You walk through the door after a long day at the office and make a beeline to the fridge because hunger strikes again… or are you trying to de-stress? Or maybe you’re confusing hunger with thirst? Ah, it’s all so hard to decipher when you’re truly hungry, especially if you’re trying to make healthier choices and lose weight.
Listening to your body and understanding hunger cues is becoming an increasingly popular tactic for those who want to trim down. It sounds super basic, but it’s actually quite complex because somewhere along the way we’ve disconnected from the innate ability to determine hunger. We’ve lost our mojo.
Think about it. When you were a baby, you would eat when you were hungry. If a baby isn’t hungry, they will turn their face from the milk source. Don’t we all wish we could do that?
As we get older, we are tempted to eat by smell, taste, experience, social pressure, emotional connection, time of day, social media, and the list goes on. While that “emptiness” feeling in the pit of the stomach is a good reason to eat, there are other reasons we turn to food. Give it some thought: What are your cues to chow down?
So… How Do You Know If You’re Really Hungry?
Well, let’s get a little specific. Imagine you have a pretend scale that ranges from 0 to 10, with 0 being hangry (that angry hunger because you waited too long to eat) and 10 being glutted (you ate so much that you need to unbutton your pants). Real physical hunger builds gradually and will eventually cause your stomach to growl; if you don’t eat when you’re truly hungry, your body will nag you until you do. Eating should happen when you’re truly hungry; that means your body should feel anywhere from hangry (0) to gentle hunger (4).
The next time you feel the urge to eat something, here’s how to know if your hunger is genuine:
- The desire to eat got stronger over a little bit of time.
- Your stomach starts to growl.
- Ask yourself: Will eating anything — but ideally something nutritious — satisfy you? Or will you not be happy unless you bite into that greasy or sweet snack? If it’s the latter, you’re not really physically hungry.
- Wait about 10 minutes before you eat. If you’re just craving something, the desire will hopefully pass. Drink a glass of water, then wait a couple more minutes to see if you’re still hungry.
Check in with yourself before you start to eat, or, even better, when you begin to think about food. Ask yourself, “How hungry am I?” If you’re feeling peckish (5–6), you’re not really hungry… you’re just eating because it tastes darn good — it’s that “can’t stop, won’t stop” feeling. We can get real honest and call that greedy eating. Any of you who grew up in a big family knows what I’m talking about. That “gotta get a second helping of mashed potatoes pronto before that brother of yours packs it in first” feeling. That’s straight up greedy eating.
See what I mean? We’ve lost our true hunger cues. If only we could turn back time.
But the good news is, you can get your mojo back — that intuitive self who knows when to eat and when to stop. It will likely take some practice, but you know what they say about practice. And while there is no such thing as a perfect eater, you can be pretty darn close when you start to listen to your body, not your Facebook feed. Those Tasty videos get me every time.
Before You Eat, Try These 4 Things
The next time you get the urge to eat, pause for a minute and evaluate your body’s signals. Here’s how:
1. Begin by taking a quick assessment.
Run through a mental checklist to make note of your food triggers. What are the reasons you’re turning to food? If you become aware and observant of your habits, you take a powerful step toward becoming a mindful eater who knows when they’re really physically hungry.
2. Grab a glass of water.
If you find yourself wanting to eat but you don’t feel a rumble in your tummy, go get a drink of water first! Plain water provides hydration and satiety without added calories. Drinking a glass of water while you contemplate whether or not to eat can also provide the pause you need to complete the first two steps.
3. Keep a log.
Use your phone’s note section (or put pen to paper, if that’s more your speed) to jot down your hunger level before you even put food in your mouth. Write down how you are feeling and what you are eating if you want to be super thorough, and start to make connections. You can refer back to these notes when you’re not eating or thinking about eating so you can start to see what might trigger different reactions.
4. Dig for a deeper connection.
If you’re turning to food when you’re not really hungry, change your routine. Get outside for some fresh air, do housework, or chat with a friend because putting your body in the right place (i.e., not in front of the pantry) can encourage you to get more in tune with your needs.
Tomorrow when you get home from a long day at the office, hopefully you’ll be more empowered to pass by the kitchen if you’re not really hungry.
What If You Ate, But Still Feel Hungry?
You waited until you were truly hungry to eat, but still feel hungry after finishing. Should you eat more? What gives?
Feeling hungry after you eat a reasonable amount actually isn’t uncommon — sometimes you might even think you’re hungrier after eating something than you were before you ate it. This can happen for a few reasons:
1. You ate too quickly.
Feelings of satiety result from interactions between the bloodstream, pancreas, brain, intestines, and stomach. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register (hormones that regulate hunger and satiety need to trigger these feelings in the brain) that you’ve eaten enough, so if you eat too quickly, you may think you’re still hungry but just need to give your body time to recognize it’s had enough.
2. You could be a bit dehydrated.
Did you really drink that whole glass of water before eating? Did you sip any water or fluids during your meal? If you didn’t eat low-density foods that have a higher water content, such as leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, and soups, your body may just be telling you that you’re thirsty. Try drinking a glass of water and waiting a few minutes to reassess your feelings of hunger.
3. The food you ate didn’t contain enough protein.
Protein-packed foods can help promote satiety, so including enough of it in your meals may help you feel more satisfied. A review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed that higher-protein meals increase fullness ratings more than lower-protein ones.
4. You might actually need to eat more.
Wait, what? If you’re trying to lose weight, or recently stepped up your workout regimen and still feel hungry after you’ve eaten and waited 20 minutes to eat more, you might just need to eat some more. Other telltale signs that you might need more calories: You’re irritable a lot, you have new trouble sleeping, you’re consistently low on energy, or you can’t finish your workouts. In these cases, it’s recommended to add one of the following to your day: two servings of veggies, one serving of fruit, or a small serving of nuts or seeds.