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How To Know If You’re Hungry? Understanding Hunger Cues

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How To Know If You’re Hungry? Understanding Hunger Cues

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • Your hunger cues are your body’s way of telling you it needs food. 
  • Emotional eating, which includes boredom, may override your hunger cues, and you may eat even when you’re not hungry. 
  • You can enhance hunger cue awareness by asking, “Am I Hungry?” before eating and working closely with a registered dietitian.

Some time has passed since you last ate, and now you’re staring at the fridge, looking for something to eat.

This scenario has two common outcomes: immediately seeing something you want to eat—or standing there for ten minutes, only to walk away unsatisfied because nothing catches your eye.

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone.

Many people find it challenging to know what and when to eat, but you can address these behaviors by learning to recognize your hunger and fullness cues.  

Keep reading to learn how to differentiate between hunger and boredom to better understand if emotional eating influences your food choices.   

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How to Know if You’re Hungry

When you start to feel hungry, you may notice a shift in mood and are more likely to feel irritable.

This phenomenon is linked to decreased blood sugar levels in the brain, and the media refers to it as “being hangry.” 

Other physical signs of hunger include: 

  • Fatigue. 
  • Grumbling stomach. 
  • Inability to concentrate. 
  • Headache. 
  • Feeling lightheaded. 
  • Feeling cold. 
  • Unpleasant taste in the mouth. 

If you’re experiencing these signs—it's time to eat.

If you don’t have time for a full meal, pick a protein-rich snack and try to add some fiber-rich foods.

These nutrients are slowly digested and will help you feel full until your next meal. Examples include:

  • A hard-boiled egg with whole-grain crackers.
  • An individual tuna tin on a whole wheat English muffin.
  • Roasted chickpeas with fresh fruit.
  • Plain Greek yogurt with nuts and berries. 

Different Types of Hunger

At least five different types of hunger may influence your eating decisions, including how much you eat and your food choices. 

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1. Stomach Hunger

Stomach hunger is your body’s physiological need for food.

The physical signs we reviewed above (stomach pangs, growling stomach, feeling cold, etc.) suggest your body needs nourishment. 

2. Heart Hunger

Heart hunger is linked to your emotions.

When you’re experiencing heart hunger, you’re more likely to use food to cope with your feelings. 

Emotional eating behaviors can happen during happy moments, such as craving your aunt’s famous pecan pie during the holidays.

More commonly, emotional eating occurs during bouts of elevated stress, boredom, and low mood. 

Frequent emotional eating makes it much harder to tune into your hunger and fullness cues and may increase your risk of overeating

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3. Mouth Hunger

Mouth hunger is associated with cravings, which can be stimulated by sight (seeing others eat), visiting a particular spot (craving popcorn upon entering a movie theater), or smell (catching a whiff of fresh pastry at the mall food court and craving a cinnamon roll). 

Food cravings are normal, and assessing your hunger cues can help you decide whether to satisfy the craving. 

5. Practical Hunger

Practical hunger is another food behavior that pushes you to eat when you might not be hungry, anticipating there might not be time later. 

Taking advantage of eating opportunities is essential because you need fuel, but it may clash with your body’s appetite and hunger cues.

Changing these behaviors is tough if your schedule is outside your control, but working with a registered dietitian may uncover helpful solutions that fit your needs. 

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4. Mind Hunger 

Mind hunger encompasses learned eating behaviors, or food rules, that influence your food choices. 

A typical example might be feeling compelled to eat everything off your plate even though you’re full.

Many families instilled these rules with good intentions (in this example, to reduce food waste), but sometimes they can interfere with hunger and satiety cues. 

What Controls Hunger?

Ghrelin and leptin are two hormones involved in hunger regulation.

When empty, your stomach releases fast-acting ghrelin to signal hunger to your brain.

This initiates hunger symptoms, which are also hunger cues. 

After eating, leptin signals satiety to your brain, and you should feel content and ready to move on from eating.

Fullness cues indicating you’re sated include feeling energized, improved focus, and a sense of comfort. 

Some health conditions may influence your body’s ability to signal hunger and fullness, including obesity, mood disorders, and eating disorders.

Ask your doctor to be assessed if you suspect underlying health conditions that could affect your ghrelin and leptin function. 

Physical vs. Emotional Hunger

It’s essential to understand whether you’re experiencing physical or emotional hunger.

It helps you decide whether to nourish your body or engage in other activities to manage your emotions and feel better. 

A helpful question to ask yourself is, “Am I hungry?”

If you answer yes, you should eat.

You can choose a different activity if you answer no.

It takes time to change your behavior response, but having a list of alternative actions you can do when you’re bored can be helpful. 

Identifying Triggers for Emotional Eating

Occasionally, emotional eating is normal.

But, if you’re regularly self-soothing through food, it might be time to investigate possible triggers that prompt you to eat emotionally.

Although emotional eating can happen in response to happy events, most people respond to negative feelings with food.

These include depression, anxiety, stress, and boredom

You can assess your eating behaviors by tracking your appetite and emotions before and after eating.

Collecting and reviewing data may help you identify patterns between your emotions and food intake.

For example, you attend a mandatory Zoom meeting with your boss each week.

Before hopping on the call, you always crave comfort food.

This may indicate that your body responds to stressful situations by craving certain foods.   

Take our emotional eating quiz to assess your eating behaviors.

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Takeaway

Hunger cues are your body’s way of telling you it needs food.

Everyone has different symptoms, but most people experience a grumbling stomach, hunger pangs, and irritability.

If you feel these sensations—it’s time to eat. 

However, food may taste less appealing when bored because your body doesn’t need that fuel.

In these cases, try doing other activities to stimulate your brain, such as reading an intriguing book, doing a crossword puzzle, or calling a friend you haven’t spoken to recently.  

Getting in touch with your hunger cues can help you identify if you’re hungry or bored.

You can do this by tracking your intake and including notes on how you feel before and after eating, asking yourself, “Am I hungry?” and working with a registered dietitian. 

How a Dietitian Can Help

Nutrition is so much more than the nutrients on your plate, and a dietitian can help you heal your relationship with food through individualized counseling. 

You may not know what to expect if you’ve never met a dietitian. Here are questions to ask: 

Working with a registered dietitian near you can help you feel more confident in recognizing your hunger and fullness cues.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do I know if I'm actually hungry?

Your body releases different hunger cues to tell you it’s time to eat.

For many people, signs of being hungry include: 

  • Irritability. 
  • Fatigue. 
  • Grumbling stomach. 
  • Inability to concentrate. 
  • Headache. 
  • Feeling lightheaded. 
  • Feeling cold. 
  • Unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Why can't I tell if I'm hungry?

Frequently ignoring your hunger cues can diminish your ability to recognize when you’re hungry.

You can strengthen your awareness by practicing mindful eating and working with a registered dietitian.

Eventually, you will regain the ability to tell if you’re hungry.

What does a hungry stomach feel like?

A hungry stomach may growl and may even be painful for some people.

These are unignorable signs that your body needs nourishment, and you should eat as soon as possible.

References

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