Healthy Eating: Recognizing Your Hunger Signals
Your body sends natural signals that tell you when you're hungry and when you're full. But sometimes people get out of practice when it comes to paying attention to those signals. Learning to recognize those signals again can help you reach and stay at a weight that's healthy for you.
- Hunger is a normal sensation that makes you want to eat. Your body tells your brain that your stomach is empty. This makes your stomach growl and gives you hunger pangs. Hunger makes some people feel lightheaded or grouchy. Everyone is different. Hunger is partly controlled by a part of your brain called the hypothalamus, your blood sugar (glucose) level, how empty your stomach and intestines are, and certain hormone levels in your body.
- Fullness is a feeling of being satisfied. Your stomach tells your brain that it is full. Normally, this feeling causes you to stop eating and not think about food again for several hours. Fullness is partly controlled by the hypothalamus, your blood sugar, and having food in your stomach and intestines.
- Appetite is a desire for food, usually after seeing, smelling, or thinking about food. Even after you feel full, your appetite can make you keep eating. It can also stop you from eating even though you are hungry. This might happen when you are sick or feeling stressed.
You can use a hunger rating scale to help you tune in to your natural signals. And keeping a food journal can help you understand your current habits. Then you can use what you learn from these tools to help you make choices about when and how much to eat.
How can you get back in touch with your hunger signals?
Understand your habits
Learning to recognize hunger signals can help you get to a healthy weight and stay there. You can start by figuring out the signals you now are following when you eat.
- Use a food journal to find out where you are now.
Keep a food journal for 2 weeks, or longer if you need to. Write down not only when and what you eat but also what you were doing and feeling before you started to eat.
- Use a hunger scale.
In your food journal, write down how you felt before you ate and how you felt afterward. You might use a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 means you are very hungry and weak, and 10 means you are so full that you feel sick.
- Look for patterns in your eating.
When you look back at your food journal, you may see some eating patterns. For example, you might find that:
- You almost always eat dinner in front of the TV.
- You always eat an evening snack, even when you're not hungry.
- You often snack when you "feel" like you want to eat (because of boredom, stress, or some other emotion), but you're not truly hungry.
Use a hunger scale
A hunger scale can help you learn how to tell the difference between true, physical hunger and hunger that's really just in your head (psychological hunger). Psychological hunger is a desire to eat that is caused by emotions, like stress, boredom, sadness, or happiness.
- Check your cravings.
If you're feeling hungry even though you recently ate, check to see if what you're feeling is really a craving brought on by something other than hunger.
- Rate your hunger.
When you start to feel like you want something to eat, rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being extremely hungry and 10 being so full you feel sick. A rating of 5 or 6 means you're comfortable—neither too hungry nor too full.
- 1—Extremely hungry, weak, dizzy
- 2—Very hungry, cranky, low energy, lots of stomach growling
- 3—Pretty hungry, stomach is growling a little
- 4—Starting to feel a little hungry
- 5—Satisfied, neither hungry nor full
- 6—A little full, pleasantly full
- 7—A little uncomfortable
- 8—Feeling stuffed
- 9—Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts
- 10—So full you feel sick
- Eat naturally.
To eat naturally, eat when your hunger is at 3 or 4. Don't wait until your hunger gets down to 1 or 2. Getting too hungry can lead to overeating.
When you sit down to a scheduled meal, stop and think about how hungry you are. If you feel less hungry than usual, make a conscious effort to eat less food than usual. Stop eating when you reach 5 or 6 on the scale.
Make healthy choices
Healthy eating is about balance, variety, and moderation. It starts with adding more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and cutting back on foods that have a lot of fat, salt, and sugar. It means making changes you can live with and enjoy for the rest of your life.
- Aim for balance.
- Most days, eat from each food group—grains, protein foods, vegetables and fruits, and dairy. Listen to your body. Eat when you're hungry. Stop when you feel satisfied.
- Look for variety.
- Be adventurous. Choose different foods in each food group. For example, don't reach for an apple every time you choose a fruit. Eating a variety of foods each day will help you get all the nutrients you need.
- Practice moderation.
- Don't have too much or too little of one thing. All foods, if you eat them in moderation, can be part of healthy eating.