The Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale is a tool to help you build awareness of your internal cues, so you don’t have to rely on time-consuming and inflexible external measures like tracking macros.
As kids, we’re typically in tune with our innate biological cues such as hunger and fullness, but it’s common to lose touch with these sensations as we get older.
Diet culture teaches us that we can’t trust our bodies and need to count calories, follow meal plans, restrict when we eat, or use portion containers to know what, when, and how much to eat.
We also tend to eat when we’re distracted, in a hurry, or skip meals altogether out of convenience.
All of this leads to losing touch with your internal cues and thus confusion and mistrust around mealtimes
Want to know more? Read on to learn all about the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale, incorporating it into your life, and common mistakes and troubleshooting!
Table of Contents
What is the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale?
The Hunger Fullness Scale is an Intuitive Eating tool that helps you tune into your internal biological hunger and fullness cues.
Hunger and fullness cues can be challenging to identify or notice. The Hunger Fullness Scale helps you gauge your level of hunger or satiety more objectively by ranking your cues on a scale of 1 – 10.
Each number on the scale represents a descriptive level of hunger or fullness, with 1 being absolutely starving to 10 being stuffed. Everyone feels hunger and fullness differently, but here are some common descriptors for each level:
- Starving, ravenous, dizzy, weak
- Very hungry, irritable, low energy, stomach rumbling
- Stomach beginning to growl, thinking about food, starting to lose focus
- Just starting to feel hungry, empty feeling in the stomach
- Neutral, not hungry or full
- Starting to feel full, but could eat more
- Satisfied fullness
- Overly full but not uncomfortable
- Uncomfortable fullness, bloating, feels difficult to move
- Stuffed, sick feeling, nauseous
Why should you use the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale?
We often think of caloric needs as a set number, but we’re not robots living in a vacuum. Our energy needs vary daily in response to many factors like activity level, illness, hormones, etc. If you’re using external measures like counting calories, it’s hard to accommodate these daily changes.
Our bodies have a built-in gauge to know how much to eat and regulate appetite in response to day-to-day energy needs. Hunger is meant to be variable and flexible to adapt to our needs.
If you’re used to suppressing and ignoring your hunger cues, you may have difficulty detecting them.
The Hunger Fullness Scale is one tool to help you get back in touch with your internal biological cues.
Why Using External Measures like Tracking Calories May Be Harmful
Using external measures, like MyFitnessPal, to track calories and macros has increased in popularity over the recent years. It’s become the norm or even a bragging right. However, using these apps doesn’t come without risk.
Research suggests that using these apps to monitor and control diet is linked to a greater risk of disordered eating (1). In addition, users of these apps have reported quantifying their self-worth based on the numbers, leading to increased shame and self-criticism when goals aren’t met. People have also reported obsession around eating and weight from using these apps (2, 3).
Although the research is mixed, it appears that the motive for using these apps may play a role in disordered eating symptomology and severity. People using the apps for weight control versus general health reasons had more significant disordered eating symptoms. Unfortunately, more users reported using the apps for weight control than any other reason (4, 5).
How Suppressing Hunger Can Backfire
When you suppress hunger for too long, you reach a state of extreme hunger. You feel like you need to eat anything and everything.
When you reach a state of extreme hunger, it’s easy to eat past comfortable fullness, binge eat, or feel out of control. Not because you lack willpower, but because of the physiological and psychological drive to eat when you reach that level of hunger and deprivation.
Think about when you hold your breath. When you finally take a breath, your body gasps for air and takes a compensatory deep breath. The same thing happens when you ignore your hunger. Your body has a strong urge to eat, which is a good thing!
These are survival mechanisms, but we don’t judge a compensatory deep breath in the same way we do eating.
However, this compensatory eating usually leads to feelings of guilt or shame, the desire to “make up” for the food eaten, and further restriction or dangerous purging methods. It becomes a vicious cycle. Can you relate?
