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Home > Wellness > Health Library > Healthy Eating: Recognizing Your Hunger Signals
One reason that many of us are not at a healthy weight is because,
somewhere along the line, we stopped listening to our body signals that
naturally tell us when we're hungry and when we're full.
signals are still there, but we're out of practice when it comes to paying
attention to them.
Learning to recognize those signals again can
help you get to a healthy weight and stay there.
Hunger signals tell us when
to eat, what to eat, and when to stop. There are three types of hunger
Satiety is the body signal that tell us when we
have had enough to eat.
Satiety is a very important signal. Many of us
have learned to ignore this signal, because we eat too fast or eat without
Satiety is the body signal that tells us when
we have had enough to eat.
Continue to Why?
Babies follow their hunger signals naturally. When their bodies tell them
they're hungry, they let us know by crying or fussing. And they stop eating
when they're full enough to be satisfied.
As we grow up, lots
of distractions lead us away from this natural way of eating:
All these distractions can cause you to ignore your body's
signals. You stop paying attention to how hungry you are or how full you are.
Over time, you lose the skill of listening to and obeying your body's
Learning to get back in touch with your hunger signals
can be one of your best tools for getting to a healthy weight and staying
there. Your hunger and fullness signals are still there. You just have to learn
how to listen to them again.
Watching TV while you eat is good, because it takes
your mind off of your food.
While you're eating, it's better to concentrate
on your food without a distraction like watching TV. That way you can more
easily pay attention to your body signals and know when it's time to stop
Continue to How?
find out what signals you are following. Keep a
food journal for 2 weeks, or longer if you need to.
Write down not only when and what you eat but also what you were doing and
feeling before you started eating. Using the hunger scale below, write down
where you were on the scale before you ate and where you were
When you look back at your food journal, you may see
some eating patterns. For example, you may find that you almost always eat
dinner in front of the TV. You may find that you always eat an evening snack,
even when you're not hungry. You may find that you often snack when you "feel"
like you want to eat (because of boredom, stress, or some other emotion), but
you're not truly hungry.
A hunger scale can help you learn how to tell the
difference between true, physical hunger and hunger that's really just in your
head. Psychological hunger is a desire to eat that is caused by emotions,
like stress, boredom, sadness, or happiness.
When you feel hungry
even though you recently ate, check to see if what you're feeling is really a
craving brought on by something psychological.
When you start
feeling like you want something to eat, rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10,
with 1 being starving and 10 being so full you feel sick. A rating of 5 or 6
means you're comfortable—neither too hungry nor too full.
To eat naturally, the way a baby does, eat when your hunger
is at 3 or 4. Don't wait until your hunger gets down to 1 or 2. Getting too
hungry can lead to overeating. When you sit down to a scheduled meal, stop and
think how hungry you are. If you feel less hungry than usual, make a conscious
effort to eat less food than usual. Stop eating when you reach 5 or 6 on the
For your body to be truly satisfied, your meals
need to be balanced. This means that each meal should contain:
Your meals should contain tastes that you like and want.
This also helps you feel satisfied.
Try to stop eating before you get too full. Too
full is uncomfortable. It means you ate too much.
Get in touch
with what "satisfied," or "pleasantly full," feels like for you.
Lots of people think that healthy eating means never having dessert or
french fries or any of the things they love to eat. That's wrong.
Your appetite, which can include a desire for sweets or other
less-than-healthy treats, is a strong body signal. And part of keeping your
body at that "satisfied" level on the hunger scale is eating tastes that you
like and want.
If we try to have an eating plan that cuts out all
treats, we probably won't stay with that plan. In fact, we're more likely to go
"off the wagon" and eat too much of those foods.
important to recognize when it's your appetite talking instead of your true
hunger. Knowing which body signal is talking can help you control what you are
If you're eating healthy and listening to your body
signals, a piece of birthday cake or an occasional order of french fries can
fit into your healthy eating plan. When the holidays come around, it's okay to
eat the traditional foods you love. Just keep listening to your body signals
and eat only enough to reach that "satisfied" level.
If you want to eat naturally and healthfully, let
yourself get a little hungry between meals.
Mild hunger is a good thing. It means that
you're not overeating. But don't let yourself get too
hungry, or you'll be more likely to eat too fast and too much when you have
your next meal.
If you want to eat healthy, you must give up all
high-fat, sugary foods, including desserts and french fries.
Your appetite, which can include a desire for
sweets or other less-than-healthy treats, is a strong body signal that leads
you to food that you like and want. And eating those kinds of foods can help
you stay longer at that "satisfied" level on the hunger scale. Just be sure to
keep listening to your body's signals for hunger and fullness, and eat
Continue to Where?
Now that you have read
this information, you're ready to start listening to your body's hunger
If you have questions about this information, print it out and take it
with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to mark areas or make notes
in the margins where you have questions.
If your goal is to get to
a healthy weight, your doctor can refer you to a
dietitian, an expert who can help people learn to eat
If you would like more information on healthy eating, the
following organizations can provide information:
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics sets standards for all types of prescribed diets. The
organization produces a variety of consumer information, including videos. This group will help you find a registered dietitian in your area who
provides nutrition counseling.
This Web site has information on nutrition, healthy
eating, exercise, and food safety. You can use an e-mail form to ask a
The USDA food guide website provides many
options to help people make healthy food choices and to be active every day.
Enter your age, gender, and activity level to get a food plan specific to your
needs. You can also print out worksheets for tracking your progress and goals.
On this website, you'll find answers to many of your questions about healthy
Return to topic:
Other Works Consulted
Katz DL, Friedman RSC (2008). Hunger, appetite, taste, and satiety.
In Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 2nd ed., pp. 377–390.
Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Whitney E, Rolfes SR (2011). Energy balance and body composition. In Understanding Nutrition, 12th ed., pp. 240–260. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
October 21, 2011
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine & Rhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
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