How can I tell if I am hungry?

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Maoshing Ni, PhD, LAc
Geriatric Medicine
Would you eat an apple or a banana? If the answer is no, you’re not actually hungry. We often eat out of habit without realizing that we are not actually hungry. Try skipping a meal sometime -- that’s what hungry feels like.
Judi Hollis
Health Education

Watch as Dr. Judi Hollis discusses how you can tell if you are hungry.


While it seems like there should be a very straightforward answer to this question, it very much depends on the individual and his/her perceptions. While we can assume most people eat because they are hungry (i.e. it's a regular, scheduled mealtime or an exercise session has amped up the appetite or you haven't eaten for several hours), that's not always the case.

If you are an emotional eater, your behavior is triggered by certain events and how you respond to them. Someone says or does something or you experience a situation that signals your body to eat -- even if you are not hungry. You may even question yourself afterwards -- "why did I eat that -- I wasn't even hungry!" Your perception at that moment, however, was that you needed to eat.

Food can also provide comfort in some situations -- if we're nervous, anxious, upset, excited -- we eat! It can almost be an unconscious act but it can happen and often has nothing to do with actually being hungry. Social situations often cause us to overindulge.

One thing to try if you're not sure what's driving the desire to eat is to stop yourself, have a glass of water or other beverage and give yourself a few minutes to see if the impulse passes or if you are still craving food after a short break. If ten minutes pass, and you're still thinking about that food, you're probably hungry!

Awareness is an important component -- getting a handle on what is motivating the eating is important. So if it's not obvious hunger -- run through a quick mental checklist to see if something else may be driving it. Chances are you'll know the answer pretty quickly and it may help you make better choices in the future. Give yourself time to come to this awareness...it can make a big difference!
Wendy Batts
Fitness
There are many people who eat just for the sake of eating. During emotional times in our lives, food gives us a sense of comfort and keeps us from thinking about the underlying problem. Social events are also times when food is convenient and gives us a sense of acceptance among our peers. So, in order to tell if you are really hungry, try ranking how hungry you think you are on a scale from 1-10. If you are a 1-3, try drinking a glass of water. If that satisfies your craving, then you know it was probably just an emotional thought. If you are between a 4-7, try eating a small snack such as a piece of fruit or a protein shake. If you rank your hunger with an 8 or above, try eating a small, healthy, balanced meal to reduce your craving. This ranking process, along with logging your food daily, will be an eye opener to many and will also get you thinking, are you really hungry or is it just “something to do?” 
Dominique Adair
Fitness
Sometimes our hunger signals and cues get a little separated from our biological needs. Some people don't really feel hungry, but they notice things like energy slumps, or cravings for foods that might actually be indications that you need to eat!

Try a simple schedule, with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try designing your plate with 50% fruits and vegetables, 25% lean protein (chicken, fish, tofu) and 25% high fiber complex carbs (brown rice, whole grain bread, etc.).

If you notice energy slumps or cravings, throw in a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack. I have also used hunger scales with my clients to help them identify when they are hungry. Try writing down how hungry you are (from 1/starving to 10/very full) before you eat to try to connect with what that feels like.

Continue Learning about Eating Habits and Nutrition

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.