When you eat today, will it be out of hunger? Or will you reach for food simply out of habit, stress, boredom, fatigue, feeling down or because there just happens to be something tempting within sight?
The ability to recognize true hunger--and to know when you're eating for other reasons--is an important step toward achieving a healthy weight.
With food plentiful, cheap and accessible 24/7, it's easy to overlook eating for hunger's sake and drift into nonstop, mindless consumption. "A lot of us simply aren't paying attention," says Barbara Rolls, professor of nutrition and biobehavior at Pennsylvania State University. "And some of us simply ignore the signals" of feeling full, she says.
Getting back in touch with hunger--and with its opposite, satiety--is a smart strategy to help hold the line in the waistline wars. "It's a really good thing to ask yourself, 'Why am I eating now?'" says Mark Friedman, associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
So what is hunger? Technically, "there is no independent measurement for metabolic hunger," Friedman says. "Even measuring blood sugar won't tell you that."
But when Friedman studied healthy people who reported being hungry, he found some common patterns. Leading indicators of hunger were stomach growling and an achy stomach emptiness. Next most commonly reported were headaches, dizziness, weakness, fatigue and loss of concentration.
So how do you know if that growling in your stomach is the real thing? Here are some strategies that Rolls and her colleagues have found helpful in reconnecting to the feelings of hunger and satiety.
* Set a schedule for eating. No, you don't have to stick with it forever. But by eating three regular meals, spaced at least three to four hours apart for about 10 days, you'll start to find your particular pattern of hunger and satiety. "Pay attention to how you feel before and after the meal," Rolls advises. Note in a "hunger journal" when you feel hungry again after a meal. See what patterns of hunger and satiety you can detect.
* Feeling a little hungry is a good thing. It signals that it may be time for a meal or a healthful snack. Hunger should rise slightly before eating and ought to decline after you've consumed a meal. If you don't feel hungry at a mealtime, maybe it's not time to eat yet. The trick is to space out eating so that you don't eat too soon or feel too ravenous when you do eat.
* Rate your hunger. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "barely hungry" and 10 being ready to eat anything in sight, where does your hunger rank? Check before eating and pause throughout the meal to take your hunger pulse.
* Eat without distractions. If you're munching on chips while driving, eating lunch at your desk or chowing down in front of the TV, you're probably not tuning in to signals of fullness. Try eating for a week without doing anything but consuming food at meals.