Next time you're thinking about eating, pause and use this guide to figure out if you're actually hungry.
Hunger only drives about three-quarters of the food choices we make. Habit, mood, stress levels and whether we're socializing influence the rest, says Ellen Albertson, Ph.D., R.D., a psychologist and founder of smashyourscale.com
. While the occasional, "I'm not hungry, but I'd love dessert" rationalization is OK (and expected), understanding hunger cues keeps mindless eating in check. In fact, the ability to recognize real hunger is one of the biggest hallmarks of naturally slender people (those who remain at a healthy weight without dieting), says 2015 research from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Here is a hunger scale to help you figure out if you're actually hungry the next time you're thinking about eating.
Starving & Ravenous?
At this point, you likely have a headache or feel shaky and light-headed. Try to avoid this heightened hunger. "When you put off eating until you're famished, you're more likely to eat anything and everything you can get your hands on—and do so quickly—which primes you to overeat," says Michelle May, M.D., founder of Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs. "But you don't need more food than usual," May says. To avoid overeating, take a few bites of something that takes the edge off, then pause. "This gives you time to think about what—and how much—to eat. And you avoid quickly going from starving to stuffed."
Right now, the physical symptoms of hunger, like hunger pangs, growling or a hollow feeling in your gut are in full effect. Your concentration and mood might also be going south. This is the ideal time to eat. "You're less likely to overeat and food tastes better when you're at this level of hunger [than if you're ravenous]," says May. "If your urge to eat came out of nowhere, it may simply be a craving. True hunger tends to come on gradually, whereas a craving hits suddenly." Also: If you're not sure if you're really hungry, wait a little while. Hunger won't go away until you eat.
When you're kind of hungry, the muscular walls of your stomach start to contract, perhaps causing a rumble. No need to run to the closest buffet: it's simply a sign that you should start planning to eat soon-ish. Before you eat, drink some water. "People often confuse hunger with dehydration, so have a large glass of water, wait 15 minutes, then see if you are truly hungry," says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Slim by Design.
"But there are times when you'll want to eat now, like when you want to have dinner with the family," says May. "Just keep in mind that if you're only a little bit hungry, you need only a little bit of food."
Not hungry or full?
If you're comfortable and content, why are you reaching for food? Do a quick self check-in. Are you mindlessly following a script—for example, eating lunch at noon because that's when you usually do? "People who follow scripts are less likely to tune into internal hunger cues," says Wansink. If that's the case, recognize that you want to eat, but you're not hungry. "Don't say 'I can't have it.' Instead, acknowledge that you're not actually hungry." Wansink likes to say "I'm not hungry, but I'm going to eat this anyway" out loud. "You may get some looks. I have! But it forces you to think twice and that may be enough for you to pass it by."
You can feel the food in your stomach—but it's not like a balloon ready to burst. This is the best time to stop eating. To tune into your internal stop-eating cues, pause periodically throughout your meal to check your fullness. "Put your fork down, drink some water and really feel your stomach," says May. "If you comfortably sense the food in your belly, stop. You can always eat more, later, if you need to." (To help you avoid overeating, use smaller plates so even if you're a clean-plate-club-style eater, your portions will naturally be smaller.)
Are you super-focused on how uncomfortable your belly is right now, and how stretched it feels? Feeling sluggish? Sorry to say, you ate too much. Move away from the table! If you regularly overshoot and eat to this overfull state, try to slow down, chew your food thoroughly and put your fork down between bites, says May. Serve yourself smaller portions and do it from the stove—not family-style. Getting up for helping number two forces you to tune into your fullness.
Watch: Secrets to Staying Satisfied While Losing Weight