Eating Intuitively: How to Use a Hunger Scale
Many of us might wish our stomachs came with a gauge to alarm us when our tank is full or nearing empty. Wouldn’t it be great if our body told us how many more calories we needed to consume to gain, lose and maintain our weight? It’s a bummer Mother Nature didn’t think that one through and give us this helpful visual reminder. But here’s the good news: There is a tool that can help you tune in to your hunger and fullness meter so you don’t overfill your belly or wait too long to eat between meals.
What is a Hunger Scale, anyway?
The ability to feel hunger and fullness is a quality that we were each born with. Babies and little kids don’t need to be told how much milk or food they need to consume to stay healthy; instead, when they are satisfied, they become disinterested in food and simply stop eating. As we mature, this ability becomes blunted—we learn to ignore it, confuse it with thirst or forget it altogether.
Luckily, we can train ourselves to tune in to our ability to feel hunger and fullness by visualizing a Hunger Scale. Imagine a meter ranging from 0–10, with zero being empty and 10 being slammed full. While everyone has their own definitions, physical experiences and symptoms of what hunger and fullness ranges look like, for a reference point and further explanation, the ranges are described here for you.
0=Empty. I want to eat everything and anything all at once. I’ll take one of everything on the menu, and I’m definitely getting dessert tonight. I may have low blood sugar because I feel dizzy, lightheaded and flat-out hangry (slang for: so hungry you’re angry).
1=Nearing Empty. Energy levels are low, and productivity is down. I may feel shaky, and I have poor concentration and mood swings.
2=Really Hungry. Pit-in-the-stomach hunger and food are dominating my thoughts. I need to find some food fast, and my energy levels are dropping. I’m likely tempted to order unhealthy food at a restaurant and make poor food choices.
3=Hungry. It’s time to eat a meal, and if I wait any longer I’m going to start feeling physical symptoms that are unpleasant.
4=Slightly Hungry. I’m beginning to think about my next meal. I can absolutely wait to eat. If I eat now, I won’t need much to fill me up.
5=Neutral. I am neither hungry nor full. Food is not on my mind.
6=Slightly Satisfied. There is food in my belly, but I could eat more. If I stopped now, this meal may not last me longer than two hours.
7=Satisfied. I’m no longer hungry. While it might be easy to eat more for comfort reasons or for the fact that the food tastes amazing, I feel content and satisfied and I don’t need to eat more.
8=Full. I ate my fill and may need to loosen the belt buckle at this point. Those last three to four bites put me over the edge.
9=Nearing Uncomfortable. I overate. Polishing off my whole meal was not a good idea. It’s easy to zone out and disconnect from conversation at this point, because all I can think about is how overfull my stomach feels. I may even begin to feel nauseated.
10=Stuffed. Ugh, why did I eat so much? I’m feeling stuffed like a turkey at a holiday party. At this point, I may put on some baggy clothes to get comfortable and either go to sleep or binge on Netflix to zone out.
How do I use the Hunger Scale?
If you want to gain better control and lessen the chances of mindless or emotional eating, try using the Hunger Scale. Here’s how it works:
1. Rank your hunger right before you start to eat.
If you rate yourself overly hungry at 0–2, pay extra attention to how fast you are eating. Purposely slow down so that you don’t pass through satisfaction without even recognizing it.
Gentle hunger can be felt at 4, and slight satisfaction is felt at 6. These are ranges in which it is normal to eat, but keep in mind you may not need very much at all to get you to the point of satisfaction. A small snack may do the trick.
If you’re satisfied and not physically hungry, but food is in front of you and you’re tempted to eat, ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” This is a good way to dodge eating for emotional reasons and take care of yourself, because food will still leave you feeling empty if you’re eating as a reaction to emotions.
2. Halfway through your meal, rank your hunger again using the same scale of 1–10.
As you move through your meal, continue to check in with your satisfaction level instead of eating on autopilot and cleaning your plate. Keep in mind, it may only take a couple bites to feel gentle satisfaction.
If you are stuffed and still have food on your plate, don’t throw in the towel and continue eating to oblivion. Instead, ask for a to-go box, push your plate away, toss it, or give the rest to your puppy.
3. If you continue eating, finish your meal and rank your hunger again.
If you are at a comfortable satisfaction at the end of your meal, it’s likely that you chose the right portion sizes for that meal! Great job!
If you find that you’ve overdone it, realize that overeating happens, even to intuitive eaters. Don’t beat yourself up or feel guilty. Instead, question why you continued to eat past the point of fullness. Were you overly hungry when you started? Did the food just taste too good, so you didn’t want to stop? Or maybe you didn’t want to “waste” it?
Is my hunger and fullness meter broken?
Before you can accurately use the scale to tune in to your body’s hunger and fullness and eat intuitively, you first have to determine if your Hunger Scale is operating properly or if it needs to be recalibrated. If you’ve been severely restricting your calories for a while or find yourself yo-yo dieting and going through periods of binge eating, it’s tough to determine true hunger and fullness because the body is all out of whack. Those innate senses have been turned off and ignored for too long, and they need to be brought back to life before jumping into intuitive eating.
A great way to recalibrate is through eating balanced meals that include a variety of food groups (fiber-rich carbs, fats, proteins) with appropriate portions and following a pattern of eating every four hours, give or take. This helps your body get back in tune with a rhythmic pattern of eating and allows normal peaks and valleys in satiety. Until your meter has been re-calibrated, it’s tough to really get a clue on hunger and fullness. If you feel nervous about doing this, it might be smart to work with a registered dietitian to help you design a meal plan that meets your “recalibration” needs.
If you’d like to learn more about intuitive eating and how to determine if you’re hungry or full, check out Eat Smarter Using Your Hunger Cues and stay tuned for more tips to come!
Kristina LaRue, RD, CSSD, LDN is a sports dietitian in Orlando, FL and co-author of the Flat Belly Cookbook for Dummies. She writes the food and nutrition blog, Love & Zest, where she shares recipes, life, and nutrition. Connect with her outside of the blog on Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram.