How Do I Know if I'm Hungry?

  • posted by Marci Anderson Evans
  • Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How do you know you're hungry? I know it sounds like an odd question but I'm always amazed at the answers I get to this seemingly simple question. Think about it a moment. Imagine I just asked you "how do you know you're hungry?" What would you say?  

I talk about hunger a fair amount. Certainly more than the average person since I happen to be a nutrition therapist for a living. :) And perhaps more than other dietitians because I use an intuitive eating approach to my work. That means I work with my clients to help them connect to the process of eating when hungry, stopping when full, and learning to manage their emotions without using food. Perhaps it sounds simple but it can be a surprisingly complex process!

There are many things in life that can derail us from eating in response to a physical cue for hunger: not being able to identify hunger, eating based on the time of day, habits, chaotic schedules, emotions, and even dieting. I'm sure you could add to the list.

In an ideal world, we'd eat in response to a hunger cue the majority of the time. Note: not 100% of the time. Sometimes we eat for fun and social reasons. But hopefully most of our eating is done because our bodies and brains need more fuel. So my purpose in writing this blog post is to help you become more aware of your personal cues of hunger. Believe it or not, your hunger cues are just as individual as you are! And learning your own personal cues for hunger is the first step to eating intuitively.

So, here is your homework assignment. Get out a sheet of paper and write the following:



Meal hungry:

Snack hungry:

Now, I want you to write down as many PHYSICAL descriptors as you can for each category. I'll give you some examples.

Starving: stomach pain, headache, terrible mood, no energy

Over-hungry: growling/empty stomach, shaky, can't think of anything but eating

Meal hungry: grumbly stomach, lack of concentration, low energy, mouth watering at the thought of food

Snack hungry: distracted thinking, energy dip, little grumbles in stomach

Ok, the next step is to keep this paper around for a week or so. Throughout the week pay attention to moments that you think you might be in one of these categories and ask yourself the following questions:

1. Am I hungry?

2. How hungry am I?

3. How do I know? This "how do I know" part is your cue to write down any physical descriptor you have that fits your particular level of hunger.

The last step is extremely important because you are creating an individualized list of how your body speaks to you. Try to pay attention for a week or so and see what data you gather. You might notice that you need to make changes to your list as you go along.

What are your greatest obstacles to eating in response to hunger? I'd love to hear your feedback!

Your nutritionist in Cambridge,


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Amy commented on 21-Jun-2012 08:00 AM
Listening to my hunger cues and my body in general is something I am relearning in my recovery from anorexia. It is so hard to know when I am hungry, because for so long I just ignored my body's needs. Right now, I am in a place where I'm moving away from
a meal plan and actively trying to listen to my body so I can respond with what it needs. I am getting better at realizing when I'm hungry, but I still have to work on eating at those times. Thanks for the different levels of hunger. It's helpful to see it
written out like that.
Eating as a Path to Yoga commented on 21-Jun-2012 09:29 PM
My greatest obstacles are (in the past) fearing hunger, worrying that they would never come. Now? Sometimes waiting too long to eat.
Michaela commented on 21-Jun-2012 11:47 PM
Thanks for this wonderful post Marci! It is important to stop and take a moment to identify what exactly hunger feels like so we can meet our body's need for fuel when it asks for it, not when it's begging for it! It is such a key part of mindful eating
to tune into the body's communications with us.
Marc commented on 22-Jun-2012 04:03 PM
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! Amy, I'm so glad that it was a helpful way of conveying hunger. In the past, I used a hunger scale (1-10). But I found that for a lot of my clients, it was a really confusing way to rate hunger. In my experience,
people can relate to those words easier than numbers.
Kara commented on 22-Jun-2012 10:28 PM
I love this post, Marci. I had a former nutritionist tell me that I would likely never get my hunger cues back due to "chronic" anorexia. That was depressing and hopefully not true! I do wonder, though, after so many years of damage and hunger cues that
were disorganized even pre-ED, if my body will ever be "normal". What I really liked about this post was how you emphasized that everyone is different- there is no standard for what your body "should" feel and when (thank goodness!). As much as I hope one
day to feel the cues my body is meant to have, I am also fearful of being "hungry" again and all that word means for me. Thank you!
Marci commented on 28-Jun-2012 03:57 PM
Thank you so much for your thoughts Kara. I believe that everyone can have a return of healthy hunger/fullness cues, even after a long battle with an eating disorder. Our bodies require consistent, balanced nourishment to heal the nutrition trauma of an
eating disorder. But our bodies are resilient and amazing. The time and work it takes to get there is different for everyone, especially as the physical, emotional, and psychological healing takes place.
HPD commented on 29-May-2013 12:58 PM
After years of eating disorders, have found that I don't know when I'm hungry. I rarely get stomach pains or growls. Usually get very irrational/angry if I don't eat (I call it hangry, my friend calls it foodswings). Often I drink water when I feel a little hungry, then eat after a little while if I still feel that way. Find I usually have to think about food if I want to eat. But sometimes, (and I think because of my past anorexia and binge eating issues) just the thought of food sickens me, even if I haven't eaten. Have tried just eating by the clock to make sure I get enough meals a day or I will forget to eat. Do you have any other tips?
Marci commented on 02-Jun-2013 03:54 PM
Hi HPD, it sounds like you might benefit from some one on one work with a nutrition therapist. Consistency is the #1 most important thing to learning how your body speaks to you. So if you have trouble hearing your hunger, commit to eating every 3-4 hours for a couple of weeks. By the end of that time, you will probably begin to hear your hunger a little better. Unless you've had a big meal, I recommend never going longer than 5 hours without fuel! It's a balance using the wisdom of your body and knowledge of our mind for excellent self-care.
Ida commented on 04-Jul-2015 05:27 AM
This is really helpful, thanks!

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