“Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.” While this simple advice sums up nourishing yourself in a healthy and sustainable way, it is one of the most challenging things to do. After all, if it were easy, the diet and weight loss industry wouldn’t be over $60 billion in the US!

Have you ever suddenly felt your stomach growl and realize if you don’t stuff some type of food in your mouth NOW, you’re either going to die or murder someone? How many times have you finished your meal and felt so uncomfortably full your only option is to lay down?


Why is it so hard to feed ourselves an appropriate amount? There are a variety of contributors that throw off our true hunger cues; chronic dieting, stress and other emotions, oversized portions, the media, and social norms, to name the big ones. We eat to feel comforted and to be social, we avoid eating because we’re dieting or we’re so busy we don’t make time. As an adult, you’ve been eating – or not eating – based on nearly every reason other than your actual hunger for years, making you out of touch with them completely.

Recognizing and listening to your hunger cues is a critical part of weight management. Many of us abide by the clock when it comes to meals. You eat breakfast first thing when you wake up, or get to work, lunch is at noon, maybe a snack between 3-4 and dinner is when you get home. Have you noticed you eat at odd times and a little haphazardly on the weekends? You don’t have the built in schedule to tell you when to eat and it can seem like a free-for-all!

Recognizing and listening to your hunger cues is a critical part of weight management. Click To Tweet

Now, think of how a child eats, before all of these “rules” and social aspects force their way into our eating habits. They let you know when they are hungry, they eat what they like, and – notoriously – stop when they are full, not necessarily when their plate is cleared. Their bodies – just like yours – give them the information they need on how much to eat and when. The difference is, we learned to override this information.

To get back to your hunger cues, you need to be in tune with what your body needs. That sounds a little woo-woo, but stay with me! Your goal is to pay attention to what your body is telling you it needs, instead of of what your feelings and brain are telling you it wants.

To get back to your hunger cues, you need to be in tune with what your body needs. Click To Tweet

Here are ways to tune into your hunger cues:

Hunger scale

We know when we’re hangry and when we’re so overstuffed we feel sick. But it’s hard to identify all the stops in between. Being able to recognize shifts in your hunger by being able to rank it on a hunger scale can save you from getting to either end of the spectrum.


Check in with yourself the next time you reach for a meal or snack, and determine where your hunger falls. Ideally, you should be eating when you’re around a 3-4, and putting the utensils down when you’re around a 6. The closer you can keep to the 4-6 range, the more in control your eating habits will be.

Remember, it takes about 20 minutes to realize how full you are, so by slowing down or stopping at a 5, you won’t suddenly feel you’re at a 9. If you’re unsure, drink some water and reevaluate (we often confuse thirst with hunger). Ask yourself if an apple sounds good or if only what you’re craving will satisfy you. This isn’t real hunger; this is a craving. Take the clock and other cues out of this scale, (i.e. “it’s 1pm, I should be hungry now”), instead only focus on how your mind and stomach feel at that point.

Do this for a full week and not only will you be quicker at determining where your hunger falls, you’ll stop relying on outside cues to tell you when to eat.

Emotional hunger

Many of the reasons we eat when we’re not hungry, are emotional. Whether it’s a stressful day at work, a tough conversation with a loved one, or simply being overtired, we reach for food to solve our problems. Before you eat, run through this checklist to determine if emotional triggers are what’s causing your “hunger”:

-Am I stressed?
-Did I get enough sleep?
-Am I procrastinating/avoiding something?
-Am I eating this to celebrate or punish?

If any of these ring true, get out of the kitchen and do something that will actually help you feel better. If you’re putting off cleaning the bathrooms by snacking on whatever you find in the fridge, not only are the bathrooms not clean, you now feel stuffed and didn’t even enjoy what you ate.

Notice the clock – or set a timer – and do something for 10 minutes. In the bathroom example, promise to at least clean the sinks. If you got 5 hours of sleep last night, set an alarm for 20 minutes and lay down. If you want to celebrate your promotion by getting yourself a cupcake, call a friend and gush to them instead. If after 10 minutes you’re still thinking about food and are actually hungry, have a snack. But, most likely, you’ll have moved on to something else.

Social hunger

I often recommend my clients try ordering first when out with a big group. Why? Because of social hunger cues. You may have been ready to order the healthier menu item of grilled salmon and fresh greens, but when 3 of your friends order first and get a burger, enchilada, and chicken parm, your healthy choice may not sound as good. Plus, they are all ordering indulgent items, why shouldn’t you?

How about when you’re at a party and after having your fill of food, you start talking to a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Then she reaches for the chip bowl and before you know it you’ve helped her polish it off. These social hunger cues can be hard to detect because they are so engrained in our routine behavior.

– Ask yourself if you’d order what you ordered, or snack when you snack, if you were by yourself.
– Order first when with a group
– Chew gum or get a coffee so you won’t be tempted to snack just becuase others are
– Stand away from the buffet or snacks at a party once you’re done eating, and have a drink/water in your hand to occupy yourself

Visual hunger

Our eyes really are larger than our stomachs. When you go into a bakery and see dozens of beautiful pastries, it’s easy to cave and get one. They look so good! When you keep chips and snacks on the counter, it’s much more likely you’ll have a handful, while if they were tucked away in a cabinet you wouldn’t suddenly feel you need some chips.

You can set yourself up for success with a few tactics:

– Keep junk food in closed cabinets, and fruit in plain sight.
– Ask yourself, if the food in questions would be appealing to you if it weren’t presented so nicely
– Avoid scouring food blogs and cooking shows excessively (notice if this makes a difference in your habits)
– Walk right past the samples at the grocery, and picture how many hands have been in there!

Hunger is tricky! Understanding how hungry you are and why you’re eating is a process that won’t be understood in one day or even a week. But, the more you ask yourself these questions and bring awareness to the situations around your eating habits, the easier it will be to stay in that 4-6 range on the hunger scale.

These tactics are exactly what I work with my clients on. We talk about what they struggle with, and determine small steps they can take to understand and manage these cues. If you would like guidance and accountability when it comes to healthier eating habits, consistent exercise and more, my health coaching program is for you!

Email me today to discover how health coaching can help you reach your goals!




Published by Samantha Kellgren

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