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Eat Smarter Using Your Hunger Cues

By Elle, the MyFitnessPal R.D.

We all know the unpleasantness of feeling hungry. Even the slightest grumble has the ability to send many of us into a panic, searching for whatever food we can get our hands on. This sense of urgency was likely advantageous back when we were hunters and gatherers, when finding a meal took far more time and energy than it does now. But with snack bars in our purses, fast food on every corner, and scheduled mealtimes these days, it's entirely possible, and probably quite normal, for many of us to go an entire day without feeling hungry. Go a few days, a week, or month without feeling hungry and it's easy to understand not only why we fear this foreign feeling, but also why we gain or are not able to lose weight.

The truth is, a grumbling tummy is nothing more than a gentle reminder that our body needs some fuel. It plays an important role in helping us maintain a neutral energy balance, which basically means we burn as much energy as we consume. That being said, there are different degrees of hunger, some we certainly want to avoid. A small grumble of the tummy is good! It's when we start to experience shakiness, difficulty concentrating, or nausea that it becomes a problem, because allowing ourselves to get too hungry is unhealthy and can lead to negative outcomes.

Hunger is a communication within the body that should be respected and embraced, not feared. It might seem easy but resisting the urge to chow down until you actually feel a bit hungry can be tough, especially if you're not used to it or you're on a schedule, bored, stressed, tired, or out socializing with friends. Here are some tips to help you understand and embrace your hunger cues:

  • The next time your stomach growls, smile! Your body is telling you it's ready to eat.
  • Try to eat something within 30 minutes of first feeling hungry. This will stabilize your blood sugar and fend off the urge to overeat.
  • After a meal, wait to feel hungry before eating again. Don't just eat simply because mealtime rolls around.
  • Feel hungry but not sure you should be? Grab a glass of water. Thirst can also be misinterpreted as hunger.
  • When food comes to mind, decide if it's a need or a want. You need food when you physically feel hungry. If you're not physically hungry, distract yourself by taking a walk, phoning a friend or doing another activity. Sometimes it takes just a few minutes to take your mind off of eating when you're not really hungry.
  • Take time to enjoy your food. It takes about 20 minutes to feel satisfied once you begin eating.
We hope you find these tips helpful and that the next hunger pang you feel will be pleasant, not panic-inducing. Feel free to share any other hunger cue tips you have in the comments below!

Photo: iStockphoto

168 votes + -


My0WNinspiration wrote 40 months ago:
Great tip. Will definitely work on this.
FlamesofJazz wrote 40 months ago:
Thank you I keep that in mind...
miller32807 wrote 40 months ago:
This is sometimes easier said than done when you are working and HAVE to take a lunch break at a certain time, and aren't allowed to eat later. So I either eat when I get sent to break, or I won't be able to eat until I get off work. Otherwise, very good tips.
rmsrws wrote 40 months ago:
Eating slow and taking smaller bites makes it easier to stretch out meal times. I cut everything up into small bites and I recently discovered chop sticks as a way to help me eat slower. I also eat smaller meals/snacks v.s. eating larger meals. This keeps my ravenous hungry side in check!
hyby wrote 40 months ago:
Accepting that I'm hungry for lunch late in the afternoon, and for supper around nine or ten at night, has gone a long way toward curbing undue snacking.
CALIECAT wrote 40 months ago:
Good tip. We should wait until we feel hungry to eat not just because we always eat at Certain hours Will pay more attention to my tummy.. Old habits are hard to break.
airangel59 wrote 40 months ago:
Great tips....also putting fork down between bites and having water to drink before meals and during the meal helps as well. We are just so conditioned to eat at certain times and for me, eating when bored, so waiting for the gut to cue me in is something I'm learning to do.
Mandypt wrote 40 months ago:
annakow wrote 40 months ago:
It's great to feel hungry. Some people don't let it happen. I was one of them...
auroranflash wrote 40 months ago:
I've been smiling all day but I'm still fat. Help??
jodie_t wrote 40 months ago:
I have to suffer being hungry for about 3 hours a day (I fit it into evenings or it sends me slightly demented) or I don't lose weight at all. Obviously if you are eating less than your body needs, which you have to for weight loss, you are going experience hunger to the point of prolonged discomfort, which you can't do anything about w/out defeating the object?
dangerous_penguin wrote 40 months ago:
If you're feeling prolonged discomfort due to hunger, you're not doing weight loss right. You need to keep your blood sugar stable by being smart about the calories you do eat. Make sure to get some soluble fiber into every meal to maximize digestion time. If you're hungry for hours a day you're working against yourself.
maryrx59 wrote 40 months ago:
A weight watcher leader once described our metabolism as a "fire burning in a fireplace" long as we add logs on a regular schedule, the fire will burn optimally..feed the " fire" on a regular basis...I advocate for snacks between meals, and meals eaten at a pretty set time ( my hunger seems to coincide with these times) We need our metabolism to stay burning don't want to get so hungry, that your" fire" almost peters out...picture what happens in that have to throw on extra logs and stoke it, and fan it to get it to burn again and it takes more time to get that fire to burn again.....don't need to slow our metabolism!

Thanks Elle, for getting us in touch with our physical hunger and watching/listening for our hunger promptings!
Laac68 wrote 40 months ago:
Thank you.
Csymphony wrote 40 months ago:
Eating within 30 minutes of feeling hungry? Hmmm gonna try.
Jeneba wrote 40 months ago:
I just found out that I have been anemic - probably for months! During that time, I sustained several muscle injuries, was depressed, angry, unable to focus AND very very very HUNGRY all the time!!!

Now that I am on the mend, my unendurable appetite has decreased immensely!

Just a heads-up: sometimes that Hunger Signal could be trying to tell you something more than "Please feed me!"

Glad you are "here," Elle! I am looking forward to your posts!!!
prgirl39 wrote 40 months ago:
Great post. Thanks!
emilycarr71404 wrote 40 months ago:
Wow, today is the first time I am experiencing this and your post couldn't have come at a better time. Thank you for the good advice.
darrensurrey wrote 40 months ago:
I ignore my "hunger cues". If I ate every time I'm hungry I'd have to sign up to a site that helps me to count calories...
darrensurrey wrote 40 months ago:
So, I only eat when I've planned to. If I'm hungry outside of those hours, then boo hoo. I'll have to wait.
kenna44cat wrote 40 months ago:
This is excellent advice, Elle. I do panic when I feel hungry and have noticed often if I ignore it then I'm not hungry in about 30 minutes. I think the stomach is a muscle that can shrink, or am I wrong? And we can stretch it, too. That's always what I've thought, so if we feel hungry for a few days then our stomachs should shrink and we should be able to eat less without feeling so hungry. Does that make sense?
darrensurrey wrote 40 months ago:
Yes, kenna, your stomach will shrink if you don't eat so much and will expand if you "overeat" a lot.
nerdyandilikeit wrote 40 months ago:
I wish the 'negative outcomes' description of why it's bad to wait too long to eat wasn't so vague.
reneeisnowhere wrote 40 months ago:
Just wanted to add to Jeneba's comment: The hungry cue, especially when it occurs frequently, could be a sign that something is off in your body. Be sure to take the time (a week or so) and track when you are hungry. This information is valuable to health professionals(drs and nutritionists) when trying to figure out when something is going wrong.
SMarie10 wrote 40 months ago:
Hey Mike, bout time you got yourself a new profile picture... looks like you got a professional pic!
sabified wrote 40 months ago:
Thanks for the article, Elle. Just wanted to say though, you should make your own profile ;) :)
jonkidwell wrote 40 months ago:
Great tip on drinking water. Dehydration can leave us feeling hungry. Thirst does feel like hunger.

Take your weight and divide by 2. That is the number of ounces of water you should drink a day.
evansmt wrote 40 months ago:
Being a diabetic and trying to keep my blood sugar under control. I have not found a happy medium with food. I have been working at this for 22 years. I am on medication that limits my heart rate from going too high, but in order to burn more calories I need to get my heart rate up. The Doc says, "Do the best you can." So being part of MyFitness Pal gives me false hopes because my numbers don't change much and my want for food has deminished. HELP ME PLEASE.
tarotlou wrote 40 months ago:
Bump as a reminder
workout_ninja wrote 40 months ago:
This is a great article. I realised over the weekend that I havent been hungry in weeks, so when I started eating properly, I realised that I do not like feeling hungry! I will remember this article next time my tummy grumbles and embrace the hunger! It means I'm not overeating!
prippy1 wrote 40 months ago:
When I wait to eat until I am hungry then I find food tastes so much better! I also stop eating once I get comfortably full. If I eat due to emotional reasons then I tend to eat all day/night. It's tough to stop.
jan3974 wrote 40 months ago:
thank you for this, I just blogged about my hunger pangs :)
mlcdz wrote 40 months ago:
What terrific advice! Thanks for the healthy perspective and great tips. Very logical and sensible. Knowledge is power - this is very empowering for me. I'll be putting these tips in an accessible place to remind myself of them. Hunger is biology, you wouldn't constantly try to stop yourself from sleeping, using the bathroom or having sex, why constantly starve yourself and work against your biology? Working with it is so much more pleasureable! Thanks again, Elle.
Donnabpie wrote 39 months ago:
Eating sugar kept me feeling hunger. I stopped eating sugar and began eating a balanced diet and don't feel hunger all the time. The drinking water is a great idea.
Anonymous wrote 6 months ago:
Great tip!As important is to STOP eating when you are no longer hungry-- as opposed to full 👍🏼

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