Are You (Really) Hungry?
Society may be losing touch with a human basic instinct.
Blame the world we live in. Even for the health-conscious, outside factors can dictate when (a set lunch break), why (a client in town), and how much (a to-go container) to eat, says Ryan Andrews, R.D., C.S.C.S., a nutritionist at Precision Nutrition. At some point down the line, we started listening to those factors more than our bodies.
“Most people are aware of the extremes—when they are extremely hungry or extremely full,” says Andrews. But distinguishing subtler signs—a slightly rumbling stomach, a hollow feeling in the gut; and as you grow hungrier, shakiness, irritability, short-temperedness, light-headedness, or a headache—is important, too.
It’s not a bad thing to let your body go there. For healthy people, being hungry isn't an emergency: “It’s a necessary and normal physiological signal that will return again and again just like getting tired, thirsty, or having to go to the bathroom,” says Andrews. (You just don’t want to let it take over, since going into a meal famished can lead you to overeat.)
Your goal is a reasonable sensation of true hunger, which can make eating more enjoyable, says Andrews. To find it, follow Andrews’ suggestions:
Identify which foods satisfy you.
Some breakfasts leave you full till lunch, others leave you craving more. “If I have a bowl of oatmeal with soy milk, fruit, flax, and walnuts, I'm satisfied until around lunch. I know that about myself,” says Andrews. Finding patterns that work for your body is an important factor in allowing hunger to do its job, he says.
Look for foods and amounts that keep you full for three to five hours. “If you’re hungry after an hour, you probably didn't eat enough of the right foods at the previous meal. If you aren’t hungry after three to five hours, you probably ate too much.”
Junk food is never a good bet, either: “The pleasure they can bring during the eating process can overrun any natural body cues that are saying ‘stop eating!’.”
Keep good foods in sight.
What we see and smell can fool our bodies into thinking we’re hungry even when we’re not, says Andrews. At home, keep groceries stored away. And make sure the food you can see is good for you. Cornell research shows that we’re more likely to eat what we see—for your health’s sake, it’s better to have a fruit bowl than a candy jar.
Differentiate between emotions and hunger.
Comfort food: The idea that certain foods make us feel good. Unfortunately, if you always eat when you’re feeling a certain way (like stressed), your body might confuse that emotion with hunger, says Andrews. Connecting with a dietician or counselor to troubleshoot the issue is well worth it, as the habit can take a toll on your overall health, he notes.
If dinner takes you less than 15 minutes or so to finish, you’ll likely still be hungry. “This is because you didn't give your body enough time to register the original feelings of fullness,” says Andrews. It takes some time for that to set in, sometimes 20 minutes or more. Slowing down can help you pick up on signs of satiety.
Eat what you want (in moderation).
Splurging every now and then is okay. In fact, not doing so could just leave you craving what you’re really after. If someone wants a cookie, but doesn’t eat it because it's a ‘junk’ food—and opts for a protein bar instead—“they didn’t scratch their itch,” says Andrews. “They end up eating the cookie anyway.”
Think high-volume, low-calorie.
“Volume isn't the only factor that triggers fullness, but it's a piece of the puzzle,” says Andrews. Case in point: One pound of spinach has the same number of calories as one slice of bacon, he says. “Obviously, one slice of bacon isn't very filling for most people, but one pound of spinach is.”
Check your thirst.
Your body can confuse hunger with thirst. Try a glass of water, give yourself a few minutes, and reassess.