Just yesterday we were able to stick to three square meals like a civilized human being, but today some animal urge inside is making us devour everything in sight. Yes, it can often feel like our appetite changes on a day-to-day basis.
Hunger is the result of a complex mix of hormones, physical activity, sleep deprivation, and even emotions, particularly stress. But it changes over time. There are some general trends that stand out and are noticeable to doctors and nutrition experts. Here’s what you can expect from your hunger pangs, decade by decade.
In Your 30s
As you kick off this decade, you might find yourself subject to either uncontrollable hunger or no desire to eat whatsoever, says Tasneem Bhatia, MD, who specializes in integrative medicine. The stress hormone cortisol can play a part at both ends of the spectrum. But the natural ebb and flow of hormones throughout your menstrual cycle can also change your appetite, Bhatia says, as anyone who has polished off an entire box of Girl Scout cookies while PMSing can attest.
Around 35 or so, the effects of subpar diets can rear their ugly heads, Bhatia says. Deficiencies in certain vitamins or minerals can change what you’re hungry for and how badly you want to eat it. For example, if you’re constantly on the search for, say, chocolate-covered pretzels (mmm, sweet and salty!), you could be lacking in magnesium and calcium.
You might also be, as they say, eating for two in this decade. While pregnancy can certainly increase your appetite a bit, “you don’t need huge amounts of extra food,” says Australia-based dietitian Ngaire Hobbins, author of Eat to Cheat Dementia and Eat to Cheat Aging. The body is pretty miraculous at supplying that developing bundle of joy with exactly what it needs to grow, but that might mean you miss out. If you’re hungrier than usual while pregnant, put your appetite to good use. “Eat extra foods rich in calcium, iron, and vitamins,” Hobbins says, “because the fetus gets preference over you.”
This is the decade when—lucky you!—digestion issues are more likely to show up, Bhatia says, which will understandably mess with your appetite. But your 40s may also be a decade of slowing down physically. “Appetite typically increases out of proportion to activity level,” she says.
Insulin resistance might also start to develop in this decade. When your body doesn’t use insulin effectively, sugar can build up in your blood instead of being stored in cells. And if those cells aren’t getting their sugar, aka energy, you might feel hungrier, especially for simple carbs, the quickest source of energy. “If you become insulin resistant, you have more problems signaling you’re full,” Bhatia says.
In your 50’s
For some women, plunging estrogen levels due to menopause around 50 or 51 can result in a similar pattern of craving more carbs and sugar as if you were insulin resistant, Bhatia says. Perhaps, she hypothesizes, this might be the cause of the midlife weight gain so many women face around this time.
Indeed, women’s bodies do tend to hold on to a little something extra during this decade, Hobbins says, but it’s possible it’s a sort of natural defense mechanism against health problems down the road. “Body fat is a reserve that might in fact protect you from frailty, which is really damaging as people get older,” she says. Interestingly, even if you feel hungrier during this decade, you may not be reaching for extra snacks: A 2014 observational study found that while appetite increased in women going through menopause, their actual food intake decreased.
In your 60’s and beyond
Despite what you may have heard, your stomach doesn’t actually shrink with age, Hobbins says. But there do seem to be changes to the stretchiness of your tummy that happen alongside aging that mistakenly tell the brain you’re full when you’re not, she says, leading some older folks to lose weight as they age.
If you fit that bill, this decade may be the start of a new priority when it comes to weight: keeping it on. Weighing too little as we age has been linked with higher risk of falls, hospital stays, and even earlier death. If you’re on the slimmer side of things, you can pad meals with a little extra fat, like a generous helping of olive oil or grated cheese on your veggies. “Losing weight dramatically is a red flag something is going on,” Bhatia says of people in their 60s. There’s a lengthy of list of health concerns that could be underlying such speedy weight loss over 65, so it’s worth bringing up with a doc. (Here are more health symptoms to never ignore.)
You’re also more likely in this decade to have started taking medications for various other health conditions, and pills are notorious for messing with appetite. Some change the taste of food; some dry up saliva, making the act of eating simply unappealing; while others zap your hunger pangs entirely, Hobbins says.
Perhaps most troubling, though, is that after 65 or so, dementia becomes more common, and people with dementia often struggle with healthy eating habits. Many will hardly eat, but not necessarily because their appetite’s vanished. “I’m convinced most people with dementia are actually hungry, but the brain connections to put one step after another to get rid of hunger may be gone,” Hobbins says. In other words, a person with dementia may not make the connection that he needs to put his fork into the food on the plate in front of him, then lift that fork to his mouth and chew to quiet his rumbling stomach.