Beyond The Hunger & Fullness Scale

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When I work with clients on intuitive eating, one of the first things we do is work on the hunger and fullness scale to get back in touch with the body's internal cues for when and how much to eat. I've touched on the hunger and fullness scale in a few different posts, but haven't really given an in depth run down (whoops, thought I did!). I think most people who are familiar with Intuitive Eating are pretty well informed of it, but just in case, here's the basics...

Eating disorders, disordered eating, dieting (which I loop in with disordered eating), as well as stress, certain medications, and digestive disorders, can all disrupt the connection to your body's hunger and fullness cues. If you're suppressing hunger and only eating when you're ravenous, when you finally eat, not only will you crave energy-dense foods, but you'll probably eat so fast that you overshoot satisfied and end up stuffed. 

Basically, when you're not listening to hunger and fullness, eating gets pretty chaotic. 

The hunger and fullness scale helps you get back in touch with the subtle signs of hunger and fullness. If you eat when you're just getting hungry, and stop when you're satisfied, but not uncomfortable, you'll eat just the right amount of food for your body, an amount that changes from day to day based on multiple factors (physical activity, how much sleep you got, stress, etc). Here's the scale I use with my clients: 

P.S. I've seen people use different markers/physical cues on the hunger/fullness scale, and just know there's no right or wrong! It's really whatever works for you, as the whole point is to simply tune into these cues, not identify the number with 100% accuracy. 

P.S. I've seen people use different markers/physical cues on the hunger/fullness scale, and just know there's no right or wrong! It's really whatever works for you, as the whole point is to simply tune into these cues, not identify the number with 100% accuracy. 

The goal is to try to stay closer to the middle, eating when you're around a 3-4 and stopping at a 7-8 (but there's times you may over/under eat for various reasons and that's OK!). 

Seems pretty cut and dry, right? In practice though, it can get a bit more complicated. My clients have a lot of the same questions and concerns pop up about it, so I thought it'd be helpful to share a hunger and fullness scale 2.0. If you have a specific question I don't hit on in this post, leave a comment below and I'll get to it! 

I've got a funky work/school/travel/whatever schedule. 

In an ideal world, you'd have the time and food available to eat exactly when you're hungry. But we all have things like jobs and classes and errands and long airplane flights and meetings where we might not be able to pause at that exact moment when we hit a 3 on the hunger scale.

This is where planned overeating comes in. If you know or suspect you might not be able to eat again in the next 3-4 hours, it makes sense to eat until you're slightly uncomfortable, more like an 8. It also might make sense to choose something a bit richer, with a good bit of fat and protein and maybe a bit less vegetables. 

This shrimp salad stuffed avocado over greens is one of my favorites from Spotted Salamander (enjoyed with two pimento cheese stuffed deviled eggs and the company of one of my best friends!), but it just gets me to a 6 on the fullness scale. I feel physically full, but I feel like I need a slice of crusty bread with butter to get me to a 7. 

This shrimp salad stuffed avocado over greens is one of my favorites from Spotted Salamander (enjoyed with two pimento cheese stuffed deviled eggs and the company of one of my best friends!), but it just gets me to a 6 on the fullness scale. I feel physically full, but I feel like I need a slice of crusty bread with butter to get me to a 7. 

You also might have a schedule where your snack/meal breaks don't fall at a time when you're hungry. If you know you won't get a chance to eat again for awhile, even if you're not hungry, eat! Or, experiment with switching up meal and snack times. So if your lunch break falls at 11 and you're not usually hungry, have a substantial snack that might hold until you can break again in the afternoon, and have your real meal. 

No longer hungry vs. satisfied

One point of confusion on the fullness side of things is when I see clients eat to the point where they're no longer hungry (a 5), rather than eating until they are satisfied (a 7-8). It makes sense in the dieting world where you're trying to eat as little as possible. But when you look at it on the scale, it's easy to see why at a 5, even though you no longer feel the discomfort of hunger, it won't be long before you drop back to a 4 or lower. Instead, eat for satisfaction. You should feel a sense of fullness. Stop just before you start to get uncomfortable. 

