How to recognize hunger and fullness

Posted April 18

Sitting in a reclined adirondack chair, facing west, I found myself taking deeper-than-normal breaths, breathing in the salty, humid air. My skin was warm from a long day enjoying the Hawaiian sun, my stomach content with a delicious meal just before. I didn’t really have a care in the world because I was on vacation, afterall. I watched the sun as it set on the horizon and noticed the perfect colors of orange, pink, purple and blue fade into blue, then into dark blue, then night.

I wondered when exactly day became night. Sure, the sun set minutes ago, but it stayed light for a long while afterwards. Since I’m a dietitian, I often find myself applying things in my world to eating and food. I realized the process of day becoming night is a little bit like hunger becoming fullness, or recognizing hunger — it’s a process and there’s a spectrum.

If we were able to eat when we are hungry and stop when we’re full, we’d be the exact right weight for us. If we could think about hunger and fullness as simply bodily cues to be honored and heeded rather than feelings to fight against, many people would find themselves in a physically and mentally healthier space. The tricky part can be defining those cues, just like defining night transitioning from day.

Clearly, the what of eating matters, too. It’s easier to recognize hunger and fullness when we provide our bodies with an overall well-balanced and nutritious diet. But for the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus more on the how of eating rather than the what.

So, how do you recognize hunger and fullness?

I like to think of hunger and fullness in terms of a number scale from 0-10. This idea is adapted from the wonderful principles of the book "Intuitive Eating."

0 — Extreme hunger.

1 — So hungry you’re weak, sick, tired and lethargic.

2 — Desperately hungry, likely not going to make great decisions about what you eat or how much you eat.

3 — Reasonably hungry, but still feeling in control. Likely going to be able to make a good decision about what to eat and how much.

4 — Starting to think about food, not hungry yet but likely should be eating within one to two hours.

5 — Neutral, not hungry but not full.

6 — Satisfied. Definitely could eat more but you don’t need to. Content.

7 — Full.

8 — Uncomfortably full.

9 — Stuffed like post-Thanksgiving meal.

10 — Extremely full, post extreme binge.

There are obvious situations where some of those cues can get thrown off or become unreliable. But for most of us, our bodies function the way they’re supposed to and work best when these cues are honored.

Aim to eat when you’re at a three and stop when you’re at a six. If you’re a fast eater, you’ll likely notice that you end up feeling like you’re at a seven (full) if you give yourself 15-20 minutes after your meal is over to allow your brain to recognize fullness. If you’re a slower eater, you might be able to get away with stopping at a seven because you will have more of a chance of recognizing appropriate fullness when it comes.

You’ll know you’re on the right track if you feel like you’re hungry (at a three) every three to five hours. If you eat breakfast at 8 a.m. and notice you’re at a three by 10 a.m., you’ll know you didn’t eat enough (or possibly not the right distribution of carbs, fats and proteins) for breakfast. Or, if you eat lunch at noon and aren’t feeling hungry for dinner at 6 p.m., you’ll be able to reflect on what you ate at lunch and know that your portion size was a little too large and that you likely got higher on the fullness side than you want to aim for next time.

Many of the subtleties of this hunger/fullness scale can be difficult to detect, especially when you start the process of tuning into hunger and fullness cues. Just like it’s difficult to define when exactly night comes, it’s difficult to define the nuance of hunger and fullness.

Start paying attention to what your body is communicating. Practice mindfulness with eating. When you’re reasonably hungry but still in control, eat something. When you’re satisfied, stop. For best results, try incorporating listening to hunger and fullness into your daily eating schedule rather than expecting yourself to be able to eat at any point of the day. Most people do best if they have some type of eating schedule (that allows for flexibility, of course) that provides consistent times of day for meals and snacks based on your body’s cues.

Start defining the way you’re feeling in terms of hunger and fullness by using this scale. Use these numbers to help you honor what your body is telling you. And, the next time you have the chance, watch the day as it fades into night.

Paige is a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in helping people heal their relationship with food. She hosts Nutrition Matters Podcast and has a private nutrition consulting business based in Salt Lake City.


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