How Do I Recognise Hunger Signals?

One reason that many of us are not at the best weight for our body is because, somewhere along the line, we stopped listening to our body signals that naturally tell us when we’re hungry and when we’re full. The signals are still there, but we’re out of practice when it comes to paying attention to them. Learning to recognise those signals again can help you get to your best weight and stay there. The trick is relearning what stomach hunger is and paying attention to it.


What are the signals of stomach or physical hunger?
Stomach hunger–or physical hunger–involves a complex interaction between the digestive system, endocrine system and the brain. When the body needs refuelling, we start feeling tired and weak, while finding it harder to concentrate and work. The stomach, which is located just below the ribcage, starts to ache and rumble. This is true stomach hunger.


What other signals do you commonly mistake for hunger?
Sometimes, we mistake other signals in our bodies for physical hunger. While these are legitimate sensations, they are not true stomach hunger. For instance:


Teeth Hunger
Sometimes, especially if we’re feeling irritated or stressed, we want to chew our frustrations away. Our bodies are not calling for food, but we put it in our mouths as an attempt to relieve anxiety.


Mouth Hunger
We see or smell something that looks delicious and our mouth starts to water. Sometimes just thinking about a food brings on a craving for it. We desire to taste the food, but aren’t really physically hungry.


Mind Hunger
We look at the clock and think we have to eat a certain amount of food because ‘it’s time’, even if we don’t feel like eating.


Sometimes we confuse the sluggishness of dehydration with actual hunger. The body is calling for fluids, not food. This is one of the reasons I recommend maintaining hydration throughout the day.


When we sense that our energy levels are low, some of us automatically think that if we eat something, we’ll feel better. However, if we’ve been working extra hard and/or haven’t been getting enough sleep, our bodies are calling for rest or a break from a mentally fatiguing task, not food. Mental fatigue being mistaken for hunger is common when working on a mentally taxing task all day.


Emotional Hunger
We feel an ache and emptiness in our hearts due to unmet emotional needs. Rather than acknowledge our feelings and work through our issues, we try to fill the void with food. Or sometimes we try to use food to stuff our feelings down. Although there can be physical discomfort in the gut when we’re upset, it is a distinctly different sensation from stomach hunger. Alternatively we can also use food to celebrate happiness, quell sadness or overcome boredom.


How to re-learn your hunger signals?
One of the best ways to re-learn your hunger signals is via the use of a food journal and hunger scale for about a fortnight.


A hunger scale can help you learn how to tell the difference between true, physical (stomach) hunger and hunger that’s really just in your head.


Basically, try not to eat unless it’s true physical stomach hunger. It takes quite a bit of mindfulness but is worth it for the long term benefits.


The scale is outlined below:
1—Starving, weak, dizzy
2—Very hungry, cranky, low energy, lots of stomach growling
3—Pretty hungry, stomach is growling a little
4—Starting to feel a little hungry
5—Satisfied, neither hungry nor full
6—A little full, pleasantly full
7—A little uncomfortable
8—Feeling stuffed
9—Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts
10—So full you feel sick


To eat naturally, you eat when your hunger is at 3 or 4. It is best not to wait until your hunger gets down to 1 or 2. Getting too hungry can lead to overeating.


When I eat, how do I know when to stop?
Hunger and fullness is regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain. When your body has had enough food to satisfy its needs, signals are sent to the hypothalamus, registering fullness/satiety. When we are in tune to our bodies, we recognize when it’s time to stop eating. The stomach feels comfortable, and satisfied–not stuffed. We soon begin to feel calmer, more alert and energized. This usually equates to a 5 or 6 on the hunger scale.


It takes approximately 20 minutes for fullness signals to transmit from the stomach back to the brain. So, if you eat too fast and aren’t paying attention, it’s easy to override this system and eat more than what the body is calling for.


How do I know when I am overeating?
When you are eating at a calm, relaxed pace and paying attention to your body, you will notice the following when you have eaten more than physically needed:


  1. You are mechanically taking bites and swallowing, but you aren’t really enjoying the food anymore.
  2. You are feeling pressure and discomfort in your stomach. If filled further, it starts to hurt. You may even feel queasy.
  3. After a while you start to feel sluggish.


Hope you find this information helpful in your journey towards a more balanced approach to eating.


Yours in health and vitality,
Nereda, Flex Body Nutritionist