When you don't feel hunger in your stomach. 

Most people think of hunger as an emptiness or gnawing in their stomach, but hunger can present itself in different ways. For example, while I notice hunger as a sensation in my stomach in the late-morning, afternoon and evening, in the morning, I never notice a physical sensation of hunger. For me, I know I'm pushing it too long without eating if I start to feel anxious. That's my sign that I'm 3 or below on the scale and need to eat pretty immediately. 

Other signs of hunger you might notice - low energy/fatigue, moodiness, poor attention, headache, stomach upset, dizziness or shakiness. If you notice one of these physical signs pop up 3-4 hours after you last ate something substantial, it's a good chance it's hunger. 

This mashed bean bow was super satisfying with lots of protein, fat and fiber. Made my mashed bean bowl with roasted Brussels sprouts, mushrooms and a fried egg, which a topped with a few other goodies from my fridge - kale pesto, smoked paprika oil, and blue cheese. 

This mashed bean bow was super satisfying with lots of protein, fat and fiber. Made my mashed bean bowl with roasted Brussels sprouts, mushrooms and a fried egg, which a topped with a few other goodies from my fridge - kale pesto, smoked paprika oil, and blue cheese. 

Can I eat when I'm not hungry?

Yes! Let's not turn intuitive eating into the hunger/fullness diet. I've already talked about eating when you're not hungry because that's what works in your schedule, but pleasure is a perfectly acceptable reason to eat too. There may be times that the opportunity to enjoy something really delicious when you aren't feeling hunger, so why miss it? Maybe you're at a five on the hunger/fullness scale and eat till a 6 or a 7, or maybe you're at a 7 and you eat until an 8!

I think of this a lot with traveling, when I'm exposed to a lot of different foods I won't have the opportunity to eat again, so even if I'm not hungry, I don't want to miss out. This happens in everyday life too. The other week my husband brought home really delicious looking cookies, and even though I wasn't hungry and we were having dinner in an hour, I really wanted one then. So I ate it (err, ate a quarter of it and then I realized there were raisins hidden in with the chocolate chips - what kind of evil person does that??). Intuitive eating is eating mostly out of hunger/fullness, but not always. 

I'm so hungry I'm not hungry/I'm so hungry my stomach is killing me

I know I'm not the only one who deals with this. When I get to a 1-2 on the hunger scale, I just don't even want to eat anymore. Like, I'm so hungry I'm not hungry. And when I do eat, I feel absolutely miserable, like my stomach is a balloon that's about to pop. I try to prevent this from happening, but sometimes you can't help it, like last week when our takeout delivery took an hour and a half to arrive (😡 😡 😡 ).

Sometimes I see clients get to this level of hunger, and just skip their meal and go to bed, because they think they shouldn't eat anything when they're not hungry. But that doesn't really solve the problem, and they just wake up the next day feeling miserable again. Or, because they're so hungry, they're craving something really rich, and usually rich food + empty stomach = digestion disaster. 

My stomach was really upset after eating dinner late, so the next mornings breakfast was a smoothie. I didn't hold me over that long, just a couple hours, but it settled my stomach so I could eat normally the rest of the day. 

My stomach was really upset after eating dinner late, so the next mornings breakfast was a smoothie. I didn't hold me over that long, just a couple hours, but it settled my stomach so I could eat normally the rest of the day. 

Based on my experience and what I've heard from clients, when you get to that extreme level of hunger, basically everything will make your stomach feel bad, but some foods will make it worse. So although this may sound counter to intuitive eating, I've found it's best to ignore what I'm craving and just eat something that will settle well. Please note, that doesn't necessarily eat something super "healthy." A salad with lots of raw vegetables would be an AWEFUL idea on my empty stomach! I just mean get something that's easily digestible, like soup, a smoothie, a peanut butter sandwich, dumplings (<--- that's my go-to when my stomach hurts). I might be craving something else, but I've found that rarely do I actually enjoy that food when I'm super hungry. 

For those who are familiar with intuitive eating or the hunger and fullness scale, I'd love to hear your thoughts, as well as any questions/barriers that I didn't touch on in this post. Leave a message in the comments!