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How to Tell if You Are Hungry: Symptoms of Hunger

By Michelle May, M.D.

Become your own expert by learning to understand and trust your body’s signals to tell if you are hungry.

Are you tuned in to your hunger? Do you know how to tell if you are hungry?

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

Notice if you are hungry

To tell if you are hungry, check your fuel gauge first.

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, do you automatically pull in and fill up?

Of course not! You check your fuel gauge first.

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:

  • 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 as good for satisfying your other needs.
  • You’ll notice you’re hungry before you get too hungry, decreasing the likelihood you’ll overeat.
  • You might eat less food when you’re eating to satisfy physical hunger than when you eat to satisfy other needs. Think about it. If you aren’t hungry when you start eating, how do you know when to stop? When the food is gone of course!
  • You’re more likely to eat a balance of foods when you are hungry. If you’re eating because you’re stressed or bored, what kinds of foods do you crave?
  • Most important, when you recognize you want to eat because of other needs, you’ll have the opportunity to address your true needs more effectively than with food.

Symptoms to Tell If You Are Hungry

So how do you know whether you’re hungry?

  1. Pause and take a few deep breaths.
  2. Do a brief body-mind-heart scan. (Our Mindful Eating app can help!)
  3. Look for physical symptoms of hunger.

Here are the most common symptoms:

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

Notice that hunger is physical. Hunger is not a thought, a craving, or a rationalization.

Also be aware that some symptoms of hunger, like fatigue, may be coming from something else.

Don’t Use Hunger Like Another Diet!

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

There is nothing wrong with sometimes eating when you’re not hungry. Don’t beat yourself or feel guilty!

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

This article was originally published in 2010 and has been updated. It is based on chapter two of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat (get the first chapter free here).

This article is part of a series of Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating “basics” – an important foundation for our new readers and a great review for all our longtime fans. Here are a few others:

Hunger Doesn’t Follow a Clock

How to Overcome a Fear of Hunger

How to Make Sense of Your Eating Issues


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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