Using Your Hunger ScaleFeb 03, 2022
There are two types of hunger: physical and emotional. In earlier blogs about Emotional Eating and Head Hunger, I talked about various "mechanics" that trigger this type of eating. These could be habits and feelings such as anxiety, loneliness and anger. In these blogs I explored some of the mechanics of physical hunger but now I would like to dive a little further into answering the questions, "Am I hungry?" "Why?," and "How can I self-regulate this?" You do this by using your hunger scale.
Here is your roadmap to this blog:
Why you feel physical hunger
Sometimes wrangling with your hunger can often be just wrangling with head hunger (“It’s lunchtime so I’m hungry for lunch”), heart hunger (“I’m lonely and food always makes me feel better”) or habit (“I always pick up and eat a croissant when I pass this bakery”).
But what are the mechanics of physical hunger?
There is very much a hormonal biological basis for when you feel true hunger. Ghrelin and leptin, known as the “hunger hormones” along with insulin and other hormones, play important roles in hunger regulation. These two hormones, in particular, help regulate insulin and are very prominent in successful weight loss.
- Ghrelin is considered your "hunger hormone" and is produced in the stomach to signal hunger.
- When you eat a meal, ghrelin normally will decrease so that you are no longer hungry until it builds up again for the next meal.
- When you are insulin resistant, ghrelin decreases only slightly.
- Because of this, the hypothalamus (a part of your brain) doesn’t receive as strong of a signal to stop eating, and when you do, you are never quite satisfied and always have a certain level of hunger.
- Leptin, on the other hand, is considered your "fullness hormone" and is secreted from your fat cells in the adipose (fat) tissue.
- Leptin also communicates with your hypothalamus but in this case, sends a fullness signal.
- As with ghrelin, insulin resistance dulls this communication so that not only are you hungry because of the unbalanced ghrelin production and communication, but now the imbalance of leptin's production and communication will make it so you never feel satisfied.
Dramatically lowering your carbohydrate consumption through either keto or low carb will heal your insulin resistance and thus get your ghrelin and leptin hormones functioning correctly. This reduces hunger and helps with sustainable weight loss.
Peptide YY (PYY)
This very interesting article puts information about PYY into understandable terms.
"Peptide YY is released after eating, circulates in the blood and works by binding to receptors in the brain. Binding of peptide YY to brain receptors decreases appetite and makes people feel full after eating. Peptide YY also acts in the stomach and intestine to slow down the movement of food through the digestive tract...However, low peptide YY concentrations are very unlikely to be the main cause of obesity as the levels decrease after weight gain has started."
So here is another hormone that contributes to physical hunger.
Gut-Stretch Response and Nerve Stretch Receptors
This article from UCSF thoroughly explains the physical traits of yet another physical reason for hunger. Here is an excerpt:
"The extensive web of nerve endings lining your gut plays an important role in controlling how much you eat by monitoring the contents of the stomach and intestine and then sending signals back to the brain that boost or lower your appetite. Most scientists believe this feedback involves hormone-sensitive nerve endings in the gut that track the nutrients you consume and calculate when you’ve had enough, but no one has yet tracked down the exact type of neurons that convey these signals to the brain."
They go on to further explore the connection between nutrient balance and water, and how thirst can trigger you to think you are hungry.
There is so much going on with the mechanics of physical hunger. You can see that saying it is only leptin and ghrelin involved in your hunger and satiety cues is an oversimplification. There are at least a dozen hormones, amino acids, fatty acids and the activity of organs (liver and pancreas, for instance) that all play a role in this.
All of this is more than you can ever consciously regulate, but there is a way to beat the odds to control your hunger.
How To Identify Whether You Are Actually Hungry: Using Your Hunger Scale
THE HUNGER SCALE
- The single most important mindfulness practice to get out of diet prison forever, is to learn about your hunger and satiety cues.
