Ugh. It happened again.
The company was delightful, the atmosphere was light and festive, and the meal was delicious…right through seconds and even thirds. Hours later, you’re still uncomfortably full and maybe experiencing reflux, restlessness, bloat, or soreness in the abdomen or back as well.
Or maybe your story goes more like this: You and your team are giving 100% to the biggest project of the quarter. Things are going so well that you’ve routinely worked through lunch rather than break the momentum. Just as the final deadline approaches, you are dealt an obstacle that’s outside your control. When the news drops, you give in to a powerful call: Doughnuts!
Either way, it’s the same problem: a mistaken response to internal signals. We all have natural hunger cues, signs that it’s time (or not time!) to refuel. But for many reasons—crash dieting, persistent stress, emotional overload, or just plain busy-ness—those signals don’t always translate. Some people have suppressed their cues for so long that very clear signs actually seem muddy, hard to interpret.
Sadly, that’s not rare. Food can be a complicated basic necessity. Food is fuel, but it’s also tied up with bigger concepts like celebration, loved ones, joy and sorrow, and culture. That’s why at some point or another, almost everyone has purposely overridden our natural hunger signals.
Ignoring the body’s hunger cues can quickly become a habit, one so ingrained that even when we eat for the right reasons, we might not sense the shades of difference in our fuel level. “Full” (okay, maybe) and “stuffed” (don’t go there) might seem the same until we’ve crossed the line, for example. Or we might not recognize the difference between being slightly hungry and starving, or feeling thirst versus feeling hunger, or needing emotional soothing, not fuel.
Let’s change all of that and find food balance again! Even if you’ve been suppressing or ignoring your cues for a very long time, you can relearn how to listen to your body. Ready to retrain yourself to tune in and better respond to your body’s hunger signals?
Over- or undereating is often just a lack of awareness—the absence of mindfulness. You can bring that mindfulness to your eating habits by using the Fullness Scale (sometimes also called the Hunger Scale). This scale is a means of quantifying what you feel before you eat, checking in during your meal, and deciding when it’s time to stop.
First, take a moment to focus on yourself. Physically, you may gather information from your stomach sensations, response time, endurance, and energy level. Consider your mental state, too. How are your concentration and cognition, and what are you feeling emotionally?
Next, translate those sensations to a number on the scale. You can think of the Fullness Scale much as you would the fuel gauge on your car, with 1-5 similar to Empty-Full on your dashboard dial.
5: Whoa—uncomfortably full. Next time I won’t “top off.”
4: I’m feeling good and performing well now, and I have a plan for refueling later.
3: I’m getting hungry. Time to pull in to the next reputable filling station!
2: Too low for comfort—refuel immediately to avoid breakdown.
1: “Running on fumes” describes my overall state right now.
Then, eat when you’re at a 2 or 3, and stop eating between 3 and 4. That’s it, the whole basic rule!
It does take some practice, but over time, you will learn to quickly recognize your shades of hunger and can retrain yourself not to ignore your body’s fuel signals. Here are a few more tips to help you develop the Hunger Scale habit:
- Don’t multitask. Put down the phone and excuse yourself from outside chatter before you attempt to observe your own state. Being mindful about your body’s signals requires truly focusing on what YOU alone feel, physically and mentally.
- Respect your body’s timeline. It takes about 20 minutes for the stomach’s fullness message to reach the brain, so eat slowly. Bonus: Leisurely meals are an opportunity to savor the fullness of each bite—a smart move toward an overall habit of mindfulness!
- Use the scale frequently. Assess your state before you eat, then assess again partway through your meal. Once you feel you are at a 3, slow down even more.
- Avoid the extremes. They come with discomfort and regret. Overeating to a “5” frequently results in indigestion while a sense of “1” hunger sets your body in starvation mode, which triggers bingeing or other poor choices.
Just as mindfulness can help you appreciate your everyday experiences and environment, mindfulness can also lead you to better understand the signals your own body sends when it comes to your need for replenishment. I encourage you to look for ways to bring mindfulness to every aspect of your life, including food. It’s all part of wise self-care, the ultimate key to the active, vibrant, comfortable living you so crave!