hungry back-lit sign on a wall

Trying to lose weight is one thing I have constantly struggled with, in my life. I’ve often blamed my inability to listen to hunger cues. There are days when I come back from work ravenously hungry and eat just about anything that comes in my way. Once my stomach stops growling, the guilt of mindless eating takes over. I feel terrible about having eaten a ton of calories and still not being full, knowing that I have wasted one more perfectly good day to lose weight. There are days I avoid this situation with either a strong willpower or a healthy snack, but it happens, more often than I would want! 

So, I decided to learn more about how to listen to my hunger and fullness cues to lose weight. I will be honest, it’s slow but one of the healthiest ways to lose weight.

It’s slow because our ability to listen to these cues is messed up, thanks to all these fad/extreme diets. Our body gives us signs of when it needs energy (so we feel hungry) and helps us understand when we are full (so we can stop eating). And if we stay mindful and pay careful attention to these cues, we can bring them back. And it’s not too complicated. 

These simple 5 steps should do the trick:

  • Don’t starve yourself. Eat before you get super hungry
  • Avoid overeating at all cost and practice portion control, even if it is your most favourite dish in the world
  • Chose healthy and wholesome food over packaged options
  • Allow yourself calculated cheats
  • Make the 4 points mentioned above your lifestyle

If you just want tactics, I say, take the above points and roll with it. But if you’re here to really understand everything about hunger cues and how to listen and control them, then read on…

Is hunger a mental thing?

No! Hunger is not just a mental thing. There are hormones in our body which regulate the hunger and fullness cues. The ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin is released in the stomach and signals hunger to the brain by increasing appetite and the ‘fullness hormones’ leptin acts as an appetite suppressor. If you are interested in knowing more about this hormonal mechanism, checkout this short, super easy to understand and informative video by TedX.

What are the different types of hunger and their cues?

If we want to honour the hunger cues our body is giving us, we first need to understand and recognise the different types of hunger and learn to read these signs. Borrowing from the philosophy of intuitive eating, we can break hunger into 4 types.

Physical Hunger

This type of hunger is when your body is lacking energy and needs to fuel up to get the required nutrients.

Cues & My perspective
The signs for this type of hunger could be low energy, fatigue, a growling stomach, poor attention, headache or dizziness and vary among people. It is important to recognise these signs early on so that we can respond immediately.

Taste Hunger

This type of hunger is when you are craving a particular kind of food. This could be the sudden desire to eat Thai food, or to have a dessert after a meal.

Cues & My perspective
It can be triggered by any of our senses – sight, taste and smell. This could be when you look at a billboard of a juicy burger, or the smell of freshly baked cake or bread or the crunchy sound of chips. It’s important to know that this hunger can exist with or without physical hunger. This can definitely be avoided, but if you’re like me, then constantly depriving yourself of things you like can seriously affect your mood.

Emotional Hunger

A way to tell emotional hunger is when it comes along with a very strong emotion such as sadness, anxiety or excitement. This has been my biggest pet peeve as the satisfaction is short-lived, but the guilt is not.

Cues & My perspective
This occurs when you eat food as a way to comfort yourselves, or to deal with a particular emotion and is popularly known as ‘emotional eating’.

a girl unable to listen to hunger cues is eating a full pizza on her own

Practical Hunger

Also referred to as learned hunger, this last type of hunger isn’t really hunger but more of routine or convenience to avoid getting too hungry later.

Cues & My perspective 
This is when you see 1pm on the clock and suddenly you are hungry or having a meal before getting into a long meeting or traveling. You can easily make this hunger work in your favour by setting a healthy eating schedule. 

Each type of hunger mentioned above is real. It is up to you to differentiate and honour them or exercise self-control. Years of this battle has taught me a lot about the types of hunger and how to tackle them.

Dealing with hunger using Portion Control

hunger fullness scale from 0 to 10 hunger ratings

The hunger we feel is as real as the air we breathe. Thus, the key to losing weight is not ignoring it but dealing with it using the concept of portion control. An easy way to do this is by using the hunger fullness scale. This is a simple concept you need to implement in your everyday eating. This scale ranges from 1-10, with 1 being painfully hungry/starving and 10 being super full / stuffed.

Ideally, you should start eating a meal when you are at the hunger level of 3 or 4 and eat till you reach a fullness level of 6 or 7. This ensures you aren’t crazily hungry when you start eating and will be able to access your level of satiety as you eat.

I also believe that portion control is not about counting every gram you ate or constantly tracking macros. It is about ensuring you don’t overeat and following this religiously, every day!

How to practice Portion Control with the Hunger Fullness Scale?

Think of the hunger fullness scale as a guideline and not a tool. As mentioned earlier, started eating between levels 3 or 4 and stop eating by level 6 or 7 on the scale. If you have gone for dinner to your favourite restaurant or your mother has made her famous dessert, it is ok to eat till a level of 8. If you just want to have a light snack or don’t feel too good in the stomach, it is absolutely fine if you eat till a level of 5 or 6. There is no definitive right or wrong and don’t let this be a reason for stress. Also, the more you use it, the more comfortable you will get. And this will make it easy for you to stop eating at the most appropriate point. 

