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Recognizing Hunger SignalsRecognizing Hunger Signals


Recognizing Hunger Signals

Chronic dieting can result in a numbing of hunger signals and an inability to recognize fullness. If you don't respond to hunger knocking on that internal door, eventually, it will stop knocking. Eating then occurs in response to stimuli other than true hunger, and that's when the troubles begin — often resulting in emotional eating and rebound binges.

With a bit of attention to the task, you can re-train yourself to recognize and respond appropriately to hunger and fullness signals. Hunger should be embraced and treated as a valued communication with your body — not something to be feared. Listening to your body and caring for its needs are critical steps in learning to love and care for yourself.

The first step in recognizing hunger signals and eating intuitively is to be present in the moment. This is difficult in our current society, where we constantly look to the next task before finishing the prior one. Taking the time to slow down will provide you with many health benefits. Realize that it is normal for hunger to occur 3 to 5 hours after eating. Start familiarizing yourself with the different levels of hunger and the individual signals your body sends you at various stages.

Initiate this process by listening. Check in with your body throughout the day and rate your hunger. A common way to rate hunger is on a 1-to-10 scale, with 1 equivalent to starving and 10 being extreme fullness.

Ideally, you want to initiate a meal when you are hungry but not completely famished (a scale rating of about 3) and finish a meal when you are in a state of fullness but not completely stuffed (a scale rating of approximately 6).

  • 0 = Starving, famished, headache
  • 3 = Need to eat something, hunger pangs
  • 5 = Comfortable, lightness about you
  • 6 = Somewhat full, satisfied, and content
  • 8 = Overfull, need to loosen clothing, must sit for awhile
  • 10 = Nauseated, vow to never eat this much again

It takes a while for the signal of stomach fullness to reach the satiety centers in the brain, so it is a good idea to stop eating before you feel full. In other words, if you stop eating at a rating of about 6, you will ultimately end up at a fullness rating of about 7 shortly following the meal.

It may be helpful to associate numbers on the rating scale with situations in the past. For instance, if you have ever fasted, remember how it felt to be truly hungry and correlate that empty, rumbling feeling in your stomach with a rating of 1.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, recall a time when you've overeaten, maybe a Thanksgiving dinner, and correlate a number 10 with the feelings of overeating. Likewise, remember a time when you thoroughly enjoyed a fantastic meal and were able to stop eating when you had met your hunger needs. Remember how comfortable and satisfied you felt and assign this feeling with a 6 on the scale.

Although individual differences exist, the list below can provide some common hunger symptoms:

  • Feeling of emptiness in stomach
  • Gurgling, rumbling, or growling in the stomach
  • Dizziness, faintness, or light-headedness
  • Headache
  • Irritability, easily agitated
  • Lack of concentration
  • Nausea

After a while, you can identify patterns in your hunger symptoms and correlate them with how often and how much you've eaten at your last meal. It may take some time for you to get comfortable with identifying normal levels of hunger and to recognize the pattern of eating that is best suited to you. Be patient with yourself and your body.

Lori Rice, M.S., is a nutritional scientist and author with a passion for healthy cooking, exercise physiology, and food photography.
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