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.