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Recognizing Hunger Signals


I have a tough time stopping eating when I'm full.  I just keep stuffing myself until I'm miserable.  Can you help me get back on track?


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 – oftentimes resulting in emotional eating and rebound binges.

However, with a little 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 taking the time to care for its needs are critical steps in learning to love and care for yourself.

The first step in recognizing hunger signals and, thus, eating intuitively, is to be "present in the moment".  This is difficult to do in our current society where we are constantly looking to the next task even before finishing the prior one.  However, taking the time to slow down and "check in" with yourself will provide you with a multitude of 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 that your body relays to 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 scale of one to ten with one equivalent to a state of starving and ten being equivalent to a state of extreme fullness or being overstuffed.

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

0 3 5 7 10

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

As it takes a while for the signal of stomach fullness to reach the satiety centers in the brain, relaying the fact that you should stop eating, it is a good idea to stop eating before you feel very full.  In other words, if you stop eating at a rating of about six, you will ultimately end up at a fullness rating of about seven shortly following the meal.  This is especially true if you tend to eat fast.  Not a good idea anyway!

It may be helpful, especially in the beginning, to associate numbers on the scale with situations in the past.  For instance, if you have ever fasted for a religious occasion, try to remember how it felt to be truly hungry and correlate this empty, rumbling feeling in your stomach with a rating of one.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, recall a time when you've really overeaten, maybe a Thanksgiving dinner, and correlate a number ten 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 and no more.  Remember how comfortable and satisfied you felt and mesh this memory with what a number 6 on the scale feels like.

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

After awhile you will be able to identify patterns in your hunger symptoms and levels 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 individually (small, light, more frequent meals vs. 3 larger meals, etc).  Be patient with yourself and your body.  Take the time to listen and care for yourself and to get back in tune with your body.  It's worth it!

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Our expert, Dr. Sharon E. Griffin, holds a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in the areas of exercise science/physiology.  She also holds a second M.S. degree in Nutrition and is a licensed nutritionist and an ACSM certified health and fitness instructor.
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