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A lot of factors control hunger, fullness, and ultimately our weight, including everything from how well you slept last night to the people/accounts you follow on Instagram. Also involved in this complex process are hormones, particularly the two that are often referred to as the hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin.

So just HOW do these hunger hormones work?

Leptin is the satiety hormone. Essentially, it tells you that you’re full and you can stop eating. Ghrelin, on the other hand, tells you you’re hungry and you need to eat. Ghrelin peaks every four hours or so–roughly corresponding to breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

When everything’s running smoothly, the two hormones work in harmony so when one is rising, the other one is dropping. But things can–and frequently do–go wrong.

To begin with, leptin levels vary with how much body fat you have. When you lose weight, leptin levels drop. With less of that appetite-suppressing hormone, you end up feeling hungrier and potentially eating more, which can cause you to gain back the weight you had lost. It’s the reason we see many contestants on ‘The Biggest Loser’ gain back most of the weight that they lose.

Hunger-stimulating ghrelin levels also change with weight loss. After dieting, ghrelin production increases, potentially causing people to eat more and gain weight. Cravings can increase and it can be very hard to get and stay on track.

The human body is designed to fight starvation. Part of the body’s response to dieting is a desire to return to whatever weight we were previously using leptin and ghrelin.

So what can you do? If you can, stick to a more moderate weight loss of just around 5% of your body weight so you don’t trigger a drastic drop in leptin. It’s also important to eat a balance of foods at each meal, particularly protein and complex carbs. Protein is a major player in suppressing ghrelin, as it takes more work to digest and keeps you full longer. Fiber also slows digestion and helps keep you full, she adds. Look for complex carbs like whole grains, veggies, and fruit.

Exercise may also help control your hunger hormones so you can shed pounds for good. Exercise helps lower ghrelin levels more effectively than dieting alone.

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