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Feature Article Take Control of Hunger, and Gauge the Growl

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Ever feel like hunger controls you, rather than you controlling hunger? Ever find yourself routinely leaving the table uncomfortably full after eating? Do you notice a pattern of snacking between meals even when you’re not hungry?

We are all born with the innate ability to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full, naturally listening to the cues of our body to tell us when to eat and how much. As we age, we begin to confuse wanting to eat and needing to eat. Dieting, stress, certain medications and digestive disorders can assist in overriding the signals of hunger and fullness. Additionally, it’s possible that you don’t feel physically hungry because you eat regularly in response to emotional or external cues. 

Rest assured, hunger is a natural sensation – not a feeling to be feared. If you are ignoring the early signs of hunger and only eating when you’re ravenous, chances are when you finally eat you will gravitate toward calorie dense foods and eat so fast that you overshoot satisfied, resulting in feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. When you’re not listening to hunger and fullness, eating gets quite chaotic. 

The subtle but clear feelings of hunger and fullness can return after practicing mindful eating. Think of when you see a gas station, the thought may cross your mind to stop and fill the tank. Before you make that decision, you would first take an important step and check the fuel gauge. This same idea applies to your stomach. It’s necessary to check in on your hunger level before deciding to eat. The best way is to use the hunger scale throughout the day. If you can get in the habit of checking your fuel gauge before deciding to eat, you’ll soon find yourself eating less and feeling more satisfied. You will feel more satisfied because food is great for satisfying hunger; however, it’s not great for satisfying other needs. When you use the hunger scale and notice when the reason for wanting to eat is something other than hunger (stress, anger, boredom, etc.), you’ll have the opportunity to address it more effectively than with food. 

It takes time and practice to get back in sync with your hunger and fullness signals. People don’t become mindful eaters overnight. The best way to practice is to eat undistracted. Start by sitting at the table with your food and stop eating while working at the computer, watching TV, looking at your phone, reading or driving. These activities will distract you from recognizing the signal of fullness and stopping when satisfied. 

Hunger scale

  1.  Empty, no energy, dizzy, headache: “I want to eat everything and anything all at once.”
  2. Irritable, cranky, low energy, nauseous, ravenous: “I can’t get my mind off cheeseburgers.” 
  3. Overly hungry, strong urge to eat: “It’s time for me to eat. If I wait any longer, I won’t be able to make healthy choices.”
  4. Hunger awakens: “If I eat now, I won’t need much to fill up.” 
  5. Not hungry, not full: “Food is not on my mind.”
  6. Just satisfied, comfortable: “I’m no longer hungry. I feel content, satisfied and don’t need to eat more.”
  7. Past the point of satisfaction, still room for more: “I’m not hungry, but I can fit in these last few bites because it tastes good.”
  8. Very full, stomach starting to ache: “I ate my fill and may need to loosen my belt buckle.” 
  9. Stuffed uncomfortable, heavy, tired, bloated: “All I can think about is how overfull my stomach feels.”
  10. Sick, physically miserable, don’t want more or don’t want to move: “I feel stuffed like a turkey at Thanksgiving. I feel sick.”

Don’t starve, don’t stuff

The key is to eat within the sweet spot by starting to eat around 3 or 4 on the hunger scale, stopping around 6. Starting to eat during the early signs of hunger allows you to have the most control over what you are eating, making rational, healthy choices more often. Likewise, stopping around 6 helps with how much you are eating. At this point you could eat more but if you did you’d lose that wonderful feeling of lightness and likely end up bloated and tired. If you start eating around 1 or 2 on the hunger scale, ravenous empty feeling, you are setting yourself up to quickly overeat until you are overly full or stuffed. If you catch yourself wanting to eat but your hunger level is above 5, ask yourself why you want to eat (habit, boredom, stress, comfort, emotions, etc.). Instead of food, choose something to address the root cause of wanting food at that time. 

Practice, practice, practice! 

  • Before you eat: Before you grab food, close your eyes and focus your attention toward your stomach. Set aside any knowledge you have about when you last ate and let your stomach give you a number on the hunger scale. If you want to eat or feel hunger somewhere other than in your stomach, you are probably eating for an emotional reason or out of habit. Find an alternative way to comfort yourself rather than eating. 
  • While you eat: Eat slowly to allow yourself time to see how full you are getting. Listen for the signals that you are no longer hungry. Halfway through your meal take a deep breath, put down your fork and ask yourself, “Am I still hungry?” or “What is my level of fullness?” Stop eating when you are around a 6 on the hunger scale, even if that means leaving food on your plate or packaging it up for leftovers or a future snack. 
  • After you eat: Take note of how you feel 20 minutes after your meal. What is something you can improve on next time you eat? 

Kirsti Troyer is a registered dietitian in Corvallis. Learn more about mindful eating tips or weight loss options at Samaritan Weight Management Institute.

Adapted from Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RD.