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.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #387

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.

Can you trust your hunger?

As I wrote in a recent newsletter, a central tent of the intuitive eating movement is to listen to our bodies. The idea is to eat when we're actually hungry as opposed to eating simply because it's a certain time or day or because there happens to be food in front of us or because we're feeling bored or blue.

It's good advice … except that our experience of hunger may not always a very reliable guide as to whether our bodies actually need food or not. And we all know what happens if we eat more food than our bodies need.

One sign that your body needs foods is low blood sugar. And, sure enough, when your blood glucose is low, this triggers hormonal signals that increase your appetite and your desire for food. So you'd think that the degree of hunger a person feels would be closely tied to their blood sugar levels. The lower their blood sugar got, the hungrier they’d feel. And yet this isn’t always the case.

Experiments have shown that we can take people who aren’t hungry and make them hungry simply by showing them a movie about food. (And don’t think advertisers aren’t all over that!) Similarly, we can make people who are hungry because they haven’t eaten in a long time feel less hungry by showing them an engrossing film that’s not about food.

People’s reported level of hunger also changes depending on what they are being offered to eat. If it’s really yummy, they feel hungrier. If it’s not that appealing, they’re actually not that hungry. Clearly, simply “listening to our bodies” might not be a foolproof method of knowing whether or not we really need to eat.

How to know if you need food

  1. When and what did you last eat? Your experience of hunger may be variable, but the mechanics of digestion aren’t. If it’s been several hours since you’ve eaten or your last meal was very small, it might be time to eat. But if you ate a decent-sized meal just a couple of hours ago, or had a snack 30 minutes ago, you probably don’t need food.     
  2. What else is going on? Are you bored? Anxious? Stressed? Lonely? Frustrated? Or maybe just procrastinating doing something you don’t want to do? All of these emotional states have a well-known tendency to provoke a desire to eat. If you’re in the grips of any one of them, view those hunger pangs with skepticism. See if you can think of some other way to alleviate the discomfort.  
  3. Would any food be welcome or only tempting food? I’ve certainly walked by the Cinnabon store at the mall and suddenly felt a very convincing sensation of hunger. But when I consider stopping for a salad instead, suddenly I don’t feel quite as ravenous. Red flag.  
  4. Have a big glass of water and do something else for a few minutes. Call a friend or see what’s on sale on Zappos. Work for a few minutes on a particularly engrossing or challenging task. Often, hunger turns out to be a very transient sensation. Hunger that’s gone ten minutes later probably wasn’t really hunger.

I’m not suggesting that you ignore authentic hunger signals or starve yourself. Allowing yourself to get overly hungry can not only feel gross, it can lead to poor food choices. And if you are diabetic, it’s obviously very important not to let your blood sugar get too high or too low. Let your blood sugar monitor be your guide.

What I am suggesting is that feeling a twinge of hunger may not be the emergency that we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that it is. We can afford to take a few minutes to evaluate the physical, psychological, and emotional realities before reacting. You can learn a lot this way, and I believe it can help you honor your hunger more effectively.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.