Did you know that babies are born with an innate ability to determine when they are hungry and when they have eaten enough? It’s fascinating. However, as we age, most of us lose this precious ability to intuitively listen to our hunger cues and regulate our intake. We end up overriding our hunger cues and this can often lead to overeating.
How do you know if you are really hungry?
Our body can signal in different ways that it needs energy. Typical signs of hunger are:
- Stomach growling or rumbling
- Low energy
- Difficulty concentrating
Are you really hungry or are you just thirsty?
Hunger and thirst can sometimes be difficult to tell apart. Indeed, both can lead to low energy, headaches, and irritability.
However, thirst can be discerned by a pasty mouthfeel. One way to keep well hydrated throughout the day is to keep a bottle of water with you at your desk or wherever you work. This is a good way to meet your water needs so you can be sure that when you feel the signs of hunger, that you are really hungry and not just thirsty.
How do you know if you are full?
Comfortable fullness will leave you feeling satisfied and energized until your next meal. It is usually characterized by the following signs:
- Sensation that the stomach is full
- Perception that food is less tasty
- Energy boost
- Less interest in food
It is important to note that fullness is not an uncomfortable feeling. Having stomach aches after a meal, having difficulty getting up from the table or wanting to take a nap are signs that you have eaten too much.
To better understand how hunger and fullness can feel in your body, we can use the hunger fullness scale. This tool illustrates the gradation of different sensations.
The key to better understanding fullness? Slow down!
It takes about 20 minutes before our digestive system sends the message to our brain that we have eaten enough. Chewing your food well and taking your time to eat are good practices to avoid the unpleasant sensations that often come with overconsumption of food.
There is a nuance between hunger and appetite. While hunger is a physical need, appetite is more of a psychological need. In other words, appetite is a desire to eat, usually after seeing, smelling, or thinking about food (the smell of hot croissants from a bakery, anyone?).
Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with eating to satisfy your appetite. Who eats a slice of pie just because their body needs nutrients? In addition, hunger and appetite often walk hand in hand. Indeed, when you are hungry, you often want to eat! However, it is good to question your habits if you tend to let your appetite determine your eating habits often, instead of listening to your hunger cues. Ask yourself, “do I really want to eat this and will it bring me enjoyment or am I eating because the food is in front of you?”
Other factors that influence hunger, fullness and appetite
Many other things will influence your feelings of hunger and fullness and your appetite.
- Menstrual cycle: appetite can vary depending on the time of the month. Have you ever been extra hungry or had cravings around the time of your period?
- Stress: stress releases hormones that impact your desire to eat. It can go in two very opposite directions: one person might lose their appetite, while another might crave a snack.
- Sleep: lack of sleep has an impact on the hormones related to hunger and fullness. Lack of sleep increases stress hormones. Result: your appetite often increases when you don’t get enough sleep.
- Restrictive eating and dieting: Dieting can influence your desire to eat by disconnecting you from your internal hunger and fullness signals. For example, you might be hungry for a second serving, but you refuse to listen to that need because “You’re not allowed” according to your diet. In the same way, dietary rules such as having to finish your plate can also influence your eating behaviours and, in the long run, blur our ability to listen to ourselves.
Trust your body signals
If you’re not used to it, recognizing your hunger and fullness cues can be quite overwhelming. Write down what you eat and your thoughts, feelings and behaviours related to your food and this can help you see more clearly if you are eating because you are hungry or if you are eating for other reasons. A peaceful relationship with food is based on self-care, not self-control.
In order to know if you are really hungry or not, you can rely on (or learn to get in touch with) the signals that your body sends you, such as gurgling and the feeling in our stomach (empty or full). It is normal for these sensations to be influenced by different factors, such as hormones and stress. Restrictive dieting or relying on external food rules can disconnect you from your body signals, making it harder to understand what you really need.
With some practice, you can get back to having the ability to intuitively eat according to your hunger and fullness cues. For more information on intuitive eating, check out our Intuitive Eating article.