How do you decide when to eat and when you should stop eating?
The intuitive eating hunger scale teaches people to reconnect to their innate hunger and fullness cues instead of relying on external factors – like diet plans – about what, when, and how much to eat.
Maybe you’ve heard of the hunger fullness scale but don’t know exactly what it means or how it’s supposed to help you.
Or maybe you already know that you want to give this hunger fullness scale thing a try, but have no idea how to actually implement it in your life.
This comprehensive guide will teach you what exactly the intuitive eating hunger scale is, what the benefits are of using it, and all of the details you need to start using it.
Let’s dive in!
What Is the Hunger Fullness Scale?
The hunger fullness scale is a tool for giving a numerical rating to your hunger and fullness levels. It goes from one on the extreme hunger end to ten on the extreme fullness end. Five is considered neutral – neither hungry nor full.
Why Should You Use It?
There’s more than one reason to use the intuitive eating hunger scale.
Reconnect With Your Body.
If you ever spend time with a baby, you’ll notice that they are totally in touch with their hunger and fullness cues. Hungry? Cry and fuss until you’re fed. Had enough? That baby will close her mouth and turn her head away, refusing to eat another bite.
Once upon a time, you were just like that baby. If you’re like most people, however, you’ve learned over the years to ignore your hunger and fullness cues. You may use tricks like chewing sugar-free gum to try to suppress those hunger signals because you’re desperate to lose weight.
Diet culture tells you that you can’t trust your own body to tell you how much or when you really need to eat, so instead, you eat according to a strict regimen: only the foods from the approved list, in the right macro combination, at the specified times (never past 6 PM!) and in carefully measured out amounts.
Of course, you always “fall off the wagon” and end up overeating later, ignoring those fullness signals that your body is sending you. Sometimes you even eat until you’re physically ill. Overcome by guilt and shame, you vow that it’ll never happen again … until it does.
The intuitive eating hunger scale is a tool for reconnecting to your body’s hunger and fullness cues so you can break free of this dieting cycle that does you more harm than good.
Learn to Respond Appropriately to Your Body’s Cues.
The hunger fullness scale isn’t only about learning to identify what your body is trying to tell you. While initially, you may have trouble allowing yourself to eat when hungry and respecting yourself to stop when full, in the long run, that’s exactly what you’ll hopefully be doing.
The hunger fullness scale is intended to cue you to action: eat if you’re hungry and stop if you’re full – at least most of the time! More on when it’s okay to ignore your hunger and fullness signals later!
By using the hunger fullness scale to learn when and how much you should be eating, you’ll feel better all around.
Physically, you’ll be optimizing your body’s energy levels, so you won’t be weak with hunger or sluggish after overeating.
Mentally, it will be easier to focus on things aside from just the food your famished body is desperate for.
Your confidence in yourself will only go up once you finally trust your body and respond to your needs appropriately.
Using the intuitive eating hunger scale consistently is a sure bet for revealing patterns. In turn, you can take the information you’ve gathered from those patterns to develop better self-care practices.
For example, it’s possible that you’ll notice that every time you wait until you’re at a 1 or a 2 to eat, you end up scarfing down food so fast that you don’t notice how full you are until it’s too late and you’re nauseated.
You also might discover that certain go-to meals you have result in you feeling hungry again sooner than you’d like. Use this information to figure out how to bulk up those meals so you stay satisfied for longer.
Hunger and Fullness Cues
One of the many unfortunate side effects of diet culture is losing the ability to recognize your hunger and fullness cues. Many clients tell me that they can’t recognize these cues at all, or else only realize they feel hungry or full once they’ve reached one of the extreme ends of the spectrum.
Consistently using the hunger fullness scale over time will help you reconnect with these cues. In the meantime, here is a list of sensations you may experience that can cue you into hunger and fullness. Bear in mind that these are only signs of physical hunger and fullness – not emotional.
Signs of Hunger
- Rumbling, gurgling, or growling stomach
- Empty, gnawing feeling in stomach and/or throat
- Lightheadedness, dizziness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Tired, lethargic
- Irritable, cranky
- Obsessive thoughts about food
Signs of Fullness
- Stomach feels full, possibly like a pressure in the stomach
- Feelings of emptiness and gnawing in the stomach disappear
- Able to concentrate on matters other than food
- Mood may lighten
- Increased energy
- Drowsiness and decreased energy levels are also possible
- Stomach may feel distended or bloated
Be aware that your hunger and fullness cues may not exactly match the ones listed above. This list is just a jumping-off point to help you get started in becoming more sensitive to the signals your body is giving you.
