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Healthy Eating: Recognizing Your Hunger Signals


Do you remember the time when you were famished and kept eating until oops, you ended up feeling uncomfortably full?

One reason that many of us are not at a healthy weight level is because, somewhere along the line, we stopped listening to our body signals that naturally tell us when we’re hungry and when we’re full. Learning to recognize those signals again can help you get to a healthy weight and stay there.

The signals are still there, but we’re out of practice when it comes to paying attention to them. As babies we ate intuitively – we fussed when we were hungry and stopped eating when we were full. As we grow up, the world “teaches” us when to eat – advertising, imposed meal times, holiday meals and grandma’s comfort foods. We confuse cravings with hunger and end up overeating.

The hypothalamus is a portion of the brain that is responsible for controlling feelings of hunger, appetite and satisfaction one feels after eating a meal. Did you know that it takes 20 minutes for the hypothalamus to send signals that you are full? This explains why we keep eating and then 20 minutes later feel uncomfortably full.  The objective is to reset your hypothalamus and control it by eating more slowly. This is indeed the painless way to your journey to weight loss this New Year.

Do you know how to distinguish between real hunger and cravings? Hunger is a painful sensation caused by the need for food. There is a signal from the brain and stomach that food is needed for energy. Signals from your stomach may be growling, an empty hollow feeling and/or hunger pangs. Your brain may send signals such as headache, trouble concentrating, irritability or fogginess. Hunger does not go away over time– it only gets worse.

Unlike hunger, craving signals do not serve a life-sustaining need. They often last over a period of 10 minutes and are usually triggered by emotions such as stress, boredom, sadness etc. With hunger any food will quell the sensation; only one specific food like chocolate will satisfy the craving.

In my practice in Alamo, CA, I teach my clients to distinguish their hunger from craving where they keep a journal to track their hunger and satiety before and after eating. Interestingly it initially sometimes takes them a day or two or more to feel real hunger.  In the past they were eating all their meals before they received hunger signals.  They soon learn that food truly tastes better when you are hungry. I often work with a hunger scale (see below) and have my clients keep track of how they are feeling before and after they eat. I tell them that it is best to eat when their hunger level is at a 3 or 4, and not to wait until they are at a 1-2 and feeling very, very hungry. They will then most likely overeat and choose unhealthy foods.  The 3-4 level allows them to make conscious decisions to eat the right amount of healthy and tasty foods.

Next time you have a meal make it a point to pace yourself. Take a bite of food, lay your fork down, take a drink of water and partake in conversation. Continue this practice throughout the meal and check in with your body. This method will help you to slow down and get to the feeling of satisfaction and away from that ugly fullness.

Hunger Level Sensations and Symptoms
1 Starving, weak, dizzy
2 Very hungry, cranky, low energy, a lot of stomach growling
3 Pretty hungry, stomach is growling a little
4 Starting to feel a little hungry
5 Satisfied, neither hungry nor full
6 A little full, pleasantly full
7 A little uncomfortable
8 Feeling stuffed
9 Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts
10 So full you feel sick

I always stress in my practice that food is a celebration of life. You still can lose weight if your food is tasty even when it has some fat. Cravings, which are often fat, sugar and salt, are normal and can have a place in a healthy balanced diet.    I teach my clients even when I am counseling them from Sacramento CA, San Jose CA or even San Rafael CA on how to enjoy the treats and then bring the day back into balance. When they are succeeding they know that they do not have to feel guilty.

Weight loss to me is a program that teaches you how to lose weight and keep it off forever while still eating your favorite foods.

I am glad to inform you that your health insurance may pay for nutritional counseling. Please feel free to call me at (925) 855-0150 or e-mail me at and tell me about your nutritional concerns. Refer to the blog section for past articles, recipes and nutrition tips in my blog section.