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When and How to Assess Hunger Levels for Weight and Health

April 9, 2024
When and How to Assess Hunger Levels for Weight and Health

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In this article:

  • Checking in with your hunger levels can help you manage weight and support health.
  • You can use a hunger scale that goes from 1-10. 5 is neutral, while 1 or 2 is starving. 3 means you are feeling hungry, and it’s a good time to eat.
  • Be aware of other factors that can impact hunger levels like thirst, cravings, and external cues like time of day or seeing food.
  • Factors like sleep deprivation, stress, and illness can alter hunger levels, too.
  • Lark can help you manage weight with or without GLP-1s as you log food, get tips for eating healthier, and make small changes that can turn into healthy habits.

“Listen to your body” is a recommendation you may have heard. Listening to your body includes noticing hunger and fullness, and responding appropriately.

Here are guidelines for how to best respond to your body’s cues.

  • Eat when you’re hungry
  • Don’t eat when you’re not hungry
  • Stop eating when you’re full

Doing these can help manage weight and improve your health. Here are some tips for assessing hunger and fullness, and what you can do to respond in healthy ways.

Assessing Hunger: How, When, and What to Do About It

Hunger scale for assessment

You can assess your hunger and fullness levels by asking yourself this question:

How hungry am I on a scale from 1-10, where 1 is absolutely starving, and 10 is absolutely stuffed?

John Hopkins Medicine explains what your answer may mean.

  • 1 or 2 means you’re starving, and may feel shaky and weak
  • 3 means you’re feeling hungry and are ready to eat
  • 4 means you can start to feel hunger
  • 5 means you’re neither hungry nor overly full. It’s a neutral number
  • 6 means you’re feeling like you had some food, but you haven’t had enough to last you for hours
  • 7 means you’ve had enough to eat to feel full for 3-4 hours
  • 8 means you’re about as full as if you had a larger-than-normal meal, but you’re not overly uncomfortable
  • 9 or 10 may mean you feel uncomfortable and may have trouble moving. This is how you may feel after overindulging at an all-you-can-eat buffet or at Thanksgiving dinner

When to assess hunger

It’s a good idea to assess hunger regularly. Here are some times when you might check in with your hunger.

  • Before every regularly scheduled meal and snack
  • When you are considering eating something that’s not part of your regular routine
  • When you may need more or less fuel than normal, such as when you’ve been especially active or you’re ill

Your hunger level can help guide how much to eat and when to eat. Still, it may not tell the whole story about what your body may need. Factors like habits, thirst, cravings, and even sleep deprivation can play a role.

How to respond to hunger

If your hunger is at 1 or 2 on the scale, it’s best to eat as soon as you can to limit possible effects like shakiness, inability to focus, or low blood sugar. Eating slowly can help reduce the possibility of overeating to compensate for being too hungry. It can also help prevent indigestion.

If your hunger is at 3, it’s a good time to have a meal or substantial snack. Select foods high in protein and fiber. Here are some tips for preparing a healthy plate for nutritious,

calorie-controlled meals.

Are You Truly Hungry?

If you assess your hunger and get a 3 or lower on the scale, it’s good to check in on a few other things to make sure your body truly needs food. Here are some other questions you can ask yourself.

1. Am I hungry or thirsty?

It can be easy to confuse hunger with thirst since the signals your body sends can be the same. If your body needs water, but you instead eat foods with calories, you can gain weight because you’ll be consuming more calories than you need.

The easiest way to avoid this pitfall is to stay well hydrated throughout the day. Aim for at least 8 8-ounce cups of water or other fluids daily to stay hydrated. Water is best, but these are some other options.

  • Black coffee and unsweetened tea are low in calories
  • Skim milk, unsweetened almond milk, and unsweetened soy milk have calories but they’re nutritious
  • Orange juice and other fruit juices are high in sugars, but they have some nutrients and are okay in moderation

You may need more fluids if you’re a larger person, you sweat heavily, you are ill, or the weather is warm.

2. Do I need food or want food?

Sometimes, a desire for food is so high that it feels like a need for food. A way to help decide whether you have a true, physiological need for food is to ask yourself what you’re hungry for. If the answer is something calorie-dense, like ice cream or chips, you likely want and don’t need food. If the answer is that you’re hungry for something more nutritious, like green beans or broccoli, there’s a good chance that you’re actually physically hungry.

3. How do I know if it’s hunger or a craving?

Hunger indicates a physiological need for food. A craving is a strong desire to eat a certain food or type of food. Assessing your hunger with the hunger scale can help you determine whether you’re hungry or if you have a craving.

Here are some additional cues that can clue you in.

  • The food you desire. It’s more likely that you’re having a craving if you’re fixated on a food or type of food that’s high in sugar, sodium, or fat, and low in nutrients
  • Your emotional state. It’s more likely that you're having a craving if you’re prone to emotional eating and you’re having an emotion like stress, loneliness, frustration, or anger
  • What you’re doing. If you’re bored, you may be thinking about eating because you are looking for something to do
  • The time of day. It’s more likely that you’re having a craving if you’ve been eating on a regular schedule and it’s not your usual mealtime now
  • The environment. You’re more likely to have a craving if there’s a reminder of food nearby, like smelling doughnuts down the hall at work or passing a pizza place on the way home

If you have cravings, here are some tips for handling food cravings in healthy ways.

4. Is it a habit or am I hungry?

External cues can influence the desire to eat, regardless of what your physiological cues say about hunger levels. Here are some examples of external cues that say it’s time to eat.

  • Time of day that is a typical meal or snack time
  • Seeing other people eat, such as at work in a break room or at their desks
  • Seeing or smelling food being prepared, such as in the kitchen at home
  • Doing something that often comes before eating, such as arriving home after doing errands

Factoring in these external cues can help you determine whether you’re truly hungry.

Other factors affecting hunger

A variety of other factors can make you feel hungry when your body doesn’t need more calories. Here are some examples.

  • Sleep deprivation increases levels of hunger hormones and makes sugary, high-calorie foods more desirable
  • Higher stress levels cause some people to experience more hunger and a greater drive for sugars and other carbohydrates
  • A diet high in protein and fiber, and low in added sugars and unhealthy fats, can help reduce blood sugar swings, sudden hunger, and cravings for sugary foods

It’s good to be aware of these possibilities to help you determine if you’re really hungry.

How Lark Can Help

Weight and health management are easier when you are in tune with your body, and it’s best to assess and respond to hunger appropriately. Lark offers additional tools and support. Your Lark coach is available 24/7 for nutrition and physical activity coaching and tracking. Lark can help you make healthy choices and establish habits that fit into your lifestyle so you can manage weight and support health with or without GLP-1 medications.

Click here to see if you may be eligible to join Lark today!

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