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Healthy Eating: Recognizing Your Hunger Signals

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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.

How can you get back in touch with your hunger signals?

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.

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:

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.

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

Credits for Healthy Eating: Recognizing Your Hunger Signals

Current as of: March 1, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator

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