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The Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale

The intuitive eating hunger scale is a great tool to use when learning intuitive eating, repairing a relationship with food, or learning to honor your body signals again.

This post will explain how to use the hunger scale for intuitive eating.

snack plate with fruits, veggies, chips

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If you haven’t read the intuitive eating book, I always recommend to start there. That is the basis of many of the non-diet principles that we discuss on this blog, as well as the 10 principles of intuitive eating.

Before we can dig into the hunger and fullness scale, we need to understand what hunger and fullness cues look like. And here’s the beauty and challenge of this – they are so individualized and may be different for different people.

Read that again – there’s no black and white here.

Part of intuitive eating is recognizing that there is room for flexibility in intuitive eating and how to become an intuitive eater is not a destination, but a journey.

Consider this an intuitive eating guide for getting started.

Honoring Hunger

Therefore, this list is not exhaustive but may give you some signals as to signs that may be hunger. Part of intuitive eating is learning to honor your hunger, rather than ignore or control it, so being aware of hunger signals is so important.

What is hunger, anyway? How to describe hunger? According to the dictionary, hunger is:

  • a craving or urgent need for food or a specific nutrient
  • an uneasy sensation occasioned by the lack of food
  • a weakened condition brought about by prolonged lack of food

If you want more information, check out my hunger ebook on hunger and intuitive eating.

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Hunger Cues

Now that we know what hunger is, let’s dig deeper into hunger cues since that’s the basis for the intuitive eating hunger scale.

Most of what I’m talking about here is related to adult hunger and fullness cues.

To learn more about child hunger cues and intuitive eating, check out this post on intuitive eating for kids that focuses more on the division of responsibility in child feeding.

As adults, we typically relate hunger to a growling stomach and the physical sensation to eat, but hunger, or the desire or need to eat, is so much more. Actually, hunger can start in the brain with some mental symptoms as well.

Here are a variety of hunger signals.

  • growling stomach or feeling of emptiness
  • pit in stomach
  • thinking about food
  • low energy and fatigue
  • lightheaded or dizzy
  • inability to concentrate and easily distracted
  • headaches
  • cranky or irritable mood

Many people who state they have no hunger signals usually aren’t in tune with some of these other, more subtle, signs of hunger. And a history of restriction does blunt our hunger signals, as our bodies adjust to ignoring them for so long.

However, the good news is that it’s possible for them to come back with some practice of the principle, honor your hunger.

Even considering different disease states or injuries can affect hunger and needs, too.

avocado and peanut butter toast with eggs on white plate for breakfast

Different Types of Hunger

There are several different types of hunger. So, thinking about the hunger cues above, you can then figure out what type of hunger you may be experiencing.

  • Primal Hunger (Biological Hunger) – Primal hunger is just like it sounds, and it’s usually the physical hunger sensation we feel. It’s a strong desire to eat that comes with survival. We are primed to eat foods to survive and if we get to the point where we feel primal hunger, we’ll do just about anything to quench that need. Think of hunters and gatherers, killing animals to eat. We have biochemical triggers that drive our desire to eat in order to survive.
  • Taste Hunger – You may not feel physically hungry, but you’re curious about what something tastes like, or the smell of cookies fresh out of the oven has you salivating. 
  • Practical Hunger – You may not feel hungry but it’s practical for you to eat right now. An example would be you’re about to head into a 3-hour work meeting where you may not have access to your snack, and waiting until after then to eat would put you in “extreme and uncomfortable hunger” (a 1 or 2 on the hunger scale), which is not ideal. 
  • Emotional Hunger – Another example where you may not feel physical hunger, but there are some emotions that you are sorting through, and food is a “comforting” choice. There’s nothing wrong with this occasionally. If/when food becomes our only choice, it’s time to designate other coping mechanisms.

Many people may confuse hunger cues vs. tired cues as well and this is another thing to keep in mind and check in with yourself about. 

Another great example of practical hunger is when you are not hungry after exercise.

woman in yellow tank top looking into open refrigerator to decide what to eat

Causes of Hunger

While it seems silly to have to break down the causes of hunger, it can be helpful for people to think about what makes them hungry.

This is geared more for those who have lost touch with eating and hunger cues, and are out of touch with their body, and looking to understand some of the reasons why they may be hungry.

