TommL/iStockWe all know what hunger feels like, right? Yes … and no. As with other ancient instincts, the sensation of hunger has gotten complicated. Many clients who come to our clinic can easily recognize extreme hunger, but have trouble sensing subtler versions. Other people are the opposite—hypersensitive, they reach for food at the slightest pang. There’s also the issue of when and why we stop eating. While the body gives us cues about when it’s had enough food, we often miss or ignore them.
People usually think of hunger and fullness in black and white: you’re either hungry or you’re not, and full or not. In fact, there are gradations of hunger and, even more important, gradations of fullness. This concept is new to many people—and it’s powerful information.
We have found the 7-point hunger scale below, adapted from the work of Linda Craighead, PhD, enormously beneficial in helping people to sense the subtle gradations of hunger and fullness.
1. Very hungry. You feel “starving.”
2. Moderately hungry. You feel gnawing or hunger pangs.
3. Mildly hungry. You feel slight emptiness in your stomach.
4. Neutral. You feel no sensations of hunger or fullness.
5. Moderately full. You no longer feel hungry, and you may feel the very first signal of stretch. Some people feel a little warmth in the stomach.
6. Very full. Your stomach feels a little stretched.
7. Much too full. Your stomach feels stuffed, or distended.
While we tend to be familiar with the extremes of hunger and fullness, getting in touch with moderate hunger and moderate fullness can help us change our habits. You should aim to start eating at 2–2.5 and to stop eating at 5–5.5. Just like Goldilocks, you want to aim for a level of hunger and fullness that’s “just right.”
Here are three common hunger patterns and how to go about making them healthier.
Pattern 1: Waiting too long to start eating
If you wait until you’re extremely hungry to eat—a 1 or 1.5 on the hunger scale—you may tend to wolf down whatever’s in sight. The culprit here often isn’t willpower, but blood sugar. Extreme hunger leads to a chemical cascade: your blood-sugar level falls, which triggers a stress response in addition to signaling a need to eat NOW—often something unhealthy from a vending machine, pantry, freezer, or fast-food drive-through.
Many people are unaware of their hunger signals until it’s “too late;” others hear the signals but ignore them. Stopping to eat may seem like a waste of time. Chronic stress is often a culprit in these cases. Whatever the cause, waiting until you’re extremely hungry before eating is physiologically stressful. And there’s evidence that skipping meals is associated with weight gain even if you don’t consume excess calories over the course of a day. On a biochemical level, your body goes into starvation mode; it thinks that food is scarce and works to conserve the calories that you do consume, storing more of it as fat for use later.
It’s not impossible to interrupt this pattern once it’s in motion, but it’s much healthier to plan ahead.
Try this: Keep healthy snacks nearby—yogurt, nuts, and whole fresh fruit in your office or at home or whole-food granola bars in your car. Get off to a good start each day by eating breakfast, and plan your meals—getting a sense of what time you’ll eat and making sure you have healthy food. If you “forget” to eat, or feel like you don’t have time, it’s also vital to lower your stress levels.
TommL/iStockPattern 2: Waiting too long to stop eating
Just as we miss our bodies’ hunger signals, we often miss or ignore signs that we’ve had enough food. Many of us wait until we’re at a 6, 6.5, or 7 on the Hunger-Fullness Scale to stop eating.
Our brains take about 20 minutes to register satiety messages from the gut through the hormones leptin, PYY3-36, CCK, and others, which lead to a sensation of fullness. Twenty minutes. It’s easy to wolf down a plate of cookies or a foot-long sub in five minutes. That means you don’t feel full until you’re long past being done—then you suddenly feel stuffed.
“Clean-your-plate syndrome” can also override satiety signals. As children, many people are told to finish the food on their plate, regardless of how much is on it and how hungry or full they are. This directive is often a well-intentioned attempt to get active children to eat enough and to avoid waste.
It’s also helpful to examine the very notion of what it means to be “full.” When a container—say, a bathtub—is full, there’s no more room. If you add more water, it starts spilling out. Our stomachs aren’t bathtubs; they do stretch to accommodate extra food. But that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. Being “stuffed” creates a cascade of metabolic effects that can be much more damaging than water on a bathroom floor.
Curbing overeating involves shifting your mind-set from “eating until you’re full” to eating until you’ve had just enough—the right amount to support your body and your brain to function optimally, enough to satisfy your hunger for about four hours. And enough to give you a feeling of satisfaction—and many times, though not always, pleasure. “Enough” is very different from “full”—and generally involves eating significantly less food.
Try this: To recognize your fullness signals, slowing down is paramount. Spending 30 minutes eating a meal is a minimum to allow your brain to register fullness. (That’s a dramatic change for most people, though, and is not always realistic given the constraints of our lives. Tracking exercises in our book offer alternative strategies).
If you’re in the “clean plate club,” familiarize yourself with healthy portions so that you’re able to recognize when your plate is too full. When possible, put less food on your plate—and/or use a smaller plate or bowl. Studies have shown that the bigger our plate is, the more we eat. (In fact, we eat about 92 percent of what is on our plate, regardless of the plate size). If you’re served an enormous portion at a restaurant, ask your server for a to-go container and immediately put half your meal in it. lolostock/iStockPattern 3: Eating before you’re hungry
Many people who struggle with their weight eat at the slightest sign of hunger or even when they’re not hungry—between 3 and 4 on the scale. They turn to food well before they’re moderately hungry, often for reasons other than hunger.
All the external cues in our culture contribute. While there’s plenty of “noise” to distract us from our natural hunger signals, sometimes they’re in overdrive. If you’re walking down a city street, or you’re on the Internet, or near a TV, or at the grocery store, you’re surrounded by food or images of food. These triggers cause real physical changes in the body. You may even salivate at these external cues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are physically hungry. In fact, we recommend that people not use salivation as a sign of physical hunger. Other external cues include “eating by the clock” and being around other people who are eating.
Some people eat when we not physically hungry because of internal triggers, such as using food to quell difficult emotions and stress—Certain emotions, such as anger and mild to moderate anxiety, have physical manifestations that can mimic hunger.
Whatever the reason, eating when you’re not physically hungry can lead to weight gain. Moreover, eating in response to stress or other emotions can be counterproductive for not only your physical health, but your emotional health, too. Instead of coping with stressors in a healthy way, you can remain stuck in a pattern that ultimately makes things worse.
Try this: If you tend to eat for emotional reasons, remind yourself that being physically hungry is often distinct from wanting to eat; use the Hunger-Fullness Scan to discern the difference. If you realize that you often eat before your body has a chance to get hungry, it’s important to explore why you are eating—whether it’s due to external cues or internal cues such as thoughts or emotions.
It also helps to practice getting comfortable with mild and occasionally moderate hunger. That means accepting that sometimes you’re going to be hungry, and that’s okay—it doesn’t mean you have to eat immediately. It might mean that you need to start preparing or arranging for healthy food if you haven’t planned ahead, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “eat now.”
The Mindful Diet, a new book from experts at Duke Integrative Medicine, offers a step-by-step program that dismantles old eating patterns, provides new tools for making healthy choices, and fosters deep, internal motivation. Loaded with concrete meditation exercises, behavioral techniques, nutrition advice, and meal-planning charts, this book provides the tools to avoid cravings, stop emotional overeating, and figure out when you are full. Learn more and buy the book here.
Excerpted from THE MINDFUL DIET by Ruth Wolever and Beth Reardon. Copyright © 2015 by Duke Univerisy, on behalf of Duke Integrative Medicine. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.