Do you ever wonder if you’re actually hungry, or if you’re eating out of boredom or loneliness—or simply because you enjoy eating while watching your favourite TV show? We often eat for reasons other than physical hunger. This can interfere with our ability to detect true hunger and lead to mindless overeating.
Confusing hunger cues
Children are born with the ability to recognize both physical hunger and satiety (fullness) and can self-regulate how much they eat. Unfortunately, by the time we reach adulthood, we often have muddied the connection between eating and physical hunger. Food is easily accessible and convenient. In addition, eating can be rewarding, comforting, and a way to be social. All of these factors become additional cues to hunger that create a disconnect between eating and physical hunger.
The 3 types of hunger
When you are physically hungry, you generally feel a sensation in your stomach. Your stomach may make a rumbling sound and feel empty or slightly uncomfortable. This feeling tends to come on gradually and can be satisfied with a variety of foods.
Emotional eating occurs when we use food to help manage our feelings rather than satisfy our physical hunger. We might feel happy about accomplishing a goal and use food as a reward. Alternatively, we may feel overwhelmed and turn to food as a source of comfort.
When you’re emotionally hungry, the feeling tends to come on suddenly and cause specific cravings, and it may drive you to eat more than you normally would.
There’s a considerable amount of research that explains how external factors can influence our food intake. These factors can be categorized as being part of the “food environment” or the “eating environment.”
The food environment includes portions and sizes of food packages, or dishes such as bowls or plates. Size matters; for example, the larger the plate, the more food you may eat.
The eating environment includes eating atmosphere, eating with others, and eating distractions. We might eat simply because we are in the presence of friends who are eating.
These environmental factors can create a distinct type of hunger that may lead to mindless eating. Mindless eating is the reason we sometimes can’t explain why we ate six chocolates at our desk or had third helpings at dinner. Becoming aware of our eating and food environments can help us manage our hunger and reduce overeating.
Researchers have discovered that the more our dining partner eats, and the more dining companions we have, the more we’re likely to eat.
Rediscover your hunger cues
Identifying and listening to our body’s internal hunger and satiety cues allow us to eat in response to physical hunger rather than eating due to an emotional state, our surroundings, or our diet plans. This gets us more in tune with our body’s physical needs and encourages us to eat in a way that supports our overall health.
Keep a food journal
Keep a food journal for a week and write down everything you eat and drink. Also note how you feel pre- and post-meal. This can help you identify whether you’re eating because you’re physically hungry or for reasons that may be emotionally or environmentally stimulated.
Stop and take 15
Pausing for 15 minutes gives you an opportunity to reflect on how you’re feeling and why you’re choosing to eat. Before reaching for that box of crackers or ordering that mocha, stop and take time to think about what you’re feeling. Are you bored? Are you stressed? Are others eating around you? Acknowledge what you’re feeling and your surroundings. Assess whether you’re physically hungry. This can encourage more mindful eating.
Use a hunger scale
How hungry are you on a scale of 0 to 6?
- 0: so full—stomach feels completely stuffed, bloated, and uncomfortable
- 1: stuffed and a little uncomfortable
- 2: full, but feeling good
- 3: satisfied—not hungry or full
- 4: beginning to feel a little hungry (might have some stomach rumbling and growling)
- 5: very hungry (maybe cranky, with lots of stomach rumbling)
- 6: starving—feeling lightheaded and dizzy
Ideally, you want to eat when you rate your hunger at a 4 or 5. Avoid letting your hunger reach a 6—this can lead to poorer food choices. Try to stop eating before you reach a 0 or 1. You don’t want to feel uncomfortably full, and you want your body to get used to feeling satisfied in a pleasant way.
Signs that you are physically hungry
- stomach rumbles or makes noises such as growling
- the empty stomach feeling
- not craving any food in particular; just feeling hungry
- hunger comes on gradually rather than suddenly
- it’s been at least two hours since you last ate
Assessing your hunger will allow you to be a more mindful eater; however, sometimes it’s okay to eat for reasons other than physical hunger. These reasons can be cultural, social, or even pleasure-driven. It is important to embrace all these forms of hunger—but in a balanced and healthy way.
Tips to avoid mindless eating
- Take smaller servings and use smaller dishware. This way you can assess whether you need a second serving to satisfy your physical hunger or if you’re satisfied with a smaller amount.
- Try not to eat when distracted. When you’re absorbed by your cellphone, computer, or TV, you can easily overeat, as distraction increases the likelihood of mindless eating. Pay attention to what and how much you’re eating, and take pleasure in your meals and eating environment.
- Let yourself feel hungry between meals and snacks. This is a good way to start understanding the gradual onset of hunger and what it truly feels like to be physically hungry.
Don’t deprive yourself. Enjoy the occasional treat, but do so in a mindful way with a controlled portion.