Benefits of Tuning into Hunger and Satiety Cues
Apart from the harm of using external measures to track eating, there are many beneficial reasons to learn or relearn how to tune into hunger and satiety cues, including:
- Increased confidence
Once you get used to tuning into your internal cues, you won’t second guess your hunger or food choices. Instead, you’ll be confident knowing that you’re nourishing your body with exactly what it needs.
- Sense of freedom
You won’t feel enslaved to your food rules, calorie count, or macros, which can free up a lot of headspace for more important matters. It may also mean more last-minute meals with friends or family that aren’t on the meal plan.
- More stable energy throughout the day
Fasting, skipping meals, eating larger meals, or inconsistent eating schedules can lead to peaks and drops in energy. As you become more attuned to your needs, you’ll learn what food combos and meal timings make you feel best.
- More enjoyment around meals
Waiting until you’re starving can lead to extreme hunger and rebound eating, which isn’t a comfortable way of eating. Similarly, tuning out hunger cues can make it easier to eat for reasons other than hunger, like boredom or stress, which also may not feel too well. Tuning into hunger and satiety can lead to a more enjoyable meal experience.
- Fewer food cravings
Eating fewer calories than you need and extreme hunger are some of the causes of food cravings. However, when your body is adequately nourished, cravings tend to subside.
- Less overeating or eating to the point of uncomfortable fullness
Suppressing hunger for too long can lead to extreme hunger, resulting in eating past the point of comfortable fullness or even binge eating.
- Increased food variety
Without external measures like food rules, restrictions, or off-limits foods, you’re free to explore new foods and cuisines.
- Less stress around food times
Knowing that you’re fueling your body with exactly what it needs can significantly reduce stress around meals and snacks.
What are Hunger and Fullness Cues?
Hunger and fullness cues are biological cues from the body that signal when to start and stop eating. They’re an internal regulator that work to keep your body fueled with the amount of energy it needs to function.
Just like feeling thirsty, feeling tired, or needing to use the bathroom, these internal biological cues let us know the basic needs of our body.
How Dieting Can Effect Hunger and Fullness Cues
Hunger and fullness have somehow become taboo in our culture.
Diet culture teaches us that we can’t trust our bodies and should suppress hunger as much as possible, that feeling full is a bad thing to feel guilty over, and that we should do tricks to “fool” our bodies into thinking we’re full.
These messages generate a lot of mistrust within our bodies, but these diet practices almost always backfire. Years of suppressing hunger and “tricking” the body into feeling full can interfere with the body’s innate ability to sense these physiological cues. Eventually, they subside and can be harder to feel unless they are at the extremes.
Weakened hunger/fullness cues can lead to nondesirable eating situations such as:
- Not eating until you feel extreme hunger
- Compensatory eating to the point of uncomfortable fullness or binge eating
- Bloating, indigestion, or other digestive problems.
- Frequently eating for reasons other than physical hunger, like stress and boredom.
However, hunger and fullness are normal physiological processes, not something to be feared. They’re a privilege that not everyone has. So even if you’ve been suppressing them, the great thing is, our bodies are incredibly adaptive. It is possible to get back in touch with these senses!
What is Interoceptive Awareness?
Interoceptive awareness is your body’s ability to sense physiological sensations such as your heartbeat, respiration, hunger, fullness, and physical responses to emotions.
Having interoceptive awareness is important to determine what to do to meet your body’s needs, for example, eating when you’re hungry or putting on a sweatshirt when you’re cold.
With tools like the Hunger Fullness Scale, it is possible to work on interoceptive awareness and improve the body’s ability to sense hunger and fullness cues again.
Honoring your hunger is the second Principle of Intuitive Eating and comes before Feeling your Fullness, for good reason. Keeping your body adequately nourished with enough energy and carbohydrates is key to building back trust with your body and eating.
Here are some reflections to help you get in tune with your hunger:
- How do you feel before eating?
