I Can’t Tell If I’m Hungry — How to Know When You’re Hungry

By Michelle May, M.D.

Do you ever find yourself thinking, “I can’t tell if I’m hungry…”? You feel like you want to eat something, but wonder, “Do I really need something to eat?”

First, give yourself credit for pausing to ask the question, “Am I hungry?” It’s easy to assume when you think, “I should eat,” your body actually needs food. By stopping to notice whether you are actually hungry, you’ve placed yourself in a position to make a conscious decision about eating, and more important, about taking care of yourself.

When you take a moment to pause and think, “Am I hungry?,” you’ve put yourself in a position to make a conscious decision about taking care of yourself.

Why can’t I tell if I’m hungry?

You are not alone. I work with smart people every day who ask the same question.

Let me share one of the questions that came from one of our readers.

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 never feel 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.

I can relate to the frustration this person is experiencing. Like many others who have been programmed to ignore hunger, her mind and her body are trying to make sense of her true needs.

Quote — When you’ve been programmed to ignore hunger, it’s natural to have difficulty listening to the needs of your body.

We have been programmed to eat on a schedule rather than listening to the natural cues our body is sending.

How to tell if you are physically hungry

You might be tempted to be hard on yourself or blame yourself for not knowing whether you are hungry or bored, stressed, lonely, or any of dozens of other reasons you might feel like eating.

After years of ignoring hunger, it’s not surprising that it would take time to become attuned to the more subtle cues or signs of hunger.

I’d like to offer a few specific suggestions for you to experiment with to help you discover whether you are hungry.

Ask, Am I hungry?

When you notice you want to eat, pause and ask, “Am I hungry?” If you are unsure about the symptoms of hunger, check out a list of hunger symptoms here.

Do a Body-Mind-Heart Scan

While you’re relearning to connect with your body wisdom, practice a Body-Mind-Heart scan to help you tune into your physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings. I introduced this scan in my book, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat (get the first chapter free, here).

If you are having difficulty identifying hunger until you are overly hungry, practice a Body-Mind-Heart scan every 2 to 3 hours to see what you notice. While you’re relearning to connect with your body wisdom, you may find it challenging to remember to check in, so we have a Mindful Eating app, available here, with a timer you can set regularly to remind yourself to perform your next scan. The app also provides you with the instructions for what to do when the timer goes off.

After your scan, jot down whatever you notice in your Mindful Eating Program Awareness Journal—even if it seems unrelated. You might discover there was a subtle symptom or two you didn’t realize was hunger. For example, I notice that I get irritable (hangry) and my upper abdomen starts to feel hollow when I’m hungry.

I would anticipate you may start to feel hungry about four hours after eating, depending on what and how much you ate.

If it’s been four or more hours since you last ate and you still don’t notice any symptoms of hunger, you may want to continue to check in with your body more frequently, perhaps every 30 to 60 minutes, so you’ll catch the symptoms before you begin feeling lightheaded and shaky.

Why don’t I get hungry?

Besides being disconnected from the signals your body is giving you, there may be other reasons you don’t notice hunger as often. For example, how much you are eating at prior meals will affect how often you feel hungry. Obviously, larger meals may delay hunger somewhat. If you are in a pattern of becoming overly hungry by the time you eat, you may be more likely to overeat—so you won’t get hungry as often.

Similarly, what you are eating may explain why you aren’t hungry as often.Some foods, like those that contain protein and/or fat, may lead to more sustained satiety than foods that primarily consist of carbohydrates.

My article, Hunger Doesn’t Follow a Clock, will help you use your awareness and curiosity to learn about your personal hunger rhythms and create a pattern of eating that works for you!

Use your ‘wise mind’ to help determine when you are hungry

If you still aren’t noticing hunger after trying these ideas, use your “wise mind.” For example, in the question above, our reader noticed she was tired and sluggish—both signs of significant hunger. This happens when you aren’t eating often enough to fuel your body.

So, if you still aren’t certain whether you are hungry even though it makes sense you’d be hungry (for example, within a couple hours after waking up), you could go ahead and have a small meal and notice whether you feel better.

As you become more mindful, you will develop inner wisdom regarding how your body communicates its needs. Use your “wise mind” to make sense about how to care for yourself.

Practice mindfulness outside of your eating

Until you are able to recognize your symptoms of hunger, continue your regular Body-Mind-Heart scans to become more attuned to your body’s signals.

While experimenting with these mindful eating techniques, tune up your awareness by practicing non judgmental mindfulness in other situations and at other times. For example:

  • As you shower, take time to mindfully feel the water on your skin.
  • Listen to the ceiling fan or other background noises.
  • Notice the seeds on a strawberry as you eat it.

With practice, noticing the subtle cues in and around you will become more natural!

Basket of strawberries photographed up close.

Mindful eating becomes easier and more natural when you practice mindfulness, like noticing the seeds on a strawberry.

Knowing when you’re hungry comes with practice

Don’t worry if you can’t tell if you are hungry or not at first. Be gentle and kind to yourself. You’ve probably spent a great deal of your life programmed by the world around you to ignore your body! You CAN relearn to notice your instinctive cues of hunger and satiety.

With mindfulness and curiosity, awareness of hunger will soon feel natural again!