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How can I tell if I'm hungry?

Posted Sep 17 2010 12:00am
Photo by Ernie Kohlsaat
Don’t laugh. It’s one of the most frequent questions I’m asked as a health coach. “How do I know if I’m hungry?”

The sad truth is, we’ve grown so confused about food that we don’t even know if we’re hungry or not.

Do you ever wonder if you’re tired, or whether you have to go to the bathroom? Those physical signals aren’t difficult to interpret. But somehow our hunger signals have gotten muddled. We want to eat all the time, or at least more often than we think we should. We’re not sure whether it’s really legitimate hunger we’re feeling, or if it’s just boredom, anxiety, sadness, or any one of a dozen other emotional states.

When a baby is hungry, there’s no confusion. Babies don’t stop to calculate how long it’s been since their last meal, or how many calories they’ve eaten so far today. They just scream. And no one would think of denying them a meal when they request it.

One big difference, diet-wise, between you and a baby is that infants tend to eat pretty high-quality food. They’re not fed chips or doughnuts (hopefully). On the whole, babies obtain the nutrients they need from their diets in order to grow and thrive.

But adults, well, that’s another story. Whether you ignore your hunger, or whether you answer it by eating empty processed food, the same thing happens: you’re not getting the nutrients your body needs. That’s one reason why eating junk makes you crave more. Sure, you’re ingesting thousands of calories, but on some level you’re still hungry.

Okay, let’s assume you’re eating nothing but real, good-quality food. How do you know when it’s time to eat?

Some experts suggest evaluating your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing starving and 10 being so full you feel sick. According to this system, you wait to eat until you are near the low end of the scale.

My problem, when I tried this approach, was that I was never really sure where I was until I hit 1 or 2, and by then my stomach was growling like crazy and I was feeling desperate. You may have better luck with this technique than I did.

I had more success when I didn’t try to force my hunger into a numerical box. Instead, I got to know it on a gut level, so to speak.

You, too, can get acquainted with your own unique hunger signals. But it takes a little practice. Start by skipping a meal and paying close attention to what happens. (Please don’t try this when you’re too busy to eat. On a day like that, chances are you’re also too busy to observe what’s going on in your body.)

How long does it take for your body to notice it hasn’t been fed? Which signals come through first? For many people, it’s slight feeling of impatience or irritability, although you can certainly feel this way for other reasons. Over time, you’ll begin to recognize when hunger is the cause. For now, don’t eat. Wait and see what happens next.

As time goes on and your hunger increases, you may begin to feel a bit spacey or lightheaded. You may start to daydream about food, or see somebody eating and find yourself salivating, or spy a treat in a shop window that suddenly looks extremely appetizing.

These are pretty reliable indicators of hunger, and I recommend not letting yourself go past this stage. But once in a while, despite your best efforts, it may happen. What are the symptoms of intense hunger? For many people, they can include a growling stomach, dry mouth, headache, dizziness, or even nausea. Concentration on anything but food is impossible. You may feel a bit irrational. You may get angry or burst into tears for no reason (I’ve been known to do both).

Have you ever been on a diet that created this kind of hunger on a daily basis? Personally, I have zero interest in feeling this way anymore. Extreme hunger creates a state of stress in your body. Not only that, but your metabolism slows down in order to conserve calories, and you end up defeating yourself.

The main point is: don’t make the mistake of thinking the longer you resist your hunger, the better off you’ll be. Become acquainted with the earlier stages of your hunger so you can recognize it and nip it in the bud with real, healthy food -- before it progresses to the later stages and you’ll stuff anything in your mouth just to make it stop.

For next time: How do I know when I’m full?
© 2010 Make Friends With Food
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