I Can’t Tell if I’m Hungry

By Michelle May, M.D.

Q – I am learning to eat mindfully but one issue has been a big struggle for me: I can’t tell if I’m hungry. I constantly ask myself, “Am I hungry?” and rate myself on the Hunger and Fullness scale but I am never hungry or I am missing the symptoms. The only cues I get are when my blood sugar level drops and I feel lightheaded and shaky. If I only eat when I get severe symptoms, I am only eating twice a day and I feel tired and sluggish all the time. I’ve spent the past 13 years eating on a schedule every 3-4 hours, never allowing myself to become hungry but that just wasn’t working for me either. 

A – Thank you for your question. After years of ignoring hunger, it is not surprising that it is taking time for you to become attuned to the more subtle cues. Here are a few ideas for you to experiment with:

  • I-cant-tell-if-Im-hungryInstead of asking “Am I hungry?” all the time, try doing a Body-Mind-Heart Scan (see Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat) every 2-3 hours just to see what you notice. After your scan, jot down whatever you notice in your Mindful Eating Program Awareness Journal – even if it seems unrelated. There may be a subtle symptom or two that you didn’t realize was hunger. (For me, I realized that I get irritable and my upper abdomen starts to feel hollow when I’m hungry.) Our Mindful Eating Virtual Coach app has a timer that you can set and it will remind you to do the scan and provides the instructions when the timer goes off.
  • If you don’t think you are hungry but it has been four or more hours since you ate, you may want to continue to check in more frequently (perhaps every 30 to 60 minutes) so you can catch the symptoms before you are lightheaded and shaky.
  • Notice how much you’re eating. If you are overly hungry by the time you eat, you may be more likely to overeat—and that may mean that you won’t get hungry as often. Similarly, notice what you are eating since some foods (like protein) lead to satiety for longer periods of time.
  • If after trying the above ideas, you still aren’t noticing hunger, then use your “wise mind.” This is the wisdom that you have already discovered by noticing that you are tired and sluggish—also signs of hunger—probably because you aren’t eating often enough. Plan to eat at least three times a day; continue your regular Body-Mind-Heart Scans but if you still aren’t noticing hunger when it makes sense that you would (for example within an hour or two after waking up), then go ahead and have a small meal even if you are not hungry. Then wait to see when hunger comes – which will probably be at least 4 hours depending on what and how much you ate.
  • While experimenting with these techniques, tune up your awareness by practicing nonjudgmental mindfulness in other situations at other times. For example, really feel the shower water on your skin; listen to the ceiling fan; notice the seeds on a strawberry, and so on. With practice, it will become more natural to notice the subtle cues in and around you!

Don’t worry that you can’t tell if you are hungry. With mindfulness and curiosity, awareness of hunger will soon feel natural again!


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