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Healthy Eating: Recognizing Your Hunger Signals

Introduction

One reason that many of us are not at a healthy weight is because, somewhere along the line, we stopped listening to our body signals that naturally tell us when we're hungry and when we're full.

The signals are still there, but we're out of practice when it comes to paying attention to them.

Learning to recognize those signals again can help you get to a healthy weight and stay there.

 

Hunger signals tell us when to eat, what to eat, and when to stop. There are three types of hunger signals:

  • Hunger is a sensation (stomach growling, feeling hunger pangs) that makes you want to eat. It is partly controlled by a region of your brain called the hypothalamus, your blood sugar level, how empty your stomach and intestines are, and certain hormone levels in your body.
  • Fullness is also called satiety (say "suh-TY-uh-tee"). It's a feeling of satisfaction. Nerves in your stomach send signals to the brain that the stomach is filled. Increased blood sugar, the activity of the hypothalamus, and the presence of food in the intestines all lead to this feeling of fullness.
  • Appetite is a desire for or an interest in food. It is linked with the sight, smell, or thought of food. Appetite can override hunger and satiety, such as when you continue to eat even after you feel full. You can also have no appetite for food even though you are hungry, which may happen in a stressful situation or during an illness.

Test Your Knowledge

Satiety is:

Continue to Why?

 

Babies follow their hunger signals naturally. When their bodies tell them they're hungry, they let us know by crying or fussing. And they stop eating when they're full enough to be satisfied.

Distractions get in our way

As we grow up, lots of distractions lead us away from this natural way of eating:

  • For most of us, food is everywhere—in grocery stores, corner markets, vending machines, and the office break room, to name just a few. It can be hard to pay attention to your hunger signals as you go about your day.
  • You may skip breakfast because you'd rather sleep in. So when lunchtime rolls around, you're extra hungry and eat more than you should.
  • You may watch TV, read, or use the computer while you eat. This can distract you so that you stop paying attention to what or how much you're eating or whether you're full enough to stop eating.
  • You may often eat so fast that you barely even taste your food or pay attention to how full you really are.
  • Stress or other emotions cause many of us to reach for food—not because we're hungry, but because food comforts us or helps us celebrate.
  • Most of us are influenced by larger serving sizes. Research shows that when people are given larger portions, they eat more.

All these distractions can cause you to ignore your body's signals. You stop paying attention to how hungry you are or how full you are. Over time, you lose the skill of listening to and obeying your body's signals.

Learning to get back in touch with your hunger signals can be one of your best tools for getting to a healthy weight and staying there. Your hunger and fullness signals are still there. You just have to learn how to listen to them again.

Test Your Knowledge

Watching TV while you eat is good, because it takes your mind off of your food.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    While you're eating, it's better to concentrate on your food without a distraction like watching TV. That way you can more easily pay attention to your body signals and know when it's time to stop eating.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    While you're eating, it's better to concentrate on your food without a distraction like watching TV. That way you can more easily pay attention to your body signals and know when it's time to stop eating.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

Figure out where you are now

First, find out what signals you are following. 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 eating. Using the hunger scale below, write down where you were on the scale before you ate and where you were afterwards.

When you look back at your food journal, you may see some eating patterns. For example, you may find that you almost always eat dinner in front of the TV. You may find that you always eat an evening snack, even when you're not hungry. You may find that 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 is a desire to eat that is caused by emotions, like stress, boredom, sadness, or happiness.

When you feel hungry even though you recently ate, check to see if what you're feeling is really a craving brought on by something psychological.

When you start feeling like you want something to eat, rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being starving 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—Starving, 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

To eat naturally, the way a baby does, 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 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.

When it's time to eat, make healthy choices

For your body to be truly satisfied, your meals need to be balanced. This means that each meal should contain:

  • Carbohydrate. You get this from grains, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Protein. You get this from meat, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, dry beans, and nuts.
  • Fat. You get the kinds of fat that help you stay healthy from:
    • Fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds and flaxseed oil. These have omega-3 fatty acids.
    • Olive, canola, and peanut oils; most nuts; avocados; and olives. These have monounsaturated fats.
    • Safflower, corn, sunflower, sesame, soybean, and cottonseed oils. These have polyunsaturated fats.

Your meals should contain tastes that you like and want. This also helps you feel satisfied.

Learn when to stop eating

Try to stop eating before you get too full. Too full is uncomfortable. It means you ate too much.

Get in touch with what "satisfied," or "pleasantly full," feels like for you.

  • Relax before you start eating, and then eat slowly. Remember that it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you're full.
  • Stop a quarter of the way through your meal, and check your hunger level. If you're still hungry, keep eating, but stop again at the halfway point. No matter what your parents taught you, you don't have to clean your plate.
  • Learn what proper portions are. We're used to restaurant portions, but restaurant portions usually contain much more food than we need.

Don't deny yourself

Lots of people think that healthy eating means never having dessert or french fries or any of the things they love to eat. That's wrong.

