Real Hunger – What Is That?

what is real hungerPeople do not always eat to satisfy hunger; many individuals eat for comfort, stress relief or as a reward. More often than not, we are eating out of boredom or because food is available, not because we are physically hungry. According to several research articles focused on mindful eating and physical hunger, the eating habits of our society have shifted from the need to eat for energy and survival to eating when stressed or to fill a void; leading to mindless eating and overeating.

“Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full” – this is a statement most people struggle with putting into practice. Many people are unaware of whether they are eating out of physical hunger or because they are under an emotional stress. Many of the habits that drive overeating are unconscious behaviors that people have repeated for years. So what is real hunger, and how can you learn to recognize it?

What Is Physical Hunger?

Physical hunger, also known as stomach hunger, is a complex interaction between the digestive system, endocrine system, and the brain. Physical hunger signs begin when the body needs refueling and manifests as stomach rumbling or growling. When we eat, we feel better because our need for hunger is being met. Physical hunger cues can occur 2-4 hours after your last meal.

If you ignore your physical hunger cues, the symptoms intensify and you may experience irritability, lightheadedness, headache, and you may become shaky or weak. After continuing to ignore your hunger cues, you may become ravenous and vulnerable to uncontrolled or binge eating.

Where Do My Hunger Cues Come From?

Hunger and satiety are both regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain. When your body has gone too long between meals or has not had enough food, a signal is sent to the brain and you begin to experience physical hunger cues. This is your body telling you to have a meal or snack. When the body has had enough food to satisfy its need, a signal is sent from the stomach to the brain to register a sense of fullness.

This signal takes about 20 minutes to transfer from the stomach to the brain. Therefore, if you eat too fast or multitask while eating (watching TV, reading emails, grading papers) you never notices that sense of satiety and continue eating. This satiety signal is easy to override and can cause individuals to consume too much food at one time. Remember pace of meal is important!

Unable to Detect Your Hunger Cues?

This may be due to the fact that you have ignored the signals for so long, you may have temporarily lost your physical sensitivity to the physical signs of hunger. This can be a result of frequent “dieting”, chronic restriction of food intake, or continuous overeating. These hunger cues have the ability to resurface but will take a conscious effort in being aware of portion sizes and meal spacing and may even require working with a registered dietitian.

False Alarms to Physical Hunger

  • Teeth Hunger: being irritated or stressed and wanting to chew out of frustration
  • Mouth Hunger: seeing or smelling a food, causing your mouth to water and you to crave that food
  • Mind Hunger: looking at the clock and needing to eat a certain amount of food because “it’s time”
  • Thirst: it is very common to confuse thirst with hunger
  • Fatigue: your body needs rest but you interpret that as needing food
  • Emotional Hunger: aching or emptiness inside related to an emotional or spiritual circumstance and needing to fill that void with food

Research shows that when people are given a larger portion of food, they tend to eat more; therefore, it is imperative to practice portion control and be aware of your hunger and satiety signals.

Use this chart, along with the hunger scale, to identify physical hunger, satiety, overeating and emotional eating cues.

Physical Hunger Emotional Hunger
Gradual and can be postponed Sudden and feels urgent
Satisfied with any type of food Specific cravings (cake, ice cream, pizza, fries)
Once full, you can stop eating eating More than typical intake and feeling uncomfortably full
Feeling satisfied, no guilt Feeling guilty and depressed after eating

Hunger Scale

1. WEAK AND LIGHTHEADED: your stomach is churning
2. RAVENOUS: you are irritable and cannot concentrate
3. HUNGRY: your stomach is rumbling
4. SLIGHTLY HUNGRY: beginning to feel the signs of hunger
5. NEUTRAL: you could eat but are not hungry
6. SATISFIED: perfectly comfortable
7. FULL: a little uncomfortable
8. STUFFED: uncomfortably full
9. BLOATED: need to loosen clothing
10. NA– USEOUS: so full you may be sick

Ideally, you should stay between a 3 (hungry) and a 6 (satisfied) on the hunger scale.


Image courtesy of Nick Taylor on Flickr