Diet Essentials: Learn To Recognize Your Hunger Cues

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - 8:57am

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

Upon arrival in this world, healthy infants have an innate ability to eat exactly what they need. They eat only when they are hungry, and refuse food when they are satisfied. They recognize their bodies’ hunger cues, which are natural indicators of hunger and fullness. Somewhere along the line they stop listening to their hunger cues, probably starting very early in life. Bottle fed babies are often coaxed into finishing their bottles after losing interest. Children are expected to clean their plates and are often bribed to do so with dessert. While parents mean well, they are teaching their children to ignore signals of fullness. It takes a very conscious effort to recognize hunger cues after years of being taught to ignore them.

Different types of hunger

To regain the ability to eat only when you are hungry, you must understand that not all hunger is physical. Today, while almost no one eats only when they are physically hungry, many people eat when they are psychologically hungry. You may be enticed by a succulent hamburger in an advertisement on television and start to think you’re hungry. You may eat on schedule whether you feel hungry or not. You may be bored, tired, sad, happy or nervous. These are all types of psychological hunger.

Psychological vs. physical hunger cues

The first step in learning to read your hunger cues is recognizing the difference between your psychological and physical hunger. To most people, the two are indistinguishable. Based on when and what you ate last, you may be able to guess if you should be physically hungry. If you have recently eaten and still feel hungry, first stop and ask yourself if you are experiencing any of the following emotions, which often trigger psychological hunger:

  • Anger
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Insecurity
  • Guilt
  • Jealousy
  • Happiness
  • Anxiety
  • Disappointment
  • Grief
  • Procrastination
  • Fear
  • Boredom

Rate your physical hunger

Given all that can interfere with our hunger cues, how do we start working our way back to what we inherently knew as infants? The following is a helpful tool for rating your hunger. This hunger scale, called “The Hunger-Satiety Rating Scale” is from Why Weight? A Guide to Ending Compulsive Eating by Geneen Roth.

Satiety 10 = Stuffed to the point of feeling sick
  9 = Very uncomfortably full, need to loosen your belt
  8 = Uncomfortably full, feel stuffed
  7 = Very full, feel as if you have overeaten
  6 = Comfortably full, satisfied
Neutral 5 = Comfortable, neither hungry nor full
  4 = Beginning signals of hunger
  3 = Hungry, ready to eat
  2 = Very hungry, unable to concentrate
Hungry 1 = Starving, dizzy, irritable

Recognize your overeating patterns

Referring to the hunger scale will help you listen to your body. The goal is to start eating when you have the beginning signals of hunger (Level 4) and stop when you are comfortably full (Level 6), but do not feel as if you have overeaten. Keeping a diary of your feelings of hunger in relation to when you eat may help you recognize patterns that cause overeating. You may find that you often put off eating until you are so hungry you are unable to concentrate (Level 2), or have serious hunger pains (Level 1) at which point you eat so ravenously that, before realizing you are satisfied, you have overeaten. Or perhaps at a party you continue to eat when you are already uncomfortably full (Level 8). Simply noticing these trends will help you make better choices next time.

Develop healthy eating habits by recognizing hunger cues

Listening to and heeding your body’s signals of hunger and fullness can help you to achieve or maintain a healthy weight, which lowers the risk of many chronic diseases. In addition, eating is more pleasurable when you are truly hungry. Therefore, when your body indicates it is time to eat, choose foods you love and take the time to enjoy them.