- Do you notice any hunger cues?
- What does hunger feel like for you?
- Do you notice any trends?
- Do certain food combinations or amounts affect hunger differently for you?
So what do hunger cues even feel like? Everyone experiences hunger cues differently, but here are some common cues:
- Growling stomach
- Emptiness in stomach
- Inability to focus
- Decreased energy
- Change in mood
- Irritability (hanger)
- Food cravings
- Thoughts of food
Types of Hunger
We can’t have a conversation about hunger without talking about the different types of hunger. People eat for many reasons other than true hunger, such as social connection, nostalgia, enjoyment, cultural ties, and experience, to name a few.
You don’t have to wait until you feel hunger cues to eat every time you have a meal or snack.
So what are other types of hunger apart from physical hunger?
Taste Hunger refers to eating something because it sounds good or because of your current situation rather than being physically hungry. For example, eating some popcorn at the movie theater even though you just had dinner or eating your significant other’s famous apple pie on Thanksgiving.
It’s okay to eat during these occasions because you want to taste the food or enjoy the experience.
Emotional eating is eating in a way to soothe, comfort, or distract from uncomfortable emotions.
Eating for comfort can be a completely normal and healthy part of your relationship with food. For example, if baking cookies reminds you of baking with your grandma as a child and brings you comfort during a stressful time, that is absolutely fine!
Using food as comfort can become a problem when it’s your only coping mechanism for feelings of boredom, loneliness, stress, or sadness and is associated with guilt or shame.
Understanding your fullness comes after you learn to honor your hunger and give yourself unconditional permission to eat.
This is because if you’re not feeding yourself adequately, balanced meals regularly, and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods, it’s going to be close to impossible to feel your fullness and stop eating. Your body is going to want to continue to eat.
The Importance of Reaching Satisfying Fullness
Diet culture teaches us that we need to stop eating once hunger subsides, but rarely is this enough food, and you’re left unsatisfied.
We’re taught that feeling full is “bad,” and that should “trick” our body into feeling full with various tactics such as drinking water to fill our stomachs or eating “fluff” foods that are low calorie and high volume.
The result? Feeling unsatisfied after a meal, getting hungry shortly after eating, constantly grazing throughout the day, or feeling like you can’t stop eating.
The goal of Intuitive Eating, on the other hand, is to eat until you’re content, full, and satisfied, so you’re no longer thinking about food or your next meal and can move on about your day.
It’s OK to eat past comfortable fullness from time to time. Intuitive Eating is meant to be flexible and adapt to your life. There will be occasions when you intentionally want to eat more food, like on holidays or when you’re at your favorite restaurant.
There are also going to be times when your eating is just a bit off, and that’s OK too, there’s no right or wrong with Intuitive Eating, but you can learn and reflect on each experience.
Feel your Fullness
Many people don’t feel fullness until they reach a point of uncomfortable fullness because they’re eating distracted, eating too quickly, or restricting calories too much during the day.
To get back in tune with fullness cues, choose a meal or snack that you can eat with minimal distractions. Check-in with yourself midway through the meal. This isn’t a commitment to quit eating. You’re simply going to be observing how your body feels.
The amount of food you need to reach satisfying fullness will vary depending on many factors such as activity level, amount of food previously consumed, macronutrient composition, when you last ate, and more.
Like hunger cues, people feel fullness cues in different ways. Some fullness cues include:
- A feeling of fullness in the stomach
- Increased focus
- Improved mood
- More energy or less energy depending on your level of fullness
- Decreased taste
Fullness Versus Satisfaction
Satisfaction is the cornerstone of Intuitive Eating and actually an Intuitive Eating Principle in and of itself. Eating is supposed to be an enjoyable and satisfying experience.
So what’s the difference between fullness and satisfaction? Think back to a meal you didn’t really want – maybe a plain salad with grilled chicken or meal prep for the fourth night in a row. You might be full after eating but are you satisfied with the meal?
