How Do I Know if I'm Really Hungry?
Let’s talk about hunger, shall we? I received a question recently about how we know if we’re hungry.
To know if we’re anything, we need points of reference if we’re to make sense of the circumstances. I know when I’m feeling irritated, because I know what not feeling irritated is like. I know when I’m feeling sad, because I know what feeling joyful is like. I know though too, that there are different shades of sad. Sadness that results in isolation and the inability to experience happiness where I once have is different than facing a sense of uncertainty.
Like most things related to our behavior and perceptions, hunger operates on a continuum. I’m going to assume that my client’s question was more related to wanting to understand when hunger dictates that eating is an appropriate action.
So let’s imagine a line and on the far left we feel empty and faint, almost sick. Our blood sugar has dropped so low at this point that we may experience additional symptoms like shakiness, nausea, or sweating. Now, on the far right we have full to the point of discomfort, we experience zero hunger, and we don’t want to be in the presence of food.
The sensations we experience within our bodies are cues for determining the level of hunger that is present. Those cues can indicate whether eating would be a good idea or whether it’s unnecessary or even harmful.
Keep in mind, however, that even with hunger that might indicate food would be appropriate, we’ve all been in situations where we’ve forgotten to eat. Or we’ve been engaged in an activity to the point where food is the furthest thing from our minds. When I got back from a weeklong work trip at 9pm the other night, my stomach was growling. I hadn’t eaten in 5 hours. If I’d gauged my hunger from those cues only, I’d have said, “yep, need food.”
But we don’t live in a vacuum. There are contextual elements that influence our behaviors too. Even though I felt hungry, what I felt more of was fatigued. All I wanted to do was go to bed. When I got home that’s exactly what I did. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out.
Other contextual factors that we need to consider include the following:
1. The activity you’re engaging in.
• When I’m cycling, I don’t feel like eating, but I know that I need to because of the sheer amount of exercise I’m engaging in and the number of calories I’m burning. If I don’t eat, I risk bonking.
2. Time of day.
• If it’s bedtime and I’m hungry, I won’t eat if it’s easy for me to fall asleep. It’s not necessary. Unless you’re hopping into bed for a functional training workout! ;-)
3. How much time you’ve had since your previous meal.
• I can feel a blood sugar drop about an hour after I’ve eaten a meal. My energy fluctuates a bit and I have an urge to eat more. Do I need to? No. My body is just getting started digesting the meal I consumed, if it was a balanced one, and so no additional energy is really necessary. I drink water and go about my day. Within a couple hours, your body has only digested less than 50% of your meal.
4. How big a meal you ate and what the meal consisted of.
• If you ate a protein-only snack and it’s been a couple hours, it would be normal to feel hungry and ready for another meal. Protein raises your blood sugar but not like a meal with carbohydrates. So hunger is typically higher after a protein-only meal, even though you’ve heard that protein reduces hunger. Like everything else, that comes with caveats!
• If you are a carb-only snack and it’s been a couple hours, it would also be normal to feel hungry and ready for another meal. Carbs do raise your blood sugar, but eaten alone, without fat or protein, and your blood sugar can fall more quickly.
5. Your unique metabolic profile.
a. This goes without saying, but we often forget that we need to pay attention to the fact we’re all different. My friend loves apples and can eat one and feel full for hours. If I eat an apple, I’m hungry within 5 minutes. We need to pay attention to our bodies and how they respond to certain foods, the cues they give us about hunger, and be curious about trying different structures of eating.
Experiment. Try not to label your hunger in a way that creates meaning. Keep it objective. When you say “I’m starving!!” are you really? Do you have fat reserves to use? Likely. Could you label it differently and not feel such a sense of urgency to eat right now and eat as much as you can put in your face! Yes, you can. Even if I’m on the end of the continuum where food is legitimately a good idea, I can make myself feel much worse just by how I’m responding to my body’s cues. If I take a few deep breaths I can prepare a meal that will be aligned with my goals for empowered eating rather than grabbing the first foods I can get my hands on and mindlessly shoveling it away.
In 50 Days to Your Best Life!, the book I co-authored with Dr. Joe Klemczewski, we have a hunger scale that you can use as a starting place for understanding your body’s cues.