Are You Really Hungry? How to Your Understand Hunger Cues

Woman looking into the refrigerator

When a commercial comes on advertising a juicy bacon cheeseburger, it’s hard not to start salivating. Or maybe you keep thinking about the cookies you have stored in the pantry and to remind yourself that no, you don’t need two (or three) of the sweet, chocolaty treats.

Are You Hungry Yet?

Knowing when you’re actually hungry and when your mind is just playing tricks on you can be a huge challenge. People have long dealt with temptations to eat, but these days it’s even harder to resist those urges now that we can order delivery of pizza or wings with just the push of a button on smart-phone apps. Being stuck at home also means we have 24/7 access to the food in our pantries and refrigerators.

“Though your body is a fairly skilled communicator, it can be easy to misinterpret its cues” explains Janice Hillman, MD, physician at Penn Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine Radnor.

That’s because the difference between “that smells really good” and “I need food for energy” may be a fine line.

“Throw in things like boredom and stress, and it gets even more challenging to tell when you’re hungry and when you’re not,” says Dr. Hillman.

Learning how to tell if you’re really hungry or falling for a common eating trigger is an important skill for maintaining a healthy weight and taking care of your body. Here’s how to better understand your body’s hunger cues to eat healthier.

Hunger Cues: Individual But Predictable

As with most things health-related, hunger depends a lot on the individual person.

“Two people can eat the same exact meal, leaving one person still hungry and the other completely full,” explains Dr. Hillman.

Your nutritional needs can also vary day to day, depending on whether you did an at home workout that morning or sat on your couch binge-watching crime documentaries all day. The key is to listen to – and try to understand – your body’s communication and hunger signals.

One way to do this is with a food diary. By keeping a food diary, you’ll be forced to recognize your eating patterns – both good and bad. For instance, you may see that you always reach for a handful of candy for an afternoon pick-me-up or that you order pizza for every movie night.

Dr. Hillman explains, “If you’re actually hungry, you’ll experience true hunger cues, such as stomach growling, low energy, shakiness, headaches and problems focusing.”

It’s just as important to recognize when you listen to those signals too, so you know what they feel like for the future. To create your food diary, make the following columns in a notebook or on your phone’s note app:

  • What you eat
  • What time you eat
  • The mood you were in and what you were doing when eating

After a few days, take a look at your entries, says Dr. Hillman. “Highlight some of the habits that may be a sign of misinterpreting hunger for something else, such as boredom or being around food.”

Then, make a list of what triggers tend to “cue” you to eat. Common eating triggers include:

  • Seeing something you want to eat on a commercial, or opening up your refrigerator
  • Feeling stressed, such as after a long day of work or a fight with a friend
  • Being offered food from a kind neighbor who baked you cookies
  • Relying on habits like brewing your favorite coffee each morning
  • Feeling bored or tired

Don’t forget to make note of when your eating seemed to come from true hunger cues – and give yourself a pat on the back for listening to them.

(Actually) Listening to Your Hunger Cues

Here comes the tough part: when you have to say “no” to overeating. Once you have a better understanding of your eating habits, start using this knowledge to prepare for situations that involve food and make it a priority to listen to your body.

Planning Ahead

Turning down tempting food is much easier if you never actually have to say no. This doesn’t mean frantically running away the moment someone offers you a slice of cake.

“It means planning ahead for eating triggers that you find particularly challenging to resist,” explains Dr. Hillman.

For instance, do you always snack on food while you're watching your favorite movie at home? Opt for a healthy snack, perhaps an apple or nuts to munch on. Or do you find yourself making frequent refrigerator visits? Water with lemon is a great way to suppress your appetite to help encourage you to wait for full meals.

If you can’t completely avoid it, try to prepare with a healthier option. If you find yourself stress-eating after work each day, have a healthy go-to snack ready, such as veggies and dip or a handful of nuts.

Checking In With Your Body

Life is unpredictable, which makes planning for all of your snacks and meals nearly impossible. You’ll inevitably experience moments when you’re faced with a food option you hadn’t thought of – and it’ll be up to you to determine if you’re really hungry.

Some ways to check in with your body about your hunger levels include:

  • Pausing and asking yourself if you’re hungry – and doing your best to be honest
  • Doing a head-to-toe body scan to evaluate your physical state and mood
  • Eating more slowly and allowing your body time to let you know when it’s full
  • Distracting yourself with something else other than food

Developing Healthy Habits

Habits take time to develop, and it’s important to be patient with yourself as you adapt to a healthier lifestyle. Be patient with yourself – and your body – as you adjust.

Over time, you’ll learn to understand your body a little more each day. Be sure to recognize each time you do listen effectively, and celebrate your success (but not with a cookie).

Keep in mind: you’re allowed some leeway, says Dr. Hillman. “Healthy eating is all about balance.”

If it’s your birthday, enjoy your cake, with a smile. And with some flexibility, you’ll be much more likely to stick to the plan the rest of the time. Whether it takes days or weeks to adjust to listening to your body’s hunger cues, you’ll be well on your way to a healthier you.

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