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SALT LAKE CITY — These days, we are taught to be suspicious of our hunger cues, leading to distrust for what our bodies are actually communicating to us. Many people wonder if what they perceive as hunger could actually be boredom, dehydration or emotional eating.
It’s an interesting situation since we don’t second-guess very many of our other intuitive signals. Urges to urinate, get a drink, go to sleep or blink our eyes are very rarely questioned. Yet, here we are very nervous about if we are hungry or not.
Why is that? As a registered dietitian who regularly helps clients cultivate confidence in feeding themselves, I would place the blame squarely on diet culture. Food rules, restrictive meal plans and the fear of weight gain have made us terrified of overeating. As such, people tend to err on the side of restriction and ignore hunger cues … until they are so famished that hunger is unmistakable, leading to overeating. Essentially, fear of overeating actually causes overeating.
The solution is to learn how to identify pleasant hunger versus unpleasant hunger. Pleasant hunger allows you time to think about what to eat, staying level-headed about your food choices. This builds trust and confidence in responding to what your body needs.
Unpleasant hunger causes all ideas of what or how much to go out the window, leaving you reactive and impulsive. Overeating is likely here, making you believe you need more self-restraint, will-power and restriction. Instead, you just need more practice in responding to hunger cues sooner.
What does hunger feel like? Honestly, it’s likely different for everyone. But it’s not always manifested as “stomach hunger,” or feeling actual hunger pangs or stomach gurgling. Other signs of hunger may include:
- It’s been 2-4 hours since you’ve eaten last. It's normal and natural to need food at regular intervals during the day, which can surprise some people. When you are fueling your body and your brain regularly, you’ll fall into a natural rhythm where hunger signals feel far more reliable. Chaotic food patterns make intuitive signals feel less reliable.
- You lack mental focus. If you are finding yourself unable to concentrate on even simple tasks, it could be you need a break to refuel.
- You find yourself thinking about food. Our brains are wired for survival so when it senses a need for food, it will encourage you to seek it out. If you are concerned that you are not truly hungry and only looking for a distraction, use some logic by referring to No. 1. Eating regularly will make any emotional triggers far more manageable and understandable. More often than not, you are hungry AND want a break.
- You’re getting hangry. You’ve heard that term before, right? Hungry/angry is a thing, and it’s a great description for what happens to your mood when your blood sugar is dropping.
- You're getting headaches and feel dizzy or light-headed. That’s most certainly unpleasant hunger, but is definitely a sign you need to eat.
Below is a hunger scale that may help you identify your level of hunger before eating and your level of fullness after eating.
You’ll notice that pleasant hunger and fullness will be found between a 3-4 and a 7-8.
Because you may experience hunger and fullness slightly differently than what’s listed, a common exercise I recommend is to repopulate this scale based on your own experiences. What does a 3 or 5 or 7 feel like for you? What does it feel like to get to a 1? Or a 10? You can use this basic framework to get to know your own intuitive signals.
As you do, you’ll gain more confidence in knowing what hunger feels like for you, leading to far less over-thinking, second-guessing or worrying.
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