How to Identify When You’re Hungry or Full — and Why It’s Important

A dietitian explains how to tune into your body's natural hunger signals, especially after a restrictive diet.

February 11, 2021
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Photo by: SolStock/Getty Images

SolStock/Getty Images

Part of intuitive eating is exploring what pleasant hunger and satisfaction feels like for you. Sounds simple right? Well, it can actually be quite challenging especially if you’ve had a history of extreme dieting, restricting and/or bingeing. On most diet plans, external cues determine what and how much we should eat. This can look like eating at certain times (even if you’re not hungry) or eating certain foods (even if you’re not into them) because ultimately, you can’t trust yourself.

I’m here to tell you that you are the most trustworthy source of information when it comes to what foods work best for you. (Go ahead, read that again.) If you’ve been dieting for a long period of time, you may find that it’s really hard to tune back into those internal cues that we were all born with. Years of drinking water when you were actually hungry or having a snack when you needed a meal can completely throw those cues off, so it’ll take some practice to figure out what hunger cues and that full feeling look like for you!

This is Part 3 of a series on intuitive eating. Check out Part 1 and Part 2.

Hunger Is Different for Everyone

It’s important to note that hunger and satiety are not static, and they vary greatly depending on a number of factors like physical activity, hormonal changes, age, medications, sleep and more. Eating intuitively can help us tune into what our body needs as it goes through these different changes, and being flexible with food choices helps tremendously. If you’re about to menstruate, for example, it’s normal for your body to crave certain foods and what you eat during this time doesn’t necessarily have to reflect how you eat regularly. Eating patterns fluctuate and learning to identify what you need at the moment, outside of all the noise from outside sources, will be helpful in getting started.

Dieting Can Throw Off Your Hunger Cues

Nutrition plays a major role in internal cues because our bodies have energy needs. On a restrictive diet, you may not be meeting your minimum nutritional needs. If you’re new to all of this and don’t know where to start, I recommend aiming for at least three complete meals per day. By complete, I mean having three to four different food groups (carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber) and eating a variety of different foods throughout the day. You may be thinking, but wait, isn’t the whole point to listen to my body and see when it’s time to eat? Yes... and no. Remember how I mentioned that years of dieting may throw off your cues? Well if that’s the case (or if you've never tried listening to your body's hunger cues before), I recommend starting by meeting your core nutrition needs, which can be done by eating at least three full meals per day. As your body starts to adjust and learn more about hunger and satiety, then you can decide if adding more meals and/or snacks is suitable for you.

Using a Scale Can Help

The Hunger and Fullness Scale can help you determine what foods you need at the moment, resulting in greater satisfaction from meals and snacks. It assigns a numeric value to how satisfied or hungry you are at the moment. If you’re starving and feel dizzy, kale chips are probably not going to do it for you. If you’re so full that you’re feeling nauseous, dessert won’t help. This scale can help you identify how you’re feeling as the day progresses. Ideally, you want to start eating when you’re at a 3 or 4, and wrap up eating when you’re at a 6 or 7. This isn’t a perfect formula and we’re human beings, so it’s also normal to get to a 2 because you didn’t get a lunch break or get to a 9 because it’s Thanksgiving. Remember healthy eating should be flexible, and this is just a guide, not another diet to follow!

Hunger-fullness scale 0 to 10 for intuitive and mindful eating and diet control. Arch chart indicating hunger stages to evaluate level of appetite. Vector illustration clipart

Hunger-fullness scale 0 to 10 for intuitive and mindful eating and diet control. Arch chart indicating hunger stages to evaluate level of appetite. Vector illustration clipart

Photo by: Getty Images

Getty Images

1: Starving, feeling weak, dizzy, or headache

2: Very hungry, low energy, stomach is growling, moody

3: Pretty hungry, ready for a meal, stomach is growling

4: Beginning to feel hungry, I can eat something

5: Satisfied, not hungry or full

6: Slightly full, not totally satisfied, have room for dessert

7: Satisfied, if I eat more, I’ll feel uncomfortable

8: Feeling stuffed, feeling a bit uncomfortable

9: Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts, need to unbutton pants

10: So full I feel sick, nauseous, reflux

As a registered dietitian/nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator, Wendy Lopez, MS, RDN, CDCES is passionate about accessible and culturally relevant nutrition education. She is the co-host of the Food Heaven Podcast, and the co-founder of Food Heaven, an online platform that provides resources on cooking, intuitive eating, wellness and inclusion. When not working on creative projects, Wendy also provides nutritional counseling and medication management to patients with diabetes.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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