What’s Hungry, My Body or My Brain?

True physical hunger is not always easy to identify. If you eat every time your stomach growls you may be eating too often and not allowing yourself to feel “true” hunger. Ask yourself these simple questions before you reach for a snack or move meal time up a few hours: “Has it been less than 3 hours since I last ate? Am I feeling bored, stressed or sad? Are there other people around me eating and/or is there tempting foods close by?” If you answered yes to any of these questions you may not be truly hungry, but instead thinking of feeding into your emotions or environment.

Below is a hunger scale from The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook, written by Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, MPH. According to this book, you should eat a meal or snack at about a level 2-3. It may be helpful for you to memorize this scale and think of it each time you feel like you want to eat. By evaluating your hunger level you may be able to avoid needless eating and identify possible eating triggers, therefore allowing you to further your weight loss through eating fewer calories and avoiding poor choices.

Hunger level 1: You may experience a little rumbling in your stomach.

Hunger level 2: Your stomach rumbling may increase. You may feel a mild burning sensation in your stomach.

Hunger level 3: You may have a slight headache.

Hunger level 4: You may sense an empty feeling in the pit of your stomach. You may start to think about eating. You may feel tired or agitated.

Hunger level 5: You may feel lightheaded or dizzy. You may be cranky and snap at people around you.

The following questions from Carolyn Coker Ross’ book, The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook can further help you assess your hunger.

  1. Are you hungry? (Use the levels above to describe your hunger.)
  2. What are you feeling emotionally? Might your hunger be due to an emotional need, rather than physical?
  3. If you aren’t physically hungry, what does your body need right now? If you are feeling an emotion strongly, consider whether it may be interfering with your hunger cues. For example, if you’re stressed, would it help to call a friend and talk, rather than reach for something sweet to eat? Distractions and support like this go a long way to help you avoid feeding a craving or emotional hunger.

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