With hunger, there's want, and there's need. And distinguishing between the two (and making smart choices thereafter) is at the very heart of healthy eating, and a constant challenge for so many of us.
Up until about age 5, you had an innate ability to tune in to that need-based hunger, crying for food when you were (truly) hungry and ignoring (or throwing) it when you were full. You were guided by your hormones, namely ghrelin and leptin. Levels of ghrelin, a hormone that regulates hunger, rise when your body needs food; while leptin, often called the satiety hormone, is triggered when you’re full. But flash-forward to adulthood and you may be relying more on external cues than those internal ones to dictate when you eat—and how much.
“Fifty percent of the time, people are eating for emotional reasons rather than real hunger,” says Equinox Health Advisory Board member Jeffrey Morrison, M.D., founder of the Morrison Center in New York City.
Boredom, anxiety, stress, social gatherings, and enticing food commercials are just a few reasons. Meanwhile, if you eat when you’re not really hungry, satiety often becomes a moot point as well.
This is where managing your weight can become an issue,” says registered dietician and Tier 4 coach Maria Pagano. “Research shows that people eat more food when pre-occupied, whether they’re being social or watching TV.”
So how do you tune back in to your body? Realize that hunger and satiety are ways that your body talks to you, just as it does in the gym when you’ve hit your stride or maxed out on the weight stack. The goal is a symbiotic mind-body relationship—and this is just another example of how you can benefit from listening. “It can help to be mindful of where your hunger falls on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being starving and 1 being much too full. Try to eat when you’re at 7 or 8 and stop by 3 or 4, when you’re comfortably full,” suggests Pagano. With a little training, it should become second nature.
And if you’re getting hungry between meals, take a step back before reaching for a snack. “Remember, the hunger feeling doesn’t always mean that calories are required. You might be dehydrated or looking for a distraction from work or some stress you’re feeling,” says Morrison. “Drink a glass of water or take a short walk and the feeling may pass.”
When you do have a meal, think like a chef and start appreciating the taste, texture, and flavor of your food. This will naturally slow down your eating and give leptin time to go to work. “Eating slowly gives the body a chance to get the message that it’s no longer hungry and that takes up to 20 minutes,” says Morrison. Setting a kitchen timer for that amount of time can help you get in the habit (and provide valuable insight if you’re eating way too fast).
Sleep is another key component in being able to accurately assess hunger and satiety. “Most people require 7½ to 8½ hours of sleep a night but most get 6 or less. Too little sleep causes the up-regulation of ghrelin, which makes you hungrier, while it lowers the production of leptin, so you’re less satisfied,” explains Morrison. In other words, lack of sleep primes your machinery for a malfunction, making it harder to clue in to your cues.
The takeaway: Tap into your inner child and eat when you’re truly hungry, stop when you’ve had just enough, and hit the pillow early. You knew how to do it once; you can learn it again.