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How to Tell If You're Really Hungry

We're told to listen to our bodies. But feelings of hunger aren't always a reliable guide as to whether your body needs food.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
June 21, 2016
Episode #387

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How hungry are you right now? Were you already thinking about it before I asked you? Now that I mention it, are you hungrier than you were a minute ago? Have you ever felt hungry just a couple of hours after eating a good sized meal and wondered how you could be hungry again so soon? Have you ever gone longer than usual without eating and noticed a mysterious absence of hunger?

What Does Hunger Feel Like?

Hunger feels a little bit different to everyone—and the same person may experience hunger in different ways at different times.  Laurel recently wrote to me about this:

“Sometimes my stomach will growl, but I don't 'feel' hungry. Other times I'll get that weak, shaky, low blood sugar feeling without ever feeling stomach pangs. Then, there is the classic empty stomach feeling, an almost-but-not-quite pain. And sometimes I have an overwhelming desire to eat without bodily sensations. Is there any research on what these different types of hunger mean?”

Hunger is a very interesting thing—it’s equal parts biological instinct and learned response. It can show up as a variety of physical sensations but hunger also has psychological and even emotional dimensions—and these are particularly susceptible to manipulation and cultural influence.

For example, most people used to regularly go four or five or even six hours between meals without thinking twice about it. It’s not that they never felt any sensation of hunger during those hours. It’s just that those sensations weren’t perceived as an emergency.

But then, this popular myth arose that if you went more than two hours without eating, your metabolism would slow down. There was absolutely no truth to this but a lot of people bought into it. And as a result, a random twinge suddenly took on new meaning: “Stop everything! My metabolism is shutting down!”

See also: How Often Should You Eat?

After a while it gets harder and harder to distinguish physical hunger from anxiety, habit, or plain suggestibility.

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