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Intuitive Eating versus Eating by the Clock: Which Is Best for Weight Loss and Health?

Natalie Stein
November 14, 2020
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It is a common question when trying to lose weight or improve health: “Should I just eat when I’m hungry, or should I let the clock tell me when it is time for a meal or snack?”

The most accurate answer is, “It depends.” The correct answer can change depending on the person and the situation. Here is what you should know about planning meals, letting hunger be your guide, and when the clock should step in to tell you when to eat.

Letting Hunger Be Your Guide


How is this for some simple diet advice: “Eat when you are hungry, and stop when you are full.” The crazy thing is, it works, at least, with a few modifications.

For example, how hungry should you be before you eat, and when should you stop eating? If you think of hunger on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is starving and 10 is stuffed, it’s best to start eating when you are at a 7. Waiting too long to eat can lead to choosing less nutritious or higher-calorie foods, or eating too much or too fast.

Similarly, it’s best to stop eating before you are stuffed to the gills. In general, stopping at a 3 can help prevent overeating and, in turn, help with weight management and blood sugar control. It can also help prevent feeling lethargic after a meal.

When Hunger Steers You Wrong


There may be times when feeling hungry does not mean that your body needs food. For example, certain foods lead to longer-lasting satisfaction, while others contribute to feeling hungry sooner. Meals and snacks with fiber, protein, and healthy fats, for example, tend to delay the onset of hunger for longer than meals and snacks that are lower in those nutrients and instead are higher in carbohydrates such as sugar and starch.

There are other factors that can interfere with receiving accurate hunger cues. For example, being short on sleep can lead to excessive levels of hunger hormones, leading your brain to perceive that you are hungry when your body does not need fuel.

Hunger vs. Appetite Due to External Cues


Babies are born with the ability to know if they are hungry or full. As we grow up, most of us lose a little or a lot of that ability as we are exposed to external cues such as the clock or seeing other people eating. The biological hunger cues can become weaker as external cues become stronger. 

Consider what happens at the mall when you walk past the food court and smell cinnamon rolls, pizza, and fries. Your mouth may start to water and your stomach may start to grumble. Though you may have had breakfast only an hour ago, your brain may start to tell you that you are starving. Your appetite may be huge due to the external cues of those delicious smells, but your body is not truly hungry.

Another example is with exercise. Some people feel less hungry after exercising, while others feel hungrier. If excessive hunger signals catch you off guard after you work out, you may find yourself gaining weight even though you are exercising.

When the Clock Should Be the Boss


Though listening to your internal hunger cues can help with weight control and general wellbeing, there are times when eating by the clock can be healthy. For example, if you have diabetes, eating meals and snacks at consistent times of the day can help control blood sugar.

  • Eating an extra meal can lead to dangerously high blood sugar if extra medications are not taken or other blood sugar-lowering measures, such as exercising, have not taken place.
  • Skipping a meal can lead to dangerously low blood sugar if medications such as insulin are taken as usual.

With type 2 diabetes, it is important to establish a routine for eating.

Eating at regular intervals can also help lower the risk for depression.

When Hunger and Time of Day Go Hand in Hand


The clash between hunger cues and time on the clock may not be as much of a conflict as it seems. Humans tend to thrive on routines. Once an eating schedule is established, it is likely that hunger cues will align well. For example, if you establish a habit of eating a snack at 3:00 p.m., you will probably start to become hungry at that time as you naturally eat less at lunch and dinner to account for the extra snack.

Eating on a regular schedule can also help monitor hunger cues as you become used to feeling a certain level of hunger before each meal and snack time. It can be easier to detect differences in hunger and try to figure out reasons for that difference.

Navigating hunger and appetite can be trickier than it seems like it should be, but you can learn to consider both hunger and time of day as you decide when and how much to eat. By getting in touch with your body and establishing a routine, you can be a step closer to controlling your weight and improving health.

Author
Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Lark Health