By Tracy Olgeaty Gensler, M.S., R.D., Best Life nutritionist
Sometimes it feels automatic: You arrive home, head straight for the kitchen, and dive into a box of crackers or cookies or carton of ice cream. The worst part: Chances are you’re not even hungry. Eating just to eat is no doubt one of the biggest pitfalls to losing weight and keeping it off. But if you can differentiate between real and imaginary hunger, you can avoid overeating. How do you do this? Use the Best Life Hunger Scale. The 10-point scale helps you gauge your hunger so you can accurately determine whether it’s genuine or not.
Here’s how it works: For a few days, jot down your hunger level before and after each meal and snack. This “hunger diary” provides vital clues to your eating habits. Ideally, you should begin to eat at level 3 or 4, and stop eating when you reach level 5 (if you’re trying to lose weight) or 6 (if you’re looking to maintain your weight). If you begin at a 1 or 2, you’ll be so hungry that you’re prone to overeating. And if you go into a meal in the 5- to 10-range, you’re likely eating due to boredom, stress, or for some other emotional reason.
Here’s a breakdown of the Hunger Scale, what each level means, and how to use it during various meal situations to prevent overeating.
The Hunger Scale
10 – Stuffed: You are so full, you feel nauseous.
9 – Very uncomfortably full: You need to loosen your clothes.
8 – Uncomfortably full: You feel bloated.
7 – Full: You feel a little bit uncomfortable.
6 – Perfectly comfortable: You feel satisfied.
5 – Comfortable: You’re more or less satisfied, but could eat a little more.
4 – Slightly uncomfortable: You’re just beginning to feel signs of hunger.
3 – Uncomfortable: Your stomach is rumbling.
2 – Very uncomfortable: You feel irritable and unable to concentrate.
1 – Weak and light-headed: Your stomach acid is churning.
Your Hunger Level: 5 or 6
What To Do: You may not wake up hungry, but you should start to feel hunger pangs within an hour of waking. If you don’t, just continue to adhere to the two-hour eating cut-off in the evening. Eventually, you will wake up hungry in the a.m. Remember, this is the only time you should eat even if you’re not hungry. Ideally, you should have a healthy bite within an hour of getting up. Skipping breakfast is strongly connected to overeating later in the day and making poor food choices throughout the day.
Before lunch, dinner or snack
Your Hunger Level: 3 or 4
What To Do: This is the right level for starting a meal or snack. Now, just make sure to stop before you get too full.
You’ve cleaned your plate
Your Hunger Level: 5
What To Do: You’re no longer hungry, but it would still be easy to have another serving. Resist—that way you know you’re just slightly undereating, something you have to do in order to drop weight. If, however, you’re looking to maintain your weight, you can eat until you’re just slightly more full, about a 6 on the hunger scale.
It’s time for a snack, but I’m not hungry.
Your Hunger Level: 5 or higher
What To Do: Skip your snack. Remember, you should wait until you’re a 3 or 4 before you eat.
I’m finished eating, but I’m still hungry.
Your Hunger Level: 3 or 4
What To Do: Wait 20 minutes. Go for a walk or distract yourself with conversation, then see how hungry you are. If you’re still hungry, have another small helping from the meal or a little more of your snack.
Your Hunger Level: 1 or 2
What To Do: Try not to get to this point. Learn to acknowledge your hunger, eat when you’re hungry and stop eating at a 5 or a 6.