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How to Know If You’re Really Hungry

By Heather Sears
June 11, 2018

By Heather Sears

Are you hungry?

Are you sure? Many of us have forgotten what true hunger feels like, and instead eat out of habit, boredom or sadness. Getting back in touch with your body’s hunger signals is a great way to be sure you’re truly nourishing yourself. Here are some techniques to help you read the signs.

1. Get present

  • Focus your awareness on the present moment. Get off your phone or computer and really center yourself.
  • Breathe. Take a few full, slow, conscious breaths. Feel the physical sensations in your body as you breathe. Move out of your mental narrative to calmly and directly experience life as it is.
  • Be curious. Put your mind in your belly—what do you notice? Now go to your heart and head—what do you perceive? Being an engaged, nonjudgmental observer of your experience, like a scientist gathering data, will increase perceptiveness.

2. Name your hunger

Once you’re really paying attention to the sensations in your body in the present moment, focus in on what you’re experiencing. Here are a few different ways hunger can manifest itself.

  • Visual hunger. We all have a natural desire to look at food. Seeing crave-worthy food, physical or virtual, can make us want to eat.
  • Nose hunger. Our sense of smell is linked with taste. Smelling cookies in the oven or rotisserie chicken in the store can trigger this type of hunger.
  • Ear hunger. The sounds of meal preparation (like bacon sizzling in a frying pan) can literally make your mouth water.
  • Mouth hunger. Food tastes good, so sometimes we crave that sensation whether we actually need food or not. And as one craving for flavor is satisfied, our mouth hunger can perk back up if we switch to new tastes.
  • Cellular hunger. When your body needs particular nutrients, you may feel physical manifestations similar to those you experience when you need food, like headaches, fatigue, or irritability.
  • Mindless hunger. This is when we eat out of habit or are distracted and eat on autopilot: In front of a device or TV, or at a movie, for example.
  • Emotional hunger. We may associate certain foods with treats from our past or think of them as offering relief from unpleasantness. We may have unmet emotional needs and turn to food for comfort. We might even develop habit loops around the cycle of discomfort and eating.
  • Stomach hunger. When your stomach rumbles, it could mean there’s an absence of food, but growls can occur at any time on an empty or full stomach. The rumbling is from muscular activity in the stomach and intestines and from gas moving around.

3. Drink Water

Sometimes thirst shows up disguised as hunger. Drink a big glass of water and wait several minutes to see if you still feel physically hungry.

4. Eat… or Not

If you still feel physical hunger at this point, it’s probably genuine, so time to eat. If not, try getting to know they type of hunger you’ve identified a bit better.

Tap into your mindful curiosity and observe objectively what this hunger or craving feels like. Are there sensations in your body? How exactly do they feel? What emotions are piqued? What thoughts are in your head? Breathe fully a few times as you attentively investigate this hunger. Know that it may feel uncomfortable, and that’s ok.

After a while, the desire will lessen. Each time you repeat this you’ll get to know your hunger a bit more and it will loosen its hold on you. I think of this concept as “Name it to tame it.”

You can also explore what may satisfy you during this hunger experience more deeply than food. Maybe it’s a short walk to shift your focus, or a chat with a friend to work through some emotions.

Now decide from a place of more freedom if you still want to eat. If so, do it from a place of authentic enjoyment and relish every bite.

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