If you aren’t satisfied after a meal, you’re likely going to feel the drive to keep eating. This happens when you think you should eat only “healthy” foods and avoid “bad” foods. However, having a varied, nutrient-dense core diet is more important for disease prevention and longevity than avoiding discretionary foods.
So how do you make a meal more satisfying? This will vary on a daily and even meal-to-meal basis. To simplify, you’ll want to include all macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat), some produce, and something enjoyable.
What does a satisfying meal look like for you?
How to use the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale
So, now that you know what the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale is, why you should use it, and all about internal biological cues, we can discuss HOW to use it!
Important Considerations before Implementing the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale
- The Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale is just a guide. It’s not a rule. There is no right or wrong way of using this tool, and you shouldn’t strive for “perfection.” It’s simply helping you be attuned to your body’s needs.
- If you’re struggling with feeling hunger and fullness cues, using this scale may not be appropriate yet.
- If the numbers feel confusing or if you notice you’re turning it into a rule, you can use qualitative descriptors instead, such as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral instead of numbers.
To use the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale, check in with yourself before a meal or snack and evaluate where you are on the scale from 1 to 10.
As you’re eating, be present in the moment and slow down your meal. Check-in with yourself at different points in the meal. This isn’t a commitment to stop eating but rather a simple check-in to gather data.
You can also use the scale between meals and snacks and assess if you’re ready to eat. It may feel a little unnatural or difficult at first, but this will get easier to do as time goes on.
When to Eat Based on the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale
I don’t have a simple answer because it will differ from person to person and even daily depending on your current situation.
These numbers are also just meant to be a guideline. It’s completely normal and healthy to eat outside these guidelines on occasion. The best thing to do is experiment and see what feels best for you.
As a general guideline, most people feel best when they start to eat around a 3 or 4 and stop at a 6 or 7.
If you wait until you’re a 1 or 2, it may be harder to make intentional decisions around food, and you’re more likely to eat too quickly or eat past comfortable fullness. This type of eating typically doesn’t feel too good.
If you stop eating at a 5, your hunger may be gone, but you may not feel satisfied or energized. You’re more likely to get hungry again in just an hour or two.
Pay attention to what feels best for you. For journal prompts to use with the Hunger Fullness Scale, download my free Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale Guide.
When to use the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale
Using the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale will depend on a few different factors. There’s no correct answer here!
If you’re new to Intuitive Eating and have a long history of dieting and restrictive eating, it may be best to start by just establishing a consistent eating pattern.
If you’re just beginning to recognize hunger and satiety cues again, you may want to observe how hunger and fullness cues feel when you eat your meals and snacks instead of trying to use the scale.
If using the scale feels overwhelming, or you begin turning the numbers into rules, you may not want to use the Hunger Fullness Scale.
When first starting, some people like to use the Hunger and Fullness Scale frequently throughout the day, whereas others feel overwhelmed and prefer to start with one meal or snack.
As you get more comfortable, you won’t need to use it as much since it will become second nature.
Always remember, there’s no right or wrong. This is just one tool, but there are many others. Have patience and self-compassion.
Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale Trouble-Shooting
What to do if You’re Having Trouble Identifying Hunger and Fullness Cues
First, don’t panic! If you’ve been suppressing your hunger and fullness cues, dieting, or living with disordered eating behaviors for a while, it’s normal not to feel your hunger and fullness cues until you’re at the extremes or not at all.
The first step is to make sure you are consistently eating enough fuel for your body throughout the day. Your body needs to learn that it always has access to enough food and that famine isn’t lurking around the corner.
As a general guideline, eat every 3 – 4 hours, but you may need more or less time in between eating.
Next, you want to try to slow down your meal and eat without too many distractions. I know this one can be hard for many people, so do what you can do!
