When Hunger Strikes... Gut Hormones Explained

Article By: Whittany Gibson, RDN

Whittany is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in bariatric nutrition counseling, providing education and support prior to and following weight loss surgery.

Hunger can be a beast. In fact, it can be your worst enemy if you’re aiming for weight loss. Hunger can bring out the worst in people. It can make you downright hangry and totally turn you into someone you’re really not, throw temper tantrums like a two year old, and say things you regret. I may or may not be speaking from personal experience. Surely someone is with me?! Hunger can also cause you to overeat, usually on suboptimal choices due to cravings kicking in from being so hungry. But some may legitimately suffer from an imbalance of the hormones ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin (think stomach growlin’) tells you when you’re hungry. Leptin is responsible for the feeling of satiety. Some may have too high of levels of ghrelin and can struggle with the constant feeling of hunger no matter what you eat. And although a deficiency of leptin is rare, there can be an imbalance in relation to ghrelin. If only there were a way to help control these hunger hormones… Actually, bariatric surgery can be the answer for many people.

While no two people's experiences are the same and results vary, weight loss surgeries like sleeve gastrectomy and gastric bypass can dramatically reduce those hunger hormones that are produced within the stomach. Given the fact that up to 85% of the stomach is removed, so are many of those little ghrelin hormones that you’re constantly battling with. Sounds appealing, right?

Studies show that another hormone called GLP1, reduces appetite and regulates glucose metabolism following bariatric surgery. This can be a huge benefit for those with diabetes and insulin resistance. These hormonal changes, along with the restricted stomach size, can promote satiety and control appetite long term. Honestly, most of my patients report minimal appetite within the first three months post-op. So many things continue to change over the course of the first year including taste buds and hunger level. There’s also other factors that can affect hunger such as types of foods that are eaten, the amount of protein in food choices, and the type of protein. Additionally, lifestyle factors like exercise or lack thereof, stress, sleep, and hydration can also affect hormones, sometimes masking something else for hunger. The brain can be very confused if your level of self care isn’t exactly where it should be. I continually encourage adequate sleep, stress management, and exercise so we can at least know this isn’t what is influencing perceived hunger.

1) Should I be worried when I’m hungry? When you do begin to feel hungry after weight loss surgery, don’t immediately freak out thinking you should never feel hungry just because you’ve had surgery. It doesn’t work that way, nor should it. Keep in mind that hunger is how your body communicates its needs to you. Hunger lets you know your metabolism is awake or at least waking up. It’s telling you, “I need some quality nutrition” to metabolically function efficiently. The more you exercise, the more calories you’ll need. So listen to your body or you can compromise your weight loss goals.

2) What and how do I eat to help control hunger? I always, always, always recommend some type of protein source first. Animal based foods or plant based proteins rich in fiber are a wonderful start. If you’re choosing an animal based food like meat, seafood, or animal byproducts like cheese or eggs, aim to pair it with a healthy source of carbs to create balance. Try something nice and colorful like a fruit or a vegetable. Carbs alone digest very quickly unless there’s a high amount of fiber, and leave you feeling hungrier sooner than what you should. But protein and carbs together create a balance for satiety and keeping blood sugar levels stabilized. Examples might include apple slices or banana with nut butter or nuts, cottage cheese and fruit, high fiber crackers and hummus, chicken and cauliflower rice.

3) How can I keep my hunger hormones in check? Many of my patients will depend on protein shakes as a meal replacement. I discourage them from doing this regularly given the fact that liquids have a rapid transit time in the stomach, leaving you feeling hungrier than you should before your next snack or meal. Yes, protein shakes are better than nothing, but with a little planning, you can optimize on a solid source of protein throughout the day, and instead use your protein shake truly as a supplement throughout the day. What happens with this scenario is that your solids will keep you satisfied for longer keeping those hunger feelings at bay, allowing you to sustain your energy for longer and stay true to your planned meals. Solid protein also burns more calories during digestion than liquids! In summary, aim for food first, use liquid supplements as needed.

BariMelts provides general recommendations, not to be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor.

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