Updated: Nov 14, 2020
A popular tool used in mindful and intuitive eating is the hunger-fullness scale. This tool helps us get back in tune with our innate signals of hunger and fullness. Furthermore, it helps us use the awareness of those signals to guide our eating habits. This is in line with what both mindful and intuitive eating are about, which is being able to rely on internal signals and guidance when making food choices, rather than relying heavily on external guidance, such as diets and food rules, when making food choices.
When we diet for long periods of time, it can be hard to stay in touch with our hunger and fullness cues. This is because diets teach us that we shouldn't trust our bodies, and that we should subsequently practice overriding our body signals in order to follow the rules of a diet. Examples of this that I have come across are diets suggesting you drink water, chew gum or submerge yourself in a hobby instead of eating when you are hungry. This is all wrong. This way of approaching food can lead to losing connection with your body or any trust in yourself around food. It can ultimately lead to disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food.
Just like your eyes feel heavy when you're tired, or your bladder feels distended when you need to pee, your body has ways of signaling when you are hungry or full. This is a natural process that can help you determine when and how much to eat. Although there are ways to calculate how much energy/calories an individual needs on average in a day, those types of calculations don't accurately reflect the fact that needs change from day to day. This is because our metabolism and calorie needs can alter depending on how much physical activity we get, how much sleep we get, any hormonal changes and so on. Being in tune with hunger and fullness cues is a natural way to learn what the body needs from day to day.
How the scale works
The hunger-fullness scale is numbered from 1-10, with 1 being at the extreme end of hunger and 10 being at the extreme end of fullness. In the middle is 5, which represents a neutral feeling, where you aren't particularly hungry or full. Here is a visual of the scale and an explanation of what each number represents:
1- Ravenous: Irritable, dizzy, physically ill. Can't think of anything else but eating. High risk of overeating.
2- Very hungry: Need food very soon. Moody, gnawing empty feeling in stomach, headaches.
3- Hungry: Ready to eat. Need energy. Eating is more pleasurable at this point.
4- Getting hungry: Beginning to feel stomach growling. Stomach feels slightly empty. First thoughts of food.
5- Neutral: Neither hungry or full. No noticeable sensations in stomach.
6- Mild fullness: Beginning to feel full but not completely satisfied.
7- Full: Satisfied. No longer hungry.
8- Very full: Stomach feels stretched. Feeling sluggish, slightly uncomfortable.
9- Uncomfortably full: Too full. Wishing you hadn't eaten so much. Bloated, drowsy.
10- Sick and overstuffed: Feeling ill, like you need to lay down or unbutton your pants.
It can be helpful to reflect on where you are on the hunger-fullness scale before, during and after eating a meal or snack. A 3 or 4 is typically a good place to begin eating, while a 7 is typically a good place to stop eating. With that being said, this is meant to be a tool, not a rule or diet. It's also important to note that everyone will experience different feelings at each number on the scale. Therefore, make sure you honor your individual experience when listening to hunger and fullness cues. There are several ways that signs of hunger and fullness can manifest. Being hungry can lead to your stomach growling, feeling tired, getting irritable (hangry) or having constant thoughts of food. Being full can lead to a full feeling in your stomach, feeling energized, being in a happier mood or being able to think about things outside of food.
There are certain situations where you may eat or stop eating outside of the recommended range, and that's okay. This is because life happens and things don't always go as planned. For example, if you go out to eat for dinner and the service is especially slow that night, you may receive your meal later than expected. At this point, you may be at a more extreme level of hunger, such as a 2 or 1. If something like this happens and food isn't scarce, remember that you will still receive food at some point and you won't feel starved forever. It can be challenging to remind yourself of this when experiencing an extreme level of hunger, as the body goes into "survival mode" and signals you to eat food quickly in order to avoid starvation. Although it can be extra challenging in this type of circumstance, it is still possible to take it slow and eat your meal mindfully. Another situation can do with timing. If, for example, you aren't particularly hungry in the morning, but you know that once you get to work it will be a long time before you have a break to eat, eating at least a little something may help you stay energized until you get that break. This can prevent you from reaching an extreme level of hunger before you get a chance to eat. This is important since reaching a higher level of hunger makes you more susceptible to overeating.
Another good practice is to check in with yourself halfway through a meal and reflect on how the food tastes and how full you are at that moment. This mindful practice can help you decide whether or not to keep eating or how much to eat.
What if the scale seems a little overwhelming?
Although this scale is not meant to be a dieting tool, if the numbers on the scale make you feel like you are following another diet, that is understandable and it's okay to make alterations. In this case, try taking it slow when introducing this tool into your routine. Instead of using a number system, you can generalize the hunger-fullness scale to read extremely hungry at one end, not hungry or full in the middle, or extremely full at the other end. In addition, you can experiment with this scale once or twice each day, instead of going all in and using it at every meal. As you feel more comfortable with it, you can start using it more often, until it becomes a habit. The goal is to eventually get in tune with your hunger and fullness cues naturally and regularly.
As we discussed above, this scale isn't meant to be a rule. We aren't striving for perfection. Relying on your hunger and fullness cues is something to be practiced throughout life. It's impossible to get it down perfectly at all times, because life is never that black and white, but it can surely help us learn more about ourselves and our needs.
Want to learn more about how to adopt mindful and intuitive eating strategies like listening to your hunger and fullness cues? Let's chat! Working with a dietitian can help you develop healthy habits that meet your lifestyle and needs. I would be honored to help you build a happy and healthy life.
Until next time,