Your appetite, which can include a desire for sweets or other less-than-healthy treats, is a strong body signal. And part of keeping your body at that "satisfied" level on the hunger scale is eating tastes that you like and want.

If we try to have an eating plan that cuts out all treats, we probably won't stay with that plan. In fact, we're more likely to go "off the wagon" and eat too much of those foods.

But it's important to recognize when it's your appetite talking instead of your true hunger. Knowing which body signal is talking can help you control what you are eating.

If you're eating healthy and listening to your body signals, a piece of birthday cake or an occasional order of french fries can fit into your healthy eating plan. When the holidays come around, it's okay to eat the traditional foods you love. Just keep listening to your body signals and eat only enough to reach that "satisfied" level.

A few more tips

  • Try not to let your hunger drop to a 1 or 2 on the hunger scale. When you get that hungry, you're likely to eat faster, make poorer food choices, and keep eating past the "satisfied" point.
  • On the other hand, let yourself feel some hunger between meals. Mild hunger is a good thing. After all, it's a sign that you're not overeating. Teach yourself to appreciate hunger pangs as a natural part of life, as a sign that you're a healthy eater.
  • Give cravings 10 minutes. When you suddenly feel the need to eat, tell yourself that you will wait 10 minutes. If it was only a craving, you will have forgotten about it by then, and the urge will be gone. If 10 minutes goes by and you still have the urge to eat, you may be starting to get hungry.
  • Don't eat more now because you think you might not have time to eat later. Eat what your body needs now, and worry about later, later.
  • Some people find that it's easier to schedule lots of small meals throughout the day. Other people do better with "three square meals." Whichever you choose, try to eat on a regular schedule every day, according to how hungry you usually get. Eating regular meals can help you be more aware of hunger and fullness.
  • Does leaving food on your plate drive you nuts? Take smaller servings. Save leftovers for another meal. Share plates with someone. Ask yourself what's more important—a few bites of "wasted" food, or your health?
  • When you eat, make your food the main attraction. Sit down at the table with your family. Don't eat in front of the TV. Don't read while you eat. Give your attention to what you are putting in your mouth, how it tastes, and how your body reacts to what and how much you're eating.

Test Your Knowledge

If you want to eat naturally and healthfully, let yourself get a little hungry between meals.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Mild hunger is a good thing. It means that you're not overeating. But don't let yourself get too hungry, or you'll be more likely to eat too fast and too much when you have your next meal.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Mild hunger is a good thing. It means that you're not overeating. But don't let yourself get too hungry, or you'll be more likely to eat too fast and too much when you have your next meal.

  •  

If you want to eat healthy, you must give up all high-fat, sugary foods, including desserts and french fries.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    Your appetite, which can include a desire for sweets or other less-than-healthy treats, is a strong body signal that leads you to food that you like and want. And eating those kinds of foods can help you stay longer at that "satisfied" level on the hunger scale. Just be sure to keep listening to your body's signals for hunger and fullness, and eat accordingly.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    Your appetite, which can include a desire for sweets or other less-than-healthy treats, is a strong body signal that leads you to food that you like and want. And eating those kinds of foods can help you stay longer at that "satisfied" level on the hunger scale. Just be sure to keep listening to your body's signals for hunger and fullness, and eat accordingly.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you have read this information, you're ready to start listening to your body's hunger signals.

Talk with your doctor

If you have questions about this information, print it out and take it with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to mark areas or make notes in the margins where you have questions.

If your goal is to get to a healthy weight, your doctor can refer you to a dietitian, an expert who can help people learn to eat healthy.

If you would like more information on healthy eating, the following organizations can provide information:

Organizations

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
120 South Riverside Plaza
Suite 2000
Chicago, IL  60606-6995
Phone: 1-800-877-0877
Email: knowledge@eatright.org
Web Address: www.eatright.org
 

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics sets standards for all types of prescribed diets. The organization produces a variety of consumer information, including videos. This group will help you find a registered dietitian in your area who provides nutrition counseling.


ChooseMyPlate.gov
3101 Park Center Drive
Alexandria, VA  22302-1594
Phone: 1-888-779-7264
Email: support@cnpp.usda.gov
Web Address: www.choosemyplate.gov
 

The USDA food guide website provides many options to help people make healthy food choices and to be active every day. Enter your age, gender, and activity level to get a food plan specific to your needs. You can also print out worksheets for tracking your progress and goals. On this website, you'll find answers to many of your questions about healthy eating.


National Agricultural Library: Nutrition.gov
10301 Baltimore Avenue
Beltsville, MD  20705
Phone: (301) 504-5414
Fax: (301) 504-6409
Web Address: www.nutrition.gov
 

This Web site has information on nutrition, healthy eating, exercise, and food safety. You can use an e-mail form to ask a food-related question.


References

Other Works Consulted

  • Katz DL, Friedman RSC (2008). Hunger, appetite, taste, and satiety. In Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 2nd ed., pp. 377–390. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Whitney E, Rolfes SR (2011). Energy balance and body composition. In Understanding Nutrition, 12th ed., pp. 240–260. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Rhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Last Revised October 21, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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