- by Jared
Have you ever felt confused because you ate a meal but very quickly afterwards you became hungry again?
Or perhaps hunger sneaks up on you like a tiger. One minute you are fine, and then the next moment you are ravenous, clawing through the pantry to see what sugary snack you can find.
This article is for you if you find yourself asking, “Why do I get so hungry out of the blue?!”
There are two ‘basic & important’ reasons which answer the question “why am I eating so much all of a sudden?”:
- You are not eating regularly
- You are not eating enough, regularly
(The reason I put ‘basic & important’ in quotes is because oftentimes with sudden eating there is an emotional component involved. This article doesn’t focus on the emotional work, but please note that prior to beginning any sort of emotional food work, you will still benefit immensely by starting out with the steps laid forth in this article. For a look at one of the emotional reasons why, read here.)
Here’s what these two reasons look like in a real-life scenario:
You rush out the door in the morning with a cup of coffee and bagel because you have a project at work, and your kids need to be dropped off. All of a sudden you are at work.
Time flies by. It’s lunchtime! You’re lucky today and snag two protein bars, but oftentimes you skip lunch entirely, and just power on through for a few more hours … And then pick the kids up, run an errand on the way home, throw something together for dinner … eat dinner.
Dinner fills you up. Kids go to bed. You’re all alone. It’s only been an hour since you last ate – but now your stomach is like a hungry black hole. It’s sucking up food like a gigantic vacuum. Ice cream, peanut butter, crackers, everything in it’s path is gone.
Do you see in this hypothetical scenario how you did NOT eat regularly or enough??
You skipped two of three meals and had no snacks.
When you did eat for breakfast, you only had a cup of coffee to keep you satisfied, and for lunch you only had a power bar or two. Finally at dinner you had a normal meal – but by then it was too late.
I’m sure you see the idea and can relate. This lack of regular eating and eating enough is by far the most common scenario for why people lose control and get incredibly hungry all of a sudden. Of course there are many other examples and the exact details may vary, but the overall pattern of binge eating is the same.
Why does this happen? (Hint: the answer is stress and I’ll cover why, just keep on reading!)
Why doesn’t our stomach give us some sort of signal to tell us we are hungry during the day? If only the stomach gave us a clue – a gurgle, a rumble – then we would know why we were hungry!
(Or, if the stomach is giving you clues when to eat, why don’t we listen or hear our stomach?!?)
But instead our stomach lays quietly dormant and we fail to realize we are hungry. Too much time goes by.
At the end of the day, we are depleted. And something deep within us wants to be filled up …
Why am I eating so much all of a sudden?
And what should we do about it? Is there any reasonable solution to preventing hunger from jumping out on us like a tiger?
This rest of this article is divided up into three sections (with an optional video at the bottom of the post):
- Why stress makes your belly go quiet
- How a quiet belly leads to your brain being triggered into ‘survival mode’
- The simple 3x per day eating goal
Why stress makes your belly go quietWhen you're stressed, the blood in your stomach goes to your limbs, and this makes hunger harder to feel. Click To Tweet
Let’s remember for a second that ‘hunger‘ is an ancient evolutionary mechanism.
Over the course of time, we evolved powerful systems to keep us alive. These biological systems include:
- how you breathe automatically while you sleep and don’t die every night
- your stomach digests food without any conscious effort, absorbs the energy so you can live your life, and then goes poop!
- your heart beating without conscious control
In fact, much of your body is outside of your conscious control.
Think about your skin, or your fingernails. They keep growing whether you want them to or not!
Nowadays we experience a different type of stress than our ancestors did – and this has dramatic implications for our hunger.
Our ancestors experienced high, quick stress levels. Nowadays we modern humans experience low grade chronic stress. This is also known as acute versus chronic stress. Let me explain the difference.
High Acute Stress Versus Low Grade Chronic Stress
Imagine you are exploring the forest looking at the leaves when some leaves rustle behind you …
Your gut clenches up without you even thinking. All of a sudden a saber tooth tiger leaps out from hiding and chases after you. The tiger’s long fangs scratch your arm but you escape, the tiger hot on your tail.
You dodge between trees, barely keeping enough obstacles in between you and tiger. After a few hundred yards you are completely exhausted – yet you still are able to run.
How are you able to sprint for hundreds of yards and out run a tiger?
(Side story – have you ever heard of those Moms who hear a scream outside and see their child trapped underneath a car? Then they get superhuman strength, lift up the car, and save their child? The same thing is happening in the situation with the tiger!)
What happens is that every non-essential part of your body shuts down in response to stress. Your body stops sending blood to certain areas of your body that then shut down.
You also produce massive amounts of adrenaline which gives your body a short term boost, but makes you crash later.
This is why you can push through the pain.
You can keep running on adrenaline without feeling any pain. This also includes:
- Your liver literally shuts down.
- Your kidneys are offline.
- Even the ‘thinking’ parts of your brain unrelated to immediate survival get less blood flow.
- Your stomach shuts down
So now you have all this extra blood from the organs that are no longer receiving blood. With this extra energy, you can use to lift up cars and run away from tigers. This is known as high, quick stress.