- This will also get you out of the trigger-habit-connection loop and go a long way to stop any self-sabotage, whether conscious or not.
- Learning to identify your level of hunger (or satiety) is one of the most important steppingstones to be successful in turning this whole process on its head to make the keto or low carb way of eating a lifestyle.
- Use the hunger scale (on paper or in your mind) every time you are questioning whether or not you are hungry and how hungry you are.
When you have done it enough times particularly on paper, you will eventually be able to think about it before you reach for food. At this point, without much thought, I just stop for a second and put a number to my thought or urge to eat. Very often I will identify the number as being at or above 5 (satisfied to full) in which case my thoughts of food end right there.
Other times I think about it further and ask myself what is causing me to want to eat even though my number is 5 or more.
- Oftentimes I can pinpoint the issue.
- It could be that I am bored,
- It could be that I had a disagreement with someone
- It could be that I am avoiding an activity.
- This is addressed more fully in the blog about Head Hunger.
The next step is to not even think about the number but immediately recognize what is driving me and dismiss the hunger as head hunger or emotional hunger. I wrote about urges and cravings in this blog, but before you even begin to tackle that, learn to identify real hunger.
The value of the hunger scale
The value in the hunger scale – other than sorting out head hunger from physical hunger – is that you will learn to eat when hungry and stop when satisfied.
- If you are used to eating by
- the clock (lunchtime)
- cues (smell those cookies)
- triggers (anger, boredom, etc.), then
- You really have never identified your hunger.
- How can you know when to stop eating if you don't start to eat because you are hungry?
Constructing a scale
There are several ways to construct a scale.
- One that I like in addition to the one I present below, provides a visual.
- I remember years ago at a Weight Watchers meeting we all found red balloons on our chairs.
- We were asked to blow air into them until they started to take shape but weren’t full.
- That represented what I call “5” on my scale: Neutral.
- On either side of that quantity of air were 1 to 4 and 6 to 10.
- It gave a great visual of your stomach being empty to totally full and ready to pop.
- Sometimes instead of visualizing the number I will see that red balloon in my mind’s eye.
- I have also used a scale of 1 to 5, where
- 2 to 3 would sit at neutral
- full would be at 5.
No matter what scale is comfortable for you, become aware of your hunger/fullness signals and where “neutral” lies for you.
Granny Keto’s Hunger Scale
I no longer practice under the name Granny Keto, but I still use it here and there, i.e., Granny Keto's Hunger Scale or Granny Keto's Transitions Program™.
1 - Ravenous and famished. You are starving, feeling faint or shaky.
2 - Really hungry. You may be preoccupied with food.
1–2: TRY NOT TO ALLOW YOURSELF TO GET HERE: You will make poor food choices and eat too fast.
3 - Hungry. Ready for a meal but you don’t feel like you need to stop everything and eat.
4 - Hungry. You could put off eating a bit longer. Distraction will take your mind off food, but not for long.
3–4: THIS IS A GOOD PLACE TO EAT: You will be able to make good food choices and not wolf down your food.
5 - Neutral. If you are eating, you could stop here. Also, if you are not eating, your mind really doesn’t go to food. You haven’t hit 3 or 4 yet.
6 - Satisfied. A little more might make you full, but you could finish what you are eating and not be stuffed.
5–6: THIS IS A GOOD PLACE TO STOP EATING: You have enjoyed your meal and can easily walk away from anything that is left. You will stop thinking about food or you might notice about 20 minutes after finishing that you are comfortably full.
7 - Full. You might start to feel a little uncomfortable and wish you didn’t have those last few morsels.
8 - Very Full. At this point you are definitely feeling uncomfortable, and definitely wishing you hadn’t continued eating.
7–8: STOP – REALLY: You might find that you are determined to also have a dessert with a meal. I’m telling you now: You’ll be sorry and please don’t!
9 - Overfull, stuffed, uncomfortable, bloated, stomachache.
