Updated: May 3, 2019
A huge part of becoming an intuitive eater is understanding your hunger and fullness cues. If I asked you, “How do you know you are hungry?” or “How do you know when you’re full?”, what would you say? What comes to mind? Sometimes it is difficult to articulate how we know we are hungry or full.
Hunger and fullness cues can also be difficult to identify because our emotions sometimes get in the way. Am I really hungry or am I just bored? Do I need to eat something or am I feeling anxious? Am I full or have I just had a really busy and stressful day? For those who chronically diet, you have probably felt hunger cues and ignored them because your diet said you couldn’t eat. Or maybe you said, “screw it” to your diet and ate a whole bunch of whatever you wanted just because you could.
If this sounds familiar to you then read on! Here are some strategies that can help you identify your own hunger and fullness cues so that you can rely on the better.
Note: If you suffer from an eating disorder, your hunger/fullness cues may be absent or your cues may be unreliable. If this is the case, talk to your dietitian about hunger and fullness. Usually, you will need to follow a regular meal plan for a period of time for your hunger and fullness cues to regulate appropriately again. Once this happens, those cues will be more reliable.
1. Put words to your physical hunger and fullness cues
I’ve found that it can be easier to identify and talk about hunger and fullness when we know what we are feeling! I've had many clients tell me they don’t know how to describe their fullness – they’re just full! Understanding the language around hunger and fullness can give you the vocabulary to identify what you are feeling.
Words to describe hunger: emptiness in stomach, stomach rumbles or growls, food is appealing, stomach churns, lightheadedness, dizzy, hangry, headache, feeling faint, pain in stomach, loss of energy
Words to describe fullness: pressure in stomach, taste is boring, satisfaction, stomach feels filled, contentment, bloating, energized
2. Use the Hunger and Fullness Scale to rank how you are feeling
Using the hunger and fullness scale can be a helpful tool to identify how you are feeling more concretely. Typically, hunger and fullness should not make you feel overly uncomfortable. So if you are frequently going from a 2 to a 9, then maybe you need to adjust how you are eating.
Not everyone’s hunger and fullness scale will look like this. Maybe you get headaches quickly when you start to get hungry. Or maybe you feel bloated easily. So adjust the scale to fit how your body communicates with you.
3. Listen to your body
It will take time to identify the subtle cues in your body. You will need to be present and check in with how you are feeling. Do these check-ins throughout the day, before you eat, during your meal/snack, and after you eat. Think about what number on the Hunger and Fullness Scale matches with the cues you are receiving.
This is a learning process. There is no right or wrong if you are working to connect with your body! For example, I may go too long without eating and notice I feel faint. It is uncomfortable for me to feel that way so I’m going to use that knowledge to make sure I eat sooner. Have compassion for yourself - it takes time to listen to your body and understand your hunger and fullness cues.
4. Know that it’s okay to emotionally eat
Emotional eating has such a negative connotation. But there is no need to fear emotional eating! Eating is tied up in our emotions. We feel better when we eat foods we enjoy. Yes, after a stressful day, ice cream makes the world better! It is 100% okay to eat something even if you are not feeling physically hungry. However, if you are constantly turning to food to soothe emotions, it’s time to discover some other coping strategies. The idea is that you want to connect with your body, and if you are emotionally eating frequently, you’re using food to meet emotional needs.
More to come soon about the difference between emotional and physical hunger. Stay tuned. :)
5. Eat to feel satisfied
Choose foods that will satisfy both your body and your head. Pick foods you love. Pick foods you know are good for you. Pick foods that smell or look delicious. When you eat to feel satisfied, you will be able to enjoy eating, and then stop when you are content. You can leave the table without feeling hungry or wanting more food.
Again, this will take trial and error. You may eat too much and feel uncomfortable. You may stop eating too soon and feel hungry again quickly. But as you learn more about your body and its cues, you will become a more competent and satisfied eater.