It’s called quick because after you save your child or run away from the tiger, then you can go back to a relaxed state scavenging for berries, or laying on the ground. Or whatever else cavemen did back in the day when they were feeling lazy ?
High quick stress is when your stress levels go up, and then they have the opportunity to come back down again.
Low grade chronic stress is the opposite.
In today’s world, a saber tooth tiger won’t kill you – but there are plenty of situations where you’ll be mildly stressed out AND you won’t have a chance for your stress levels to come back down again quickly.
Think about your typical work and family day – you’re in a constant state of low grade chronic stress right?
You have a constant barrage of texts, notifications, emails, and deadlines. The work, the chores, the things to do never stop. You are ON 24/7 in a mild state of stress. This is known as chronic low grade stress.
And what we know about stress is that our stomach shuts down when we are stressed. This is true whether it’s high acute stress or chronic low grade stress.
This is why your belly goes quiet throughout the day and doesn’t get hungry until the evening.
You are in a constant low-grade state of stress. Your biology reads the stress just like it’s being attacked by a saber tooth tiger (even though you are in your office reacting to an email) and shuts down the blood flow to your stomach.
Your stomach is shut down – just like when you ran away from the saber tooth tiger without getting tired – and doesn’t feel anything.
But the problem is …
A quiet belly leads to your brain being triggered into ‘survival mode’
Okay let’s recap real quick before we talk about this important concept called ‘survival mode’.
Here’s what we have addressed thus far:
- Question topic: why am I eating so much all of a sudden?
- Stress leads to a ‘quiet’ belly
- You are stressed out due to chronic low grade stress
- You aren’t eating enough, or regularly enough either
Now, what is survival mode?
Survival mode is when you are running away from the saber tooth tiger. You have no thoughts about the future or past, all you are concerned about is your immediate survival.
Survival mode is when:
- your brain shuts down and your body takes over
- you act without even thinking
In terms of your stomach and hunger, survival mode is when you are at points 1 and 2 in the diagram below, which shows that you are in life threatening situations if you don’t take action because you would starve to death if you remained in these hungry states for too long..
The simple 3x per day eating goal
Remember the story at the beginning of this article, who didn’t eat much until dinner and even then had a binge of uncontrolled eating after dinner? This was a realistic scenario about starvation. Starvation is important because to start preventing sudden occurrences of rapid hunger, let’s start with the simple fact that if you can prevent starvation, you will be a long way towards stopping sudden surprise eating..
The following guidelines are just the basic framework. For more information about a diet plan to start intuitive eating, check out this post here. If you aren’t sure what Intuitive Eating is, you can also read here.
If you are asking, “why am I eating so much all of a sudden?” The basic guidelines are to eat 3x per day and:
- have a protein such as:
- nuts, chicken, protein bar, avocado, etc
- a complex carbohydrate such as
- brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread, etc
I know these guidelines sound too simple.
How could following these simple guidelines possibly lead to not having ravenous hunger?
You might have other questions too:
- How much to eat?
- What are other sources of protein and complex carbohydrates?
These are valid questions but for starting out, I encourage you to stay focused on the simple advice of eating 3x per day.
The reason I am encouraging you to keep things simple is because it works. Just avoid starvation states by eating enough regularly.
(Remember, what we are covering in this blog is the first part of ending out of control surprise eating, because oftentimes there is an emotional component as well.)
Let’s remember the two principles about which address the question “why am I eating so much all of a sudden?”:
- Not regularly
- Not enough, regularly
This first piece of advice I am giving you – eat 3x per day – is about the first principle.
By eating, at a minimum, 3x per day, you will make a lot of progress in reducing these strange ravenous periods of food consumption.
You can definitely have 3 meals a day, and 1-2 snacks as well. But start off with 3x per day and then evaluate how things feel for you. Are there any changes?
What happens for most people who begin trying to eat 3x per day is they finally realize they really haven’t been eating 3x a day! They realize that it’s harder than it seems to get 3 meals per day eaten, even when you try to!
So that’s why I recommend you start simple with just eating 3 meals per day. Then after you have done this, you are in a better position to evaluate whether or not this strategy is helping you reduce your out of control binge eating episodes.
Once you have succeeded in eating 3 meals per day, then you can begin to think about different options and amounts.
I know you probably have questions about the perfect amount of protein or complex carbohydrate, or the best sources.
These are valid questions and are the second part of the solution. However, please realize that getting started on eating 3x per day is what you should be focusing on at first.
After you have had some success, then I encourage you to begin exploring options and alternatives.
(For an idea of the second part of the solution, you can see my other post here with a dietitian who talks to me about the best healthy foods to eat.)
But have success first! I work with so many people who want to know everything before they get started. While it helps to know the broader concepts, it can be very counterproductive to what to know everything right way. This mindset prevents people from getting started in the first place!
Trust me, you can spend years of your life trying to accumulate all the information you need. The underlying fear is a fear of failure. Trust me, you will not be perfect when you start off – and that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with skipping a meal because you got too busy and forgot. That’s fine.
Instead of worrying about perfection, I would suggest you get started and see for yourself that eating 3x per day helps reduce binge eating.
Then, you can think more about amounts and options.