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How Can You Tell if You’re Hungry?

By Michelle May, M.D.

empty fuel guage

Do you sometimes confuse wanting to eat with needing to eat? Learning to tell the difference is an essential skill for breaking your eat-repent-repeat cycle.

Check Your Fuel Gauge Before You Fill Up

You were born with the innate ability to know when and how much to eat. Have you forgotten how to use this information? Maybe you never feel hungry because you eat regularly in response to other emotional and external cues. Maybe you ignore hunger until you’re starving then eat anything you can get your hands on. Perhaps dieting has caused you to dread feeling hungry or taught you to eat by the clock to prevent it.

Why Using Hunger Helps

Using hunger and fullness to guide your eating helps because:

  • You’ll eat less. If you aren’t hungry when you start eating, how do you know when to stop?
  • You’re more likely to choose nourishing foods. If you’re eating because you’re stressed or bored, what kinds of foods do you crave?
  • Food tastes better when you’re hungry. Hunger really is the best seasoning.
  • You’ll feel more satisfied because food is great for satisfying hunger but not so great for satisfying other needs.
  • You’ll notice you’re hungry before you get too hungry, decreasing the likelihood you’ll overeat.
  • Most importantly, when you recognize that you want to eat because of some other need, you’ll have the opportunity to address it more effectively than with food.

Trust Your Body Wisdom

To break your eat-repent-repeat cycle, develop the habit of asking yourself, “Am I hungry?” before you eat. Think of it this way: When you see a gas station, you might consider stopping to fill up-but first you’d check your fuel gauge.

So how do you know whether you’re hungry? Pause and take a few deep breaths. Do a brief body-mind-heart scan and look for physical symptoms of hunger.

How to Tell If You’re Hungry

Here are the most common signs of hunger:

  • Hunger pangs
  • Growling or grumbling
  • Gnawing
  • Empty or hollow feeling
  • Slight queasy feeling
  • Weakness or loss of energy
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Light-headedness
  • Slight headache
  • Shakiness
  • Irritability or crankiness

Notice that hunger is physical. It’s not a thought, a craving, or a rationalization.

You’re not asking the question, “Am I hungry?” to decide whether you’re allowed to eat but to figure out why you want to.

Get in the habit of checking your fuel gauge before you fill up. You’ll soon find yourself eating less, feeling more satisfied, and meeting your needs more effectively.

(Excerpt from chapter two of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. This is the first in a series of Am I Hungry? “basics” – an important foundation for our new readers and a great review for all of our longtime fans.)

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

One Comment

  1. Anita Sanz says:

    I love how you recommend using breathing and mindfulness to get in touch with how hungry you are BEFORE you begin eating…it helps so much in making food decisions! Great advice!
    Anita Sanz

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