What Causes Hunger Pangs and How Can You Manage This Symptom?

Medically reviewed by Elaine K. Luo, MD on October 23, 2017Written by Megan Dix, RN-BSN

What are hunger pangs

You’ve probably experienced gnawing, painful feelings in your stomach at some point, in the upper left side of your abdomen. These are commonly known as hunger pangs. Hunger pangs, or hunger pains, are caused by strong contractions of the stomach when it’s empty. This uncomfortable sensation is often accompanied by hunger, or the desire to eat.

Despite being called “hunger” pangs, these pains don’t always indicate a true need to eat. They may be caused by an empty stomach and a need or hunger to eat, or they may be caused by your body being in a routine of eating certain amounts of food or eating at specific times of day.

Each person’s body is unique. Some people don’t feel the need to eat as often or like to feel as full. Others experience hunger pangs more quickly if they haven’t eaten recently. There isn’t a set amount of time after which hunger pangs may begin. Almost all people will experience hunger pangs if they go long enough without eating or drinking.

Causes of hunger pangs

Hunger pangs may be your body’s way of telling you that it needs more nutrients. You may also experience hunger pangs because your stomach has become accustomed to a certain feeling of fullness.

The stomach is a muscular organ that is capable of stretching and collapsing. When it’s stretched by food and liquid, you tend to feel full. When it’s been a long time since you last ate or drank, your stomach is flatter and may contract, causing you to experience hunger pangs.

Numerous factors affect your feelings of hunger, including:

  • hormones
  • your environment
  • the quantity and quality of food you eat
  • lack of sleep
  • stress or anxiety
  • your brain’s desire for a pleasant eating experience

You may also experience hunger pangs because you need to eat a diet higher in essential nutrients.

Hunger pangs are rarely caused by a medical condition. If you’re experiencing ongoing or severe abdominal pain, you should contact your doctor for help. This is especially true if the hunger pangs are accompanied by other symptoms such as:

Symptoms of hunger pangs

Symptoms of hunger pangs typically include:

  • abdominal pain
  • a “gnawing” or “rumbling” sensation in your stomach
  • painful contractions in your stomach area
  • a feeling of “emptiness” in your stomach

Hunger pangs are often accompanied by symptoms of hunger, such as:

  • a desire to eat
  • a craving for specific foods
  • a tired or lightheaded feeling
  • irritability

Hunger pangs typically subside with eating, but they can subside even if you don’t eat. Your body is capable of adjusting to what it feels is necessary for stomach fullness. Over time, the contractions of your stomach will lessen. However, if you aren’t eating enough to get essential nutrients, it will be harder for your hunger pangs to go away.

Hunger pangs and dieting

Hunger pangs can be especially difficult to deal with when you’re trying to follow a diet. Here are some ways to alleviate your hunger pangs so you can stay on track with your health goals.

  • Try eating smaller, more frequent meals. Your total caloric intake, not your meal frequency, is what affects weight loss or gain. Eating smaller portions more frequently throughout the day can help reduce uncomfortable feelings of hunger.
  • Make sure you’re eating a nutrient-dense diet. Eating more lean protein, whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables will give your body the nutrition it requires, which can help prevent hunger pangs.
  • Eating higher volume foods (think green leafy vegetables or foods high in water content like soup) and foods high in fiber can help you feel full for a longer period of time.
  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • Get enough sleep. A good night’s sleep helps keep in balance the hormones that influence your feelings of hunger and fullness.
  • Try focusing on and enjoying each meal as you eat it. Intentionally remembering the food you’ve eaten each day may help reduce feelings of hunger.
  • Distraction can help alleviate hunger pangs. Try reading, talking with a friend, working on a project that interests you, putting on loud music, brushing your teeth, taking a walk, or visualizing your health goals.

When to seek help

Hunger pangs are usually a normal response to an empty stomach. You may wish to consult your doctor if you experience hunger pangs after eating a balanced meal, if you feel like you can never eat enough, or if you experience other symptoms with your hunger pangs such as:

The takeaway

Hunger pangs are a common bodily response to an empty stomach. They’re often a sign of hunger, but may also be related to eating habits.

If you’re trying to follow a diet, there are ways to prevent and alleviate hunger pangs so you can continue to reach your health goals.

Hunger signs are rarely a sign of a medical condition, but there are times when you might consider seeking medical attention.

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