Here are some (of many) causes of hunger:

  • prolonged time without eating – it’s normal to be hungry every 2-4 hours
  • eating small portions, or less than your body needed at your last eating occasion
  • not eating enough protein (more about protein for endurance athletes here)
  • excessive energy expenditure or workouts – more time expending energy leads to a stronger urge for food
  • smelling something in the oven – this is more like taste hunger, described above
  • emotions – extreme highs and low with emotions can lead to the desire to eat certain foods
  • medications – certain medications may increase appetite

This leads us nicely into using the hunger fullness scale in intuitive eating.

Fear of Hunger

For those with a fear of hunger, I encourage you to dig down and think about where that fear of hunger came from? Feeling any sort of anxiety when hungry usually stems from restriction or disordered eating of some sort.

Hunger is a biological sign and need from our bodies.

If you constantly fear hunger, I recommend talking with a therapist and/or dietitian about those fears, where they stemmed from, and how you can overcome them with different types of food exposures.

These intuitive eating resources are a great guide for finding more support.

Cheese burgers with fries at a vineyard

How To Use The Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale

The hunger fullness scale in intuitive eating is a way to quantify, or gauge, your hunger and fullness levels during a meal or experience.

It can help you eat mindfully and be present for your meals, while having some sort of scale, or measure, to check in with.

There’s no pass/fail or right/wrong with the hunger scale, and it will vary person to person, and even within a person, day by day. It is a subjective scale, rather than objective.

Here are some key points with the hunger fullness scale.

  • Know what the extremes are and what they feel like. You likely won’t feel good if you’re a 1 or a 2 on the hunger scale, aka very hungry, cranky and likely unable to concentrate. If you wait until you feel like this to eat, it will likely be a chaotic eating experience. You may eat quickly and overeat.
  • On that note, you’re not “bad” for overeating. If you eat until you’re an 8, 9, 10 or feel overly full or sick, you didn’t “mess up.” Again, we want to look at these experiences through a lens of curiousity and see how we can learn from this experience next time.
  • Learn what a comfortable fullness level is for you. A level that is physically filling, but also emotionally satisfying.
  • To know what these numbers feel like from you, you have to have felt them before. So it’s not “bad” if you experience them, you want to have a baseline. However, we want to learn form those experiences and implement eating occasions or self-care eating instances that can prevent these extremes.
  • The goal is to feel full and satisfied after eating. Here is some more information about how to feel satisfied after eating.

I have a few different hunger fullness scale pdf examples you can use to download or have a reference. Click here for my hunger scale for athletes.

Here is a simple one focused on recognizing if you fall into feeling extreme hunger, moderate hunger, moderate fullness or overt fullness.

Hunger scale from 1-10 PDF

I also work with several athletes on identifying hunger cues and using that knowledge in and around workouts to improve performance and recovery.

I use the practical hunger example a lot with athletes.

For example, it’s common to not feel physically hungry after a long or physically intensive and exhausting workout. This is because core temperature is elevated, stress hormones are high, and you may feel dehydrated. You may also be suffering from an upset stomach after a long run.

However, this is not an instance where you want to “listen to your body” because you now your physical hunger is blunted for physiological reasons. You still need fuel to aid in your body’s recovery process.

Focusing on preparing healthy athlete snacks, liquids, and bland foods is helpful in these occasions. Even having some meal prep breakfasts for athletes can be helpful for after a workout.

What About the Hunger Fullness Diet?

One thing you have to be weary of when following the hunger fullness scale is turning it into a diet. Since most of us come from a past of diet culture and have suffered from diet culture myths, we like to have rules to follow and it’s easy to think of intuitive eating as just another diet.

However, that is the exact opposite of what intuitive eating stands for, and it is far from the hunger fullness diet. We don’t want to have intuitive eating rules that dictate us.

Instead, the 10 principles are meant to guide us in making choices that honor our nutrition needs and overall body needs, and enjoying food.

As mentioned, these are general guidelines that will be individual for person to person, in helping to identify hunger cues so you can nourish your body.

Turning intuitive eating into a diet will backfire in many ways.

  • Never eating if you don’t feel hunger (what about if you’re celebrating your daughter’s birthday party and she wants to have cake with you? What about when hunger is blunted from stress?)
  • Eating until you get to the “perfect” fullness every time – the ideal fullness for you may depend on the situation, the last time you ate, the social environment and more.
  • Not eating until you’re a set number on the hunger scale

STRUGGLING WITH YOUR HUNGER AND FULLNESS?

Grab Our Intuitive Eating Guide to Help You Achieve Food Freedom!


Your guide to food freedom ebook

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