We are born intuitive eaters. This is why it’s so easy for young kids to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. As we grow older, many of us lose touch with our hunger and fullness from years of eating based on external rules rather than internal cues. When we first start working together, many of my clients tell me they can’t remember the last time they actually felt hungry or were able to stop eating when comfortably full. The hunger-fullness scale, along with some key tips, might be helpful as you learn to eat more intuitively.
Mindful & Intuitive Eating
I get asked what type of “diet” I eat, or believe in, almost every single day. People are looking for an “expert” to tell them what or how to eat, but just because I’m an expert in nutrition does not mean I’m an expert in how each person should eat for their body. The only expert on eating patterns that work well for you is, well, you!
What I do believe in: intuitive eating. That is, learning to listen to what your body is feeling and trusting your internal cues when making food choices. Something else that I have found helpful is mindful eating. In our busy lives, we tend to multitask. We eat breakfast in the car, lunch in front of our computer, dinner at the coffee table, and nighttime snacks on the couch while watching late night TV. Mindful eating is about getting back in touch with the experience of eating and enjoying our food.
While mindful eating may only make sense for you sometimes, it might be something you want to try to get back in touch with your body’s cues. No silly diets telling you what you can and can not eat (because that is never fun). With mindful and intuitive eating, you get to decide what you eat and how much you eat. Instead of focusing on external cues (i.e. eating only designated foods and amounts at designated meal times) you focus on internal cues (i.e. following what you are excited to eat and your hunger levels).
A tool that might help you eat more mindfully and ensure you’re regularly and adequately nourishing yourself is the hunger and fullness scale.
The Hunger and Fullness Scale
Hunger can be felt and experienced in a variety of ways. It is a subjective feeling and can differ from person to person. Contrary to popular belief, hunger is not only felt in the stomach. For some people, a growling stomach is one of the last signs of hunger they feel, which comes on only at the point at which they are completely ravenous (and ideally you are able to eat before it gets to that point!).
Here are some ways in which you may sense hunger:
- Energy: Tired, low-energy, sluggish
- Head: Trouble concentrating, headache, dizzy, unable to focus, feeling light-headed
- Mood: Irritable, on edge, cranky (the classic “hanger”), uninterested
- Stomach: Growling or rumbling, slight pain (i.e., a hunger “pang”), empty feeling, a gnawing feeling
One tool that you can use to practice getting in tune with your hunger cues is the hunger-fullness scale, which rates your level of hunger on a scale from 1 to 10.
How to Use the Hunger-Fullness Scale
It is important to use the hunger-fullness scale as a guide rather than feeling the need to follow the numbers “perfectly.” These numbers, as I’ve just described them, may not best suit your experience or sensations of hunger. For example, one of my clients starts to get a headache as an early sign of hunger, which puts her around a 4 on the scale. Another client never experiences an “empty” or growling stomach feeling, even when she’s at a 1 or 2. As you practice tuning into your body and bringing awareness to your hunger cues, it may be helpful to personalize the hunger-fullness scale based on your hunger cues. Make note of what feelings and sensations seem to correlate with the ravenous/starving low end of the scale and which ones seem to signal earlier signs of hunger.
If you have been chronically dieting, restricting, or are in recovery from an eating disorder, it may be too soon to start using the hunger scale. The priority for you is to eat consistent meals and be eating enough calories and carbohydrates.
For most people, eating experiences feel best when eating occurs somewhere between a 3 and 4 on the scale. While this may not always be
possible, eating before you hit that extreme or painful hunger point has several benefits. For one, eating soon after your first signs of hunger helps to build back trust with your body. Remember, hunger is a biological signal, and the more you ignore it or try to push through without eating, the more your body distrusts that you are going to feed it when it cues you to.
Why Honoring Your Hunger is So Important
Ignoring hunger, or frequently waiting until you are ravenous before eating, can cause increased cravings and increased hunger cues. Your body doesn’t know whether you are going to feed it, and to do its job to keep you alive, it compensates by sending more and more signals to get you to eat. Waiting to eat until you are extremely hungry can feel really uncomfortable. You feel so much urgency to eat at that point that your eating habits become more quick and chaotic, which is typically not a satisfying way to eat. Not only are you more apt to eat until you feel uncomfortably full but you may also experience bloating, gas, and indigestion.
A cycle I frequently see is a person waiting much too long to eat, then when they finally do sit down to have something, they eat quickly and end up at the “very full” end of the hunger-fullness scale. This overly stuffed feeling causes them to feel guilty, and they vow not to eat so much next time. This person’s thought of, “I won’t overeat this time,” is interpreted by their body as, “Starvation is coming; better increase signals to make sure they eat enough to stay alive.”
By ignoring their hunger cues, or just not being aware of the more subtle signs of hunger, and by having guilty or food police-type thoughts, this person stays stuck in the diet cycle. If you are someone who rarely feels hunger until you hit a 2, or even 1, on the scale and feel “totally ravenous,” then it can help to practice noticing the earlier, sometimes more subtle sensations of hunger.
When you honor your inner wisdom, you are present-focused. You are noticing and becoming more attuned to how your body feels in that moment and honoring that feeling. If you find yourself saving up for meals or choosing (or avoiding) certain foods based on what you might eat later, you are future-focused. It is impossible to know what your body will need later on or how you will feel when you get there. When you base current eating decisions on what you think might happen in the future, it will prevent you from being able to reconnect with your body cues fully. Bring yourself back into the present moment, check-in with your body, and challenge yourself to honor your body’s desires.
If using the 1 to 10 hunger-fullness scale feels overwhelming, or you notice that it triggers any diet mentality thoughts, simply start by identifying whether your stomach feels comfortable, uncomfortable, or neutral. If you try to use the scale, remember you’re not striving for perfection (repeat to yourself: find the gray area). Sometimes you don’t know what your body is feeling, and that is okay! Just the simple act of tuning in to see if it feels comfortable or not is often enough.
Hey! You Forgot to Talk About Fullness!
You may have noticed that I’ve introduced the hunger-fullness scale, but I haven’t brought up anything related to fullness. I’m doing this intentionally. You may be tempted to jump ahead to the fullness piece because you think that honoring your hunger cues isn’t your issue and stopping when full is. (I hear this on the reg.) Trust me when I say, “Wait.” If you are not honoring every hunger signal (by eating), then you’re going to find it next to impossible to stop when you feel full, which is why honoring your hunger needs to come before feeling your fullness. Otherwise, and I say this with love and compassion, you’ll just be turning intuitive eating into a diet.
Intuitive eating does not mean that you must stop eating when you’re comfortably full. That idea is also diet mentality. You can be tuned in to your body’s hunger and fullness cues and still eat past the point of comfortable fullness, which is okay (and completely normal!). If you say, “I will eat only when I’m hungry, and I’ll always stop when I’m full,” you’re setting yourself up for failure. Instead, try to notice any rigid pattern of thinking and call it out as diet mentality. Use self-compassion and remind yourself that there is no such thing as “perfect” eating. You’re involved in a learning process with the goal of exploring your body’s sensations and cues. Exploration, experimenting, and curiosity are the goals—not perfection.
To get to the point where you naturally notice and honor your fullness signals, you need to
- Be aware of your hunger cues.
- Eat every time you feel hungry.
- Allow yourself permission to eat whatever you want.
If you aren’t able to notice your hunger cues and eat every time you feel hungry, then it is going to be really hard to stop eating once you feel
full. Your body doesn’t trust that you’ll eat the next time you’re hungry, so you’ll feel the urge to continue eating even once you notice a “comfortable” fullness feeling. On top of that, diet culture and chronic dieting often cause us to feel like we “have” to eat at mealtimes—when it is allowed—which means that leaving food behind can be difficult. This is why, before tackling “how to stop when I’m full,” you first have to build back body trust by honoring your hunger and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. Only then can you focus on feeling your fullness.
Okay, But I Really Do Feel Like I Need to Focus on My Fullness
Here’s a little secret: When you are tuned into your hunger signals, eating satisfying and filling foods whenever you feel hungry, letting go of physical restriction, and reframing restrictive thoughts, then you don’t really need to pay much attention to fullness. You may be thinking something to the effect of, “Yeahhhh…no way.” But trust me; when you’re doing all of these things, what you’re really doing is building back body trust. So your body begins to trust that you’ll allow it whatever it wants the next time it sends a hunger cue. When you build back that trust, you’ll start to naturally notice that you will hit a point when you feel “done” eating.
Although it can help to play around with your feelings of fullness and examine what those sensations feel like in your body, try not to force the “stop when comfortably full” thing. This tends to backfire because it causes a feeling of scarcity and can trigger the rebellious part of you to say, “Eff it. I’m going to do what I want,” and keep eating. When you feel ready to practice noticing different levels of fullness, the hunger-fullness scale can be a helpful tool. The sensation of fullness varies from person to person, so play around with what “comfortable” versus “slightly over-full” versus “really uncomfortable” feel like to you.
It’s Not Just About Hunger & Fullness
Many people don’t feel hunger cues when they’re busy, stressed, or have consumed a lot of caffeine, so they don’t eat much earlier on in the day. They then feel famished in the afternoon and evening and end up eating most of their calories then, feeling like it takes so much food to even begin to feel full, and eventually eating to a point of discomfort.
Listening to your body includes eating when you might not feel typical hunger cues (or perhaps you’re distracted from them), but you know if you don’t eat you will feel over-hungry later or it will affect your energy levels or mood. Listening to your body is not just about hunger and fullness, it’s about ensuring you’re adequately nourished and checking in with other cues – mood, energy levels, and sleep, that all can be affected by inadequate nourishment.
Are you interested in learning more about intuitive eating and how you can learn to tune back into your body’s feelings of hunger and fullness? Check out my nutrition coaching programs and what my clients have to say.
Download my free e-guide Five Minute Mindful Eating Exercise and learn how to hone your mindful eating skills.