"Hunger Hormones" Are a Thing, and Yes, You Can Control Them

Updated 05/18/17
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Kelly LeVeque is a celebrity nutritionist, wellness expert, and health coach based in Los Angeles, California. Before starting her consulting business, Be Well by Kelly, she worked in the medical field for Fortune 500 companies, eventually moving into personalised medicine, offering tumour gene mapping and molecular subtyping to oncologists. Kelly’s client list includes Jessica Alba, Chelsea Handler, Kate Walsh, and Emmy Rossum. Guided by a practical and always optimistic approach, Kelly helps clients improve their health, achieve their goals, and develop sustainable habits to live a healthy and balanced life. We're thrilled to have her as a contributor for THE/THIRTY! This month, she schools us on "hunger hormones" and how to deal with them.

Hunger is caused by a complicated chemistry of numerous hormones that have the ability to override our “willpower” and drive us to eat. Below is a condensed, high-level summary of a very complicated interplay of how the body strives to keep itself fed and balanced, whether it is given food or not. Normally, these hormones work harmoniously, balance each other, and maintain blood sugar balance, so we never feel too hungry and eat more than is necessary for proper functioning.

Understanding how to eat complex meals to manage your hunger hormones instead of fighting to not eat is the premise of my book, Body Love, and the way my clients learn to eat. They learn to become aware of their hunger, stress, and reward hormones, and diligently shut them down with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Instead of snacking, they naturally ditch the diet mentality and easily fast four to six hours between meals in a balanced blood-sugar state.

Eating the right mixture of clean, nutrient-dense protein, fat, fibre, and greens helps you eat to satiety; I call them the Fab Four. You’ll be satisfied, full, and easily able to last four to six hours without crashing, craving, or thinking about food. One of the most empowering, liberating things about the Fab Four (which is detailed in my new book, Body Love) is that, together, they naturally balance your various hunger-related hormones—and not just for an hour.

Below, I’ve summarised how the Fab Four specifically help to regulate your body’s hunger-related hormones.

Insulin: Storage Hormone

Role: Insulin is secreted by the pancreas to allow your cells to take in glucose (blood sugar) for energy or storage. It prevents fat cells from being broken down.

When things go wrong: Hyperinsulinemia (chronically elevated insulin), insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, increased hunger and cravings.

What to do about it:

  • Reduce carbohydrates to reduce chronic and excess insulin secretion.
  • Reduce fructose known to increase insulin levels and linked to insulin resistance.
  • Exercise to burn glycogen stores and increase insulin sensitivity in skeletal muscles.

How the Fab Four supports:

  • Protein: Eating protein-rich meals is linked to weight loss and the reduction in insulin resistance.
  • Fat: Omega-3 found in fish can help lower fasting insulin levels.
  • Greens: Magnesium found in leafy greens can improve insulin sensitivity.

Leptin: Satiety Hormone

Role: Produced by fat cells, this hormone notifies the hypothalamus (brain) that there is enough fat in storage and prevents overeating.

When things go wrong: Leptin resistance happens when impaired signaling doesn’t trigger the brain to calm hunger hormones. This malfunction is linked to obesity, chronically elevated insulin, and hypothalamus inflammation.

What to do about it:

  • Avoid inflammatory foods like seed oils.
  • Calm insulin spikes.
  • Sleep—sleep deprivation is linked to drops in leptin levels.
  • Exercise increases leptin sensitivity.

How the Fab Four supports:

Focus on anti-inflammatory foods.

  • Fat: Focus on omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Protein: Eat protein at every meal, especially breakfast to promote satiety.
  • Fibre: Eat foods that have mass to physically stretch the stomach lining.
  • Protein: High-protein meals increase glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1 ) production.
  • Fat: Chronic inflammation is linked to the reduction of GLP-1, increasing anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats can help squelch inflammation.
  • Fibre: A diet rich in prebiotic fibre and resistant starch increases the production of short-chain fatty acids, like butyrate in the gut that increase GLP-1 production.
  • Greens: Leafy, green vegetables increase GLP-1 levels. Eat a diet of anti-inflammatory foods.

Cholecystokinin (CCK): Satiety Hormone

Role: CCK is produced by cells in the gastrointestinal tract and nervous system. CCK is released by duodenum and stimulates gallbladder contraction, and pancreatic and gastric acid secretion. It slows gastric emptying and suppresses energy.

When things go wrong: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can cause an overproduction of CCK that leads to increased prolactin, ACTH, and cortisol.

What to do about it: Remove any suspected food allergies, and eat complete meals.

How the Fab Four supports:

  • Protein: Initial studies suggest the direct interaction of CCK and dietary protein contributes to satiety response.
  • Fat: Fat triggers the release of CCK.
  • Fibre: Eating fibre can double CCK production.

Peptide YY (PYY): Control Hormone

Role: PYY is the control hormone in the gastrointestinal tract that reduces appetite.

When things go wrong: Insulin resistance and chronically elevated blood sugar impairs the production of PYY.

What to do about it: Balanced blood sugar increases PYY response and production.

How the Fab Four supports:

  • Protein: PYY concentrations increase after a protein-based meal.
  • Fiber: Consuming fibre increases PYY production.

Neuropeptide Y (NYP): Stimulate Hormone

Role: NYP is the hormone produced in the brain and nervous system that “stimulates” appetite for carbohydrates.

When things go wrong: Stress induces the production of NYP that leads to appetite stimulation and overeating. Fasting and food deprivation can stimulate this hormone.

What to do about it: 

  • Eat complete meals regularly.
  • Intermittently fast with caution.

How the Fab Four supports:

  • Protein: Lack of protein increases the release of NYP.

Cortisol: Stress Hormone

Role: The “stress hormone” is produced by the adrenals when the body senses stress.

When things go wrong: Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can lead to overeating and weight gain. High levels of cortisol are linked to belly fat in women.

What to do about it: Manage stress levels through meditation, movement and good sleep. Talk to loved ones and ask for help when needed.

How the Fab Four supports: Eat three balanced meals daily of protein, fat, fibre, and greens.

Dopamine: Reward Hormone

Role: Dopamine is released when we eat food. This is the same hormone that is released with any other form of addiction like smoking.

When things go wrong: Eating processed food, carbohydrates, and sugar causes a large surge in dopamine. Continuously eating these foods causes the brain to down regulate dopamine receptors in the brain. Thus we need to eat more and more to get the same fix.

What to do about it: Eat processed foods, carbohydrates, and sugar sparingly to discourage addiction, cravings, and overeating.

How the Fab Four supports:

  • Eat the Fab Four, and always start your day with a Fab Four breakfast or the protein-rich Be Well Smoothie.
  • Protein stimulates dopamine and starts the day balanced instead of experiencing increasing cravings throughout the day.
  • Food addict? Make that Be Well Smoothie Cocoa. Cocoa increases stimulation of dopamine helping food addicts’ balance.
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