Do you have a tendency to graze all day rather than eat real meals, perhaps mindlessly? Does it seem like you go from perfectly fine to hangry — hungry and angry — in the blink of an eye? Do you get wrapped up in a project, a book, or several episodes of your favorite streaming show, only to emerge on the other side ready to eat whatever isn’t nailed down, maybe feeling a little out-of-control in the process? You might benefit from using a hunger scale.
Types of hunger scales
The typical hunger scale has numeric values, usually combining hunger and fullness ratings in the same scale. One example is a 0-10 scale, with 0 being intensely, painfully hungry, while 3 would be gently hungry and ready to eat, but without urgency, and 5 would be neutral, neither hungry nor full. This type of rating system is similar to the pain rating systems used in hospitals, and because hunger, like pain, is a subjective feeling, there’s no right or wrong rating.
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Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, co-author of the book “Intuitive Eating,” said while some people like using a numeric hunger rating scale, she often recommends focusing more on the quality of the hunger, rather than trying to pin down the amount, by asking, “Is my hunger pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral?” She says categorizing hunger this way is more in tune with how our brains work, although it’s not always as simple as it appears. While most people know what unpleasant hunger feels like, she says “when I ask people about pleasant hunger, it’s crickets.”
Tribole encourages beginning eating when feeling pleasant hunger — about a 3 on the numeric scale — but that’s only a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. “This is not about precision,” she says. “Ultimately it’s about what works best for you.”
What is “rating” hunger useful for?
Hunger scales — whether numeric or qualitative — are valuable tools for tuning into your hunger signals and learning about yourself. If you wonder why your hunger sometimes feels so ferocious and primal, it may be because you’ve been ignoring your hunger. Tuning into how hungry you’re becoming can help you avoid reaching the point where you want to eat everything in sight — or rip the nearest person’s head off if you tend to become “hangry” when you get too hungry.
If you find that you tend to mindlessly graze through the day, checking in with your hunger is a way to hit the “pause” button. If you are truly hungry, you can assess if you need to stop for a real meal, eaten mindfully. If you realize you’re not actually hungry, even though you’re reaching for food, you can assess what you’re really seeking. Are you bored, procrastinating, sad, stressed, lonely? Food might not be the best way to meet your needs
Checking in with your hunger can help you notice how your eating is different when you begin a meal when you are still comfortably, pleasantly hungry as opposed to when you wait until you are already experiencing uncomfortable or primal hunger. In a broader sense, becoming more aware of your hunger can also lead to becoming more aware of your other bodily states and sensations — known as interoceptive awareness — which can provide additional information about what you’re feeling or what your body needs.
Who shouldn’t use a hunger scale?
Unfortunately, it’s easy to turn a hunger scale into a diet tool (“I can’t eat unless my hunger is a 2 or 3.”). Not only does this rigidity not allow for eating for pleasure and connection — such as a slice of cake at a birthday party — but it’s not practical. What happens if you are heading into back-to-back meetings, whether in-person or virtual, and this is your last chance to eat something for hours, except you’re not “hungry enough” yet? “There are times when you need to eat when you’re not hungry,” Tribole says.
If you have trouble even noticing your hunger, trying to actually rate it may be frustrating. Tribole points out that there are times when we may not feel our hunger very acutely, including during periods of ongoing stress. “In order to feel hunger you have to be present. In order to be present you have to feel safe,” she says. “There are all kinds of traumas in life that can mask hunger.” She also points out that, even during normal times, we don’t all experience hunger the same way — for example, many people don’t feel the classic growling, rumbling stomach when they are hungry, but they might feel nauseous, sleepy or headachy — and that there’s no right and wrong.
Ultimately, what can you do if your hunger signals are quiet? Tribole says it’s helpful to look at when you might be feeling the effects of not eating. Because we generally need to eat every two to six hours, if you have trouble feeling or noticing hunger cues, pay attention to how you feel on days when you eat more often or less often. Is your mood better? Your energy levels? Your ability to concentrate? The bottom line is that it’s important to not get hung up on the numbers on a hunger scale. “It’s a tool to help you connect with your body, not to judge yourself by,” says Tribole.
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.)