Finally, once you’re eating nourishing meals regularly, observe what you feel at various times throughout the day. Do you notice any hunger cues before you begin eating? Are you starting to feel full midway through your meal? How do you feel after your meal?
[Important Tip: Try to stay non-judgemental. View it as an experiment that you’re gathering data for. There are no right or wrong answers. It’s perfectly fine to eat for reasons other than hunger.]
This takes time and practice, so don’t feel frustrated if you struggle at first. It’s OK! Over time it will get easier.
If you’d like more support with this, an Intuitive Eating Dietitian can help!
Hunger Disruptors – When the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale Might Not Work (and What to do Instead!)
There are acute and chronic hunger disruptors. However, for brevity, I’m only going to focus on acute disruptors in this post.
As the name implies, hunger disruptors are anything that interferes with our body’s ability to detect hunger cues. These can include:
- Stress or anxiety
- An intense workout
- Too much caffeine
- A busy schedule
- Certain medications
- Food rules/beliefs about eating
If you’re experiencing a lack of hunger cues due to these situations, you may need to rely on Practical Hunger.
Practical hunger is eating when you’re not hungry because your body needs fuel. That might look like planning ahead and eating when you have a chance because of a busy schedule or eating when your appetite is blunted.
What does practical hunger look like in real life?
Let’s say you have meetings scheduled until 4:30 pm but have a break from 11 am to noon. You may not be hungry for lunch at 11 am, but that’s your only chance to eat. If you wait until 4:30 pm, you’ll be starving, and it’ll be challenging to focus on your meetings.
Practical hunger is taking the chance to nourish your body when you have the time as an act of self-care, so you feel better and don’t get overly hungry.
What to do at the Extremes of the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale
As I said previously, it’s normal to eat outside what feels comfortable on occasion, whether it’s intentional or you just didn’t get it right. The first thing to do is not to panic and have self-compassion.
If you’re at a 1 or 2 on the hunger scale…
If you waited a bit too long to eat and your hunger level is extreme, it will be hard to be intentional about your eating choices.
Of course, if you get to that level of hunger, your first priority is to get some food. If you have an option of what to eat, ask yourself what sounds good to eat and how that food will make you feel.
You may eat past comfortable fullness, and that’s perfectly OK. But, if you think about it, you likely skipped a meal or snack to end up at this hunger level. So, it makes sense that you’re going to eat more than usual when you get a chance to eat.
If you get to a 9 or 10…
First, be kind to yourself. It’s normal to eat past comfort on occasion. In the immediate moment, just relax and breathe. Put on some comfortable clothes. The moment will pass. If it feels good, you can go for a gentle walk.
Later in the day or the day after (depending on when you overate), just resume your regular eating habits. Eat when you’re hungry again. Pay attention to your hunger cues. You may notice you’re not quite as hungry at the next meal.
There is no need to “make up” for the extra calories by skipping meals or exercising to burn off calories. Our bodies are incredibly adaptive and can handle eating more or less than normal.
If you got to extreme hunger or fullness, instead of feeling guilty, reflect on the experience.
- What can you learn from these experiences?
- How did that eating experience feel?
- What led to you getting to that point?
- Was it preventable?
- How did it affect your next meal?
- Is this way of eating comfortable? Is it enjoyable?
[Free] Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale PDF
Looking for more support? Download my free Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale PDF booklet – tools to help you get in tune with your internal cues. In this booklet, you’ll find:
· Hunger Fullness Scale PDF
· Journal prompts to help you reflect and tune into your internal cues.
· A meditation to help you connect with your body and tune into hunger cue
I hope you found this post helpful! If you’re looking for more guidance, personalized support, or you’re ready to become an Intuitive Eater, check out my one-on-one Intuitive Eating counseling services.
Kristin is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, and Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Dietetics with a concentration in Biology and a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. She has experience conducting systematic reviews and writing and evaluating scientific literature in peer-reviewed journals. She has a goal of making evidence-based nutrition information accessible and easy to understand.