Exactly How to Use the Hunger Fullness Scale
Now that you’ve learned common signs of hunger and fullness and what exactly the hunger fullness scale is, how do you put this information to use?
Putting It Into Action
If you really struggle with recognizing your hunger at all, you may want to check in with how you’re feeling every two or three hours at first.
Otherwise, I recommend starting out by choosing just one meal a day to use the hunger fullness scale. Over the next few weeks, you can gradually increase to using this intuitive eating tool at other meals throughout the day as well.
There are three specific moments at mealtimes when you’ll want to practice using the hunger fullness scale: right before eating, halfway through your meal, and after finishing.
During each of these three moments, rate your hunger level on the 0 to 10 scale. Bear in mind that there’s no right or wrong answer here! Your feelings are completely subjective and personal to you.
You may want to keep a journal about your experiences using the hunger fullness scale. A journal is a great way to reflect on the process and discover patterns.
What you can include in your journal:
- Include your hunger fullness scale rating before, in the middle, and right after your meal
- What time you ate
- How long it took you to eat
- How you’re feeling emotionally
- Details on your eating environment/setting such as eating alone versus with family; eating while watching Netflix; eating while studying, etc.
Remember, this is completely judgment-free journaling! The purpose of the journal is to help you connect with yourself and discover trends such as how often it feels best for you to eat.
When to Start and Stop Eating
People like to know when exactly they should start and stop eating according to the intuitive eating hunger scale.
Many people feel best when they eat at around a 3 to 4 on the hunger scale and stop at about a 6 or 7. That being said, this is NOT a rule and eating/stopping at different numbers doesn’t mean you’ve “messed up.”
Each time you use this tool, you’re simply learning more about yourself and what works for you!
When to Use It and When to Ignore It
Most of the time, it will make sense for you to use the hunger fullness scale to guide you in when you should eat and when you’ve had enough. But, there are some exceptions to keep in mind!
Sometimes we need to use logic and ignore the intuitive eating hunger scale. Let’s say you have an extremely busy day and only a short time free for lunch. Lunchtime comes and you’re just not feeling hungry. In fact, you’d rate your hunger level as neutral.
You know if you don’t eat now, you won’t have another chance for five more hours, by which point you’re certain to be starving. What should you do?
In this scenario, it makes perfect sense to eat at least a little something despite not feeling hungry. Otherwise, your afternoon is going to shape up to be pretty miserable. Instead of being your best self and conquering the day, you’ll be sluggish, cranky, and in a complete brain fog.
Eat now to save yourself a headache later …. Literally.
You’re meeting your best friends for dinner at that hot new restaurant in less than two hours. Your stomach is telling you that you’re hungry for a full meal right this second, but if you whip up some spaghetti bolognese now, there’s no way you’ll feel like eating later.
What to do?
According to the hunger fullness scale, you should eat that meal. Applying some common sense here, stave off that ravenous wolf in your stomach with a snack that’ll tide you over until you’re tucked into that restaurant booth with your BFFs.
Bottom line – the intuitive eating hunger scale is an amazing tool, but it’s not a make-or-break rule dictating exactly when you’re “allowed” to eat. You’ve got to use some common sense and foresight too. If your schedule is going to be a logistical nightmare for the next five hours straight, do yourself a favor and eat now – even if you’re not as hungry as you’d like to be.
What to Do If It’s Too Hard For You
Some people feel a little icky when it comes to using the hunger fullness scale. Whether you can’t exactly pinpoint why or you know EXACTLY why it doesn’t feel right for you, see if the possible reasons listed below resonate with you. Then, read on to find out what you should do instead.
Feels Too Diet-y
You’re so over dieting and this hunger fullness scale business feels suspiciously like a diet to you. It comes across to you as another set of rules: eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.
Like many diets, there are even numbers involved! It’s not just eating when you’re hungry – it’s eating when you’re at hunger level 3 and stopping at fullness level 7.
I totally get it.
That said, with time, you should try to reframe how you think of the hunger fullness scale. It’s not a diet – it’s an intuitive eating tool that’ll help you reconnect with your body’s innate cues. There are no hard and fast rules here.
In the meantime, instead of using a numbers-based scale, you can do one of the following:
- Imagine your body as having a gas tank, just like a car. Your fuel gauge may be pointing to empty, full, or in-between. Picture the needle as corresponding to your hunger and fullness levels as you become more in touch with the signals your body is sending you.
