and this feeling only started a few months ago. I know nuts are supposed to be good for you, but I lately I've been eating three or four servings a day, which is quite a bit for a 108 pound woman. (And I'm 22, so I'm not still growing.) Do you know what this could be? Is it possible I have some sort of intestinal parasite? Or is it nothing to worry about? Thanks so much.
— Overactive eater
Dear Overactive eater,
Generally, a case of the munchies is your body's way of signaling that it's time to refuel. However, if eating snacks or even full meals doesn't fill you up, then there may be another cause for your ongoing hunger. Additionally, if changing up your diet doesn't help, a visit to a health care provider may help ease your mind and your appetite. Based on your description, it is less likely that you have a digestive parasite. Rather than fueling your hunger, most stomach bugs kill your appetite by causing digestive troubles such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. There is one infamous bug, the Taeniasis parasite (also known as tapeworm), that is often blamed for insatiable appetites or unintended weight loss. However, given that Taeniasis is acquired by eating infected pork or beef, it's unlikely that you have a tapeworm since you've been vegetarian for years.
As you mentioned, people who follow a vegetarian diet sometimes don't get enough protein. These powerful nutrients give your body energy and also help you feel full, more so than carbs or fruits and vegetables. Vegetarians also need to consider the kind of proteins they eat, as individual plant foods don't supply all the amino acids that your body needs like meat products do. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and while some are made by the human body, others can only be consumed through food. Animal products have all of the essential amino acids, so foods such as eggs and dairy could provide those for you. However, plenty of plant-based foods also have protein in them, too. Soy products and grains such as quinoa and amaranth can also be good sources of protein. Many plant-based foods don't contain all of the amino acids, so eating them in a combination with each other can help ensure you get different amino acids to create what is called a complete protein. To make sure you're getting a complete protein package, try combining two complementary foods that offer different amino acids from these protein groups: grains, legumes, beans, seeds, and nuts. For example, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich combines grains (if you can, go for whole wheat bread!) and legumes (peanuts) for a complete protein. Moreover, newer research has indicated that protein pairings need not be consumed at the same time, meaning that it's sufficient to combine the complementary foods within the same day. Additionally, another source of satisfaction comes from eating enough fat. Depending on your level of physical activity and other factors, your fat needs will vary. However, recent research shows that eating moderate amounts of healthy fats can really help satisfy an individual's hunger. In addition to nuts, think about eating avocado and healthy oils such as canola, olive, safflower, or trans-fat free spreads. For more tasty protein and fat pairings, check out the our Q&As about protein and healthy fat sources. Furthermore, you can also check out ChoseMyPlate.gov to calculate your calorie, protein, fat, and carb needs and determine whether what you're eating is enough to meet your nutritional needs.
In order to make sure you're eating enough of the proteins and fats your body needs as part of a balanced diet, it may be helpful for you to keep a food journal. You can use the journal to plan out meals, make grocery lists that include healthy and filling snacks, and record when and what you eat throughout the day (and night). The food journal may help you answer some key questions to explain the uptick in your appetite. For example, are you eating enough calories throughout the day to make you feel full? Do your tummy rumblings coincide with any particular emotions such as stress, sadness, or happiness? If you do end up seeing a health care provider, the journal will help them better understand your diet and what might be causing your excess hunger.
If adjusting your diet doesn't seem to satisfy your hunger, there may be an underlying health condition that's giving you the munchies. Causes of increased appetite may include:
- Certain medications (such as corticosteroids and some antidepressants)
- Diabetes mellitus
- Grave's disease
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
List adapted from MedlinePlus.
Fueling up with more complete proteins and healthy fats may help you feel full and keep your body running strong. However, if this won't satiate your appetite, your best bet is to see a health care provider as they can help figure out why you're having hunger pangs. Furthermore, visiting a medical provider is a good idea especially if you have any other unexplained symptoms such as frequent urination, increased heart rate, or feeling very thirsty.
Hope this information helps!
Originally published Sep 03, 2009
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