What are the ways to get hunger cues back?

To get in touch with your body signals of hunger, you can try the following:

1. Keep a food journal

This is not just to write what you eat, but to log in what you feel before and after you have a meal. With this you will be able to consciously mark what your body feels like. And it will make it easy for you to recognise this sensation in the future.

2. Stop tracking your macros

Another thing that can help is to not be obsessed with the daily tracking of calories and macros. When your brain is actively thinking macros, it ignores what the body is saying because you have a target to reach. This doesn’t mean that you eat just about anything in the name of getting your hunger cues back. In fact, it’s best to follow a holistic approach to nutrition. And if you are very particular about tracking and measuring, do that on a weekly basis.

3. Actively use the hunger fullness scale

Hunger is not a very well-defined feeling. Sometimes, I personally go from ‘I am ok’ to ‘I am super hunger and need food now!’ in a matter of 15-20 mins. The hunger fullness scale can come in very handy here as it defines the different levels of hunger and fullness, pinpointing exactly how you are feeling at a particular time.

How to keep your hunger in check: Actionable tips to promote weight loss

food optoins to eat between healthy apple and tasty chocolate

1. Never reach the ‘starving’ point 

Avoid starting a meal when you are at a hunger level of 1 or 2. It will make it very difficult for you to be rational about your hunger and you won’t be able to stop till you have overeaten. Plan your meals in advance and if you are starting to cook while you are already peckish, have a small snack like a handful of nuts or fresh salad like cucumbers or carrots.

2. Eat for 20 mins

Eating too fast is something our parents warned us about. Chewing helps break down the food and release saliva which contains the digestive enzyme. In addition to this, 20 mins is the amount of time your stomach takes to signal fullness to the brain, so sit down, chew your food and have it across a span of 20 mins.

3. Declare when you are done

The ideal meal is when your stomach is 3/4th full. So, once you notice you are full, say it out loud. This helps the body register the message and will stop you from taking the next serving.

4. Eat small meals every 2 hours

This not only helps increase the metabolism but also stops you from overeating at any of the meals as you won’t get very hungry. The point here is to ensure that you are eating the right amount in each of the meals.

5. Have food with low energy density

With numerous small meals in the day, you need to ensure that you are having the correct portion size and calories. You can’t be having a 500-calorie meal 6 – 7 times a day. So, select items that have lower energy density. These will make you feel fuller while consuming lesser calories.

6. Include fibre-rich food in your diet

Fibre-rich food can help fill the stomach and lower the rate of emptying it. It is observed that eating 14g extra fibre everyday can help reduce calorie intake by 10%, which would result in considerable weight loss over time.

7. Have a well-balanced diet

Make sure to include proteins and complex carbs in your diet. Carbs are often seen as the enemy, but our brains need them to function and thus become a vital part of our diet. Proteins take longer to digest so they make you feel fuller between meals. Also, a high protein intake is critical while working out to avoid the loss of muscles.

8. Hydrate yourself between meals

The benefits of water will need a dedicated blogpost, but here is a fact that will make you have more water. Studies have shown that people drinking at least 2 glasses of water before a meal eat 22% lesser, helping them lose weight faster.

Hydrating can get easier with zero-calorie drinks like green teas and flavoure infused waters.

9. Don’t have empty calories

These are all your sugar drinks and mocktails. Avoid these at all cost as they don’t fill you up and all you take in your body is empty calories without any nutrients. Should you go out drinking with friends, don’t use a mixer and try drinking spirits with just water or ice.

10. Have a healthy snack handy

We all have a time of day when the hunger takes over everything. It would be the afternoon tea break or late evening when you have just reached home from work. Keep a healthy snack handy for these situations to avoiding binging on junk food.

11. Avoid packaged food

Avoid packaged / processed food as they are loaded with fat and sugar. They often tend to cause more craving then curbing the hunger by overpowering the fullness cues. Don’t be mislead by the deceiving labels of ‘no-added sugar / oil’.

12. Have a food log

I don’t believe in tracking daily macros, because it is unrealistic and too tedious. But I do think it is important to track them over a period of days. I personally do it weekly. So sure, keeping a food log will help you do this. But what works for me is that this habit makes me think twice before mindlessly eating something. May that we an extra piece of bread or a samosa. I am always careful of what goes in my mouth as I know I will need to document it!

13. Ask yourself if it is really worth it

If you find yourself at a party where you can’t stop eating the fried finger food, ask yourself if the taste is really worth it. If it’s delicious then sure go ahead and have a couple of pieces but don’t eat just because you don’t have anything else to do or because it is kept in front of you.

14. Depend on a friend for recommendations

Here, you are asking the same question, ‘is it really worth it’, but to a person you trust and who knows your goals. They can tell you if the chocolate cake at work or the burger at the weekend brunch is worth cheating for.

Hope these tips are helpful for you. 

To understand your fullness/satiety cues, check out this article.

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