A Dietitian’s Hunger Scale Makes ‘Listening to Your Body’ so Easy

Photo: Stocksy/Andrey Pavlov
Hunger cues are kind of like micro-flirtations. That is, they're subtle (sometimes to a frustrating degree). Even if I'm 98 percent sure that my body's begging for fuel, I'm never sure whether a snack or meal is in order. Which is why, with the help of a few dietitians, I set out on a quest to equip myself with the self-awareness: "Am I hungry?"

Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition tells me that first, it's important to understand how hunger cues function. "A hunger cue is your body’s way of telling you that it needs energy. Hunger cues also help you to know when you feel full and should stop eating," she explains. "Hunger cues are regulated by hormones in your body—including the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and the fullness hormone, leptin." Apart from those two, you may also feel something called "hedonic hunger," which refers to your desire for salty, fatty, or sugary foods.

"Hunger cues are regulated by hormones in your body—including the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and the fullness hormone, leptin." —Amy Gorin, MS, RDN

When too many hours have passed since your last meal, your body will raise one or more red flags. "Physical signs of actual hunger include lack of energy, a growling stomach, or headache," says Gorin. In other words, you may find yourself throwing an internal hissy fit until you can nuke your lunch or get your hands on a piece of fruit.  In the the most ideal situation, you want to avoid crankiness caused by lack of calories. "I suggest not letting it get that far because those signs aren’t fun! Instead, plan out eating occasions every three to five hours—so that typically means three meals and one or two snacks," says Gorin.

No one's perfect though, and if your do snap to attention at 4 p.m. only to realize that you haven't consumed a crumb since your 9 a.m. oatmeal breakfast, it's good to get a gage on whether you should reach for the protein cookie in your purse, run out and hit the Whole Foods hot bar, or hold out for dinner. To answer that question, Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, a certified intuitive eating counselor, created a hunger to fullness scale. "When you are getting ready to eat a meal or snack, ask yourself, 'Where am I on the hunger and fullness scale?' Ideally, you’ll be between a 3 and a 4," she writes on her blog. "Eat until you get to a 6 or 7, then stop."

Where are you on the Hunger Scale?

  1. Famished, faint, and irritable
  2. Very hungry and need food fast
  3. Hungry and ready to eat
  4. Beginning to feel signs of hunger
  5. Physically full
  6. Satisfied and no longer hungry
  7. Slightly uncomfortable feeling of fullness

Rumsey goes on to characterize the different types of fullness, so read up on those if you're interested. If you're feeling extra-dedicated to learning about your hunger cues, Rumsey recommends tracking where you are on the scale at both the beginning and the end of each meal. That way, you'll start to recognize patterns and construct your very own, personal-to-you, hunger scale. And you'll no longer hesitate when your stomach gives you a nudge. Your body-mind-mouth communication will be on point.

Curious about intuitive eating? Here's how to incorporate it into your lifestyle:

What's on the menu, you ask? How about healthy, two-ingredient bagel or a one-pot pasta dish

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