Diabetic Hunger: Causes and Treatment

People with diabetes often experience what’s called the triad of classic symptoms. Polyphagia, or excessive hunger, is one of these symptoms. This is the type of hunger that occurs when eating food doesn’t help curb hunger pangs. In addition to polyphagia, polydipsia (increased thirst), and polyuria (frequent urination) make up the “3 polys” or triad of diabetes symptoms.

While polyphagia can be caused by a wide range of conditions, including hyperthyroidism, stress, depression, eating disorders, and other conditions, our focus is on how diabetes in particular can contribute to it.

Hunger and Hyperglycemia

Eating food increases blood sugar levels, and in non-diabetics this triggers the pancreas to produce insulin. Insulin helps the cells in the body use that blood sugar for energy or store it away for later. In people with diabetes, the pancreas may make too little insulin, or they may have insulin resistance.

This means that when you eat, your blood sugar levels go up, but the insulin produced by the pancreas is not sufficient to help convert that blood sugar into fuel for your body. Glucose builds up in the blood, but your body still feels hungry. Having high blood glucose levels is a condition called hyperglycemia.

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With hyperglycemia, simply eating more won’t help to curb your hunger pangs and will just continue to drive your blood glucose levels higher. This in turns leads to an even stronger feeling of hunger.

For people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, it’s important to learn the symptoms of hyperglycemia and how it can be prevented. Managing stress and eating a healthy diet with the right kinds of carbohydrates can help keep high blood sugar levels at bay. Diabetes medications may be recommended for people with type 2 diabetes, and insulin is often needed to control high blood glucose for those with type 1 diabetes.

Hunger and Hypoglycemia

Excess hunger can also be caused by abnormally low blood sugar levels, a condition called hypoglycemia. According to the American Diabetes Association, blood sugar is typically considered low at less than 70mg/dL.

For people with diabetes, skipping a meal can lower blood sugar levels to well below the target range. Other causes could be excessive exercise, taking too much insulin, or eating highly refined carbs, which can cause the blood sugar to spike and then fall quickly.

Unlike hyperglycemia, hypoglycemia can often be treated by eating fast-acting carbohydrates. It can take some practice to learn which foods are best to eat to raise your blood sugar to a safe level without overeating.

It’s also important to work with your healthcare team to avoid hypoglycemic events in the future. Your primary care provider or endocrinologist can determine your target blood sugar ranges. A dietitian can help adjust your meal plan to give you better blood sugar control.

It’s also important to work with your healthcare team to avoid hypoglycemic events in the future. Your primary care provider or endocrinologist can determine your target blood sugar ranges. A dietitian can help adjust your meal plan to give you better blood sugar control.

If you experience excessive hunger, it’s critical to check your blood sugar levels so that you know if you are dealing with hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia. This way, you can administer the proper treatment to either raise or lower your blood sugar safely.

Curbing Hunger with Diabetes

The best way to manage excessive hunger with diabetes is to work to prevent it before it starts. This means avoiding dramatic swings in your blood sugar levels. Staying within your target range consistently will ensure that your cells get the energy they need so you won’t feel so empty. Here are a few ways to help keep your blood sugar levels in check:

Distinguish Real Hunger from Food Cravings

We can all experience cravings from time to time, diabetes or no. Food cravings tend to emerge suddenly, and can sometimes be curbed by something as simple as a temporary distraction. They are different from true hunger in that they are typically focused on a specific type of food.

It may be that we see a sweet treat that reminds us of a positive experience or place. Or it may be a habit to indulge in a comfort food after a stressful event to calm the nerves. For people with diabetes or those on restrictive diets, it may be that they aren’t allowing themselves enough of the foods they enjoy in their daily meal plan.

Whatever the cause, food cravings can lead to overeating and eventually weight gain, which can make diabetes harder to control. It’s important to speak with a certified diabetes educator (CDE) or dietitian to develop a meal plan that works to control blood glucose levels without being too restrictive. If you have diabetes and feel an intense food craving coming on, it’s a good idea to check your blood sugar to see if you are experiencing high or low blood sugar.

Eat Breakfast

Eating a balanced breakfast is crucial when you’re managing diabetes. A breakfast that is rich in protein, fiber, and healthy fats with a low to moderate amount of carbohydrates is the goal. This will help set a good foundation for healthy blood sugar levels throughout the day. Steer clear of highly refined carbohydrates like cereals and baked goods, which can cause a quick spike in blood sugar followed by a crash.

Part of the way we are satisfied when we eat has to do with how the food looks and smells. Take time to really savor and enjoy your food; this goes for breakfast as well as all other meals and snacks. If you get stuck in a breakfast rut, try and shake things up so you don’t get bored with your meal. Try these diabetes-friendly breakfast ideas from the American Diabetes Association.

Clean House

It’s easier to avoid trigger foods that can spike your blood sugar if they aren’t in your fridge or cupboard. Take time to clear out the problem foods and replace them with healthy alternatives. Don’t forget about your workplace. You may be surprised to find plenty of healthy snack options when you’re looking to satisfy a certain craving. Salted nuts or popcorn can take the place of chips, for example. The popularity of low-carb and gluten-free diets in recent years means that you can often even find packaged foods that are diabetes-safe. Just be sure to read the labels carefully.

Taking this step not only limits exposure to foods that can end up causing more hunger in the long run, it can help create a certain peace of mind if you know you won’t be faced with temptation throughout the day.

Information provided on the Aeroflow Diabetes blog is not intended as a substitute to medical advice or care. Aeroflow Diabetes recommends consulting a doctor if you are experiencing medical issues or concerns.