The gateway to mindful eating

Do you ever wonder if you’re actually hungry, or if you’re eating out of boredom or stress? Here’s how to identify true hunger and banish mindless overeating.

Confusing hunger cues

Food is easily accessible and convenient. In addition, eating can be rewarding, comforting and a way to be social. All of these factors become additional cues to hunger that create a disconnect between eating and physical hunger.

The 3 types of hunger

1. Physical hunger

When you are physically hungry, your stomach may make a rumbling sound and feel empty or slightly uncomfortable. This feeling tends to come on gradually and can be satisfied with a variety of foods.

2. Emotional hunger

Emotional eating occurs when we use food to help manage our feelings rather than satisfy our physical hunger. We might feel happy about accomplishing a goal and use food as a reward. Alternatively, we may feel overwhelmed and turn to food as a source of comfort.

3. Environmental hunger

There’s a considerable amount of research that explains how external factors can influence our food intake.

  • The food environment includes portions and sizes of food packages, or dishes like bowls or plates. Size matters: for example, the larger the plate, the more food you may eat.
  • The eating environment includes eating atmosphere, eating with others and eating distractions. We might eat simply because we are in the presence of friends who are eating.

How to rediscover your hunger cues

1. Keep a food journal

Write down everything you eat and drink. Also note how you feel pre- and post-meal. This can help you identify whether you’re eating because you’re physically hungry or for reasons that may be emotionally or environmentally stimulated.

2. Stop and take 15

Pausing for 15 minutes gives you an opportunity to reflect on how you’re feeling and why you’re choosing to eat. Are you bored? Are you stressed? Are others eating around you?

3. Use a hunger scale

How hungry are you on a scale of 0 to 6?

  • 0 – so full—stomach feels completely stuffed, bloated and uncomfortable
  • 1 – stuffed and a little uncomfortable
  • 2 – full, but feeling good
  • – satisfied—not hungry or full
  • 4 – beginning to feel a little hungry (might have some stomach rumbling and growling)
  • 5 – very hungry (maybe cranky, with lots of stomach rumbling)
  • 6 – starving—feeling lightheaded and dizzy

Ideally, you want to eat when you rate your hunger at a 4 or 5. Avoid letting your hunger reach a 6—this can lead to poorer food choices. Try to stop eating before you reach a 0 or 1. You don’t want to feel uncomfortably full, and you want your body to get used to feeling satisfied in a pleasant way.

Assessing your hunger will allow you to be a more mindful eater. This gets us more in tune with our body’s physical needs and encourages us to eat in a way that supports our overall health.