End Overeating with the Hunger and Fullness Scale
If you’re trying to manage your weight and you’re anything like the clients I see as a registered dietitian, you might think your problem is overeating. If you struggle to stop eating when you’re full, you’re probably used to blaming yourself – you think you lack willpower, or you have an unusually strong sweet tooth. But what if I told you that the problem wasn’t you… and there is a tool to fix it: the hunger and fullness scale.
No, the hunger and fullness scale is not a new gadget you use to weigh yourself. It’s a tool to help you notice and respond to your body’s cues better. This simple strategy has nothing to do with the specific foods on your plate, but it can make all the difference to your diet and consistency.
You may be thinking, but nutrition matters. And you’re right. But the truth is that most of us already know how to eat healthier, and the struggle is in applying that information consistently. The hunger and fullness scale helps you tune in to your body and ignore the food noise – and it might be exactly what you need to transform your diet and your health, once and for all.
What exactly is the hunger and fullness scale?
The hunger and fullness scale uses a ten-point system that delineates various levels of hunger and fullness, all the way from about-to-faint hunger to Thanksgiving-level full. Identifying what each of these levels feels like and recognizing when you experience them is key to making the hunger and fullness scale work for you.
Many people are used to ignoring early signs of hunger in the name of weight loss. But if we wait until we’re extra hungry to eat, it can be hard to stop eating when we’re comfortably full. That’s where the hunger and fullness scale comes into play. It can help you learn your body’s more subtle hunger cues, so it becomes easier to eat mindfully and stop when your body’s had enough. “It’s a tool that’s helpful to use when someone is having a difficult time figuring out when they should eat, and when they should stop eating,” says registered dietitian Jamie Nadeau.
Think about how a toddler eats: They ask for food when they’re hungry, stop eating the moment they’re full, and generally refuse to eat unless their body tells them it’s time. We’re all born with this built-in appetite regulation system. But external pressures, extreme dieting, and a culture of fear and shame around food leaves us feeling detached and dysregulated. The hunger and fullness scale can help you tune all that out so you can reconnect with your body and its needs.
Benefits beyond weight loss
Research suggests that a better understanding of hunger and fullness cues can have a positive impact on your diet and health habits. A small 2019 study found that teaching people to eat in alignment with their hunger levels improved food quality, portion size, and meal timing.
“Using a hunger and fullness scale is a mindful eating skill you can practice regularly to get in touch with your appetite cues,” says registered dietitian Caroline Thomason. When you can feel and respond to your body’s cues more easily, you feel less urgency at meals, eat slower, and are better equipped to stop when you’re full.
Research also shows that mindful eating tools like the hunger and fullness scale can help if you struggle with emotional eating, and if you tend to eat because “it’s time,” whether or not you’re hungry.
What do hunger and fullness feel like?
The hunger and fullness scale identifies and quantifies the appetite signals our bodies send to our brains. Using this tool means learning what those cues look and feel like.
“Hunger signals are so much more than a rumbly tummy,” Thomason says. “You might notice a subtle dip in energy or brain power, a general increase in thinking about food or your next meal, or physical symptoms like a headache.” Other common hunger cues include lethargy, difficulty focusing, or nausea.
Fullness signals are often more straightforward and easy to recognize: Your body might tell you it’s full with stomach pressure, slowed eating pace, taking breaks between bites, deep breaths, or a general feeling of satisfaction. But it’s not always easy to respond to these cues.
What many people don’t realize is that hunger and fullness work together. If you wait until you’re super hungry to eat, you’ll eat faster, and you’re more likely to end the meal feeling stuffed. If you eat until you’re painfully full, you might wait until you’re extra hungry to eat again. It’s like a pendulum – and the goal is to never let it swing too far to either side. The key is to eat when you’re comfortably hungry, and you’re more likely to stop when you’re comfortably full without much effort.
How to start using the hunger-fullness scale
Here are some strategies to begin incorporating it:
- Write down your body’s hunger and fullness signals. They look different for everyone, so first get in tune with how your body communicates with you.
- Start eating when you’re comfortably hungry to avoid overeating. It’s counterintuitive, but honoring hunger will help you better honor fullness, too.
- When in doubt, eat every 3 to 4 hours. It’s hard to learn your body’s cues when you’re so used to ignoring them, so use this as a gentle framework.
And most importantly, be kind to yourself. You’ve got a busy life and plenty of stress, which means ignoring your hunger or overindulging will happen sometimes. This tool can help you feel more connected to your body and get more consistent with food. But it takes time to learn to implement it, and you won’t always be able to do it. Ditch the idea of perfection, and think of this more as a practice.