- Instead of using a numbers-based scale, try a scale with happy, neutral, and sad faces. Happy faces can indicate satisfaction and pleasant fullness as well as a pleasant hunger sensation, when you’re feeling ready to eat but not in an urgent manner. Unhappy faces signal that you’re either uncomfortably full and overstuffed or painfully, ravenously hungry. The neutral face speaks for itself –you’re feeling neither hungry nor full.
- Similar to the gas gauge: picture a glass of water. Imagine how high the water line would come to when representing your hunger or fullness level. Directly halfway up the glass is neutral. Below halfway full indicates hunger, with an empty glass signifying painful, primal hunger. Water above halfway full represents fullness, with the top of the glass representing extreme fullness to the point that you feel sick.
Acknowledging Hunger/Fullness Feels Uncomfortable
Another reason you may feel uncomfortable using the intuitive eating hunger scale is because the very notion of recognizing your hunger feels uncomfortable for you.
In today’s diet-obsessed society, hunger all too often feels like something to be ashamed of. As a primal, physical need, some women – especially those in recovery from disordered eating – conflate hunger with a lack of total control over the body.
On the flipside, hunger and emptiness may feel “safe” to you in a way that fullness does not. After all, as long as you’re hungry, you’re not eating enough. You’re controlling your body – not the other way around. The idea of a satiated stomach might drive you to panic.
Whether recovering from an eating disorder or from the messages you’ve internalized from diet culture, it’s crucial that you learn to reconnect with your body – even though it’s challenging.
You can also change the wording of the scale if that makes things easier for you. Instead of hunger, you can say “emptiness.” Instead of fullness, you can say “satisfaction.” Rate whether you’re physically feeling empty, neutral, or satisfied.
If identifying your hunger and fullness is very distressing for you, reach out to a mental health professional who can help you cope and overcome these feelings.
Here are a few important reminders that I want you to take away with you:
It’s just a tool.
The intuitive eating hunger scale is not a diet. It’s not a rule. It’s a tool. The purpose is to help you reconnect with your body’s innate signals (hunger, fullness) instead of relying on external cues (a diet book, what time it is, believing that you “shouldn’t” eat) to tell you when to eat.
It’ll probably be challenging at first.
If you’re used to suppressing or ignoring your hunger cues, suddenly trying to tune in and identify them may feel overwhelming.
I’ve had many clients who, in the beginning, only recognize hunger and satiety on the extreme ends of the scale. One referred to it as only noticing her hunger when her stomach was so beyond growling that it was roaring!
Recognizing more subtle hunger and fullness signals usually requires more sensitive attunement to your body’s signals. Just like most things in life though, it WILL get easier with time … you just need to practice!
Not feeling hungry doesn’t mean you can’t eat.
Sometimes we need to eat even if we’re not hungry because there’s a limited window in our schedules on busy days.
But that’s not the only time it’s okay to eat when you’re not hungry.
Sometimes we eat just because we want to and it’s an enjoyable experience, and that’s okay! It’s perfectly normal to want to enjoy a cookie that’s fresh out of the oven or to have a slice of cake at your birthday party, even if you’re not hungry.
Like I said above, the hunger scale is not meant to be used as a diet with hard and fast rules about when you’re allowed to eat. Healthy eating is flexible.
You shouldn’t feel guilty for eating past fullness.
You ate until you’re an 8 or 9 on the scale? It’s okay – it happens! There’s no reason for you to beat yourself up about it. Everyone does it sometimes. The point is that you’re learning and you’ll put this new knowledge to use next time.
The hunger fullness scale is a 0 to 10 scale where you rate your hunger and fullness levels. While it may seem simple at first glance, most of us have become experts at ignoring those signals that tell us when we need to eat and when we’ve had our fill.
Using the intuitive eating hunger scale can help you reconnect to your body and learn how to nourish yourself according to your personal needs instead of whatever the latest fad diet tells you that you need.
Take a moment before your meal, halfway through eating, and after finishing to rate how you feel on the 0 to 10 scale. It may take time before you feel confident using this tool and being able to identify the subtle differences in the signals your body sends you.
Most people feel best when they start eating at around a 3 or a 4 on the hunger scale and stop at a fullness level around 6 or 7.
Start out by using the hunger scale at just one meal per day and gradually increase from there.
Meredith Mishan is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with over 12 years of experience working with nutrition clients from around the world. She has a Master of Science degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from Florida International University and is credentialed as a dietitian in both the United States and Israel.