It should be simple to tell whether you’re hungry, but that often just isn’t the case. So many things can masquerade as hunger and have you reaching for a snack before you realize you don’t physically need one. “Many people struggle with ‘head hunger’—confusing wanting to eat with needing to eat,” says Michelle May, M.D., founder of Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs and author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. “We use food to entertain, distract, comfort, and calm us.”
Eating when you’re physically hungry—as opposed to for any other reason—is beneficial in various ways, says May. You’ll consume less food because, rather than eating until the food is gone, your physical satiation cues will tell you when to stop. Since you’re not turning to food when you’re stressed or bored, you’re more likely to go for options that are actually good for you. It’ll taste better (“hunger really is the best seasoning!” says May), and you’ll feel more satisfied. Best of all, by paying attention to whether you’re physically hungry, you can tackle any other urge to eat in a more effective way than with a binge. Here’s how you can determine whether you’re actually hungry or just fooling yourself.
“Mindful eating is eating with intention and attention,” says May. Rather than eating distractedly, do so with the intention to fuel your body with care and with enough attention to recognize how foods affect your body. “Mindfulness helps you reconnect with your instinctive signals of hunger and fullness so you can manage your eating naturally without restrictive dieting or obsessing over every bite of food you put in your mouth,” says May.
Ask Yourself This Question
When you’re feeling the urge to eat, pause for a bit and ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” It’s not about deciding if you’re allowed to eat but getting to the bottom of why you want to. “You don’t pull into every gas station you see,” says May. “You check your fuel gauge first.” So how do you know the answer to this all-important question? “Do a brief body-mind-heart scan, and look for physical symptoms of hunger,” says May. Specifically, watch out for: hunger pangs; growling or grumbling; gnawing; an empty, hollow, or slightly queasy feeling; weakness or loss of energy; trouble concentrating; difficulty making decisions; light-headedness; a slight headache; shakiness; and irritability or crankiness. “Hunger is physical,” says May. “It’s not a thought, a craving, or a rationalization.” Running through this checklist will really clue you in to whether the physical evidence for your hunger is there.
Identify Your Triggers
We live in a food-obsessed world, so sneaky faux-hunger triggers are abundant. “We’ve learned to associate various situations with eating,” says May. She cites a few common examples: seeing food or other people eating it, mealtimes, even certain people or places, and activities like watching a sports game, movie, or TV show. Then there’s the emotional factor. “You might comfort or reward yourself for a stressful day with a couple of bowls of ice cream,” says May. The thing is, as she says, “when a craving doesn’t come from hunger, eating doesn’t satisfy it.” Think about times you’re inclined to eat even when you can honestly answer the “Am I hungry?” question with a solid “no.” It’s not about avoiding those situations altogether but acknowledging what’s likely to make you overeat and using a few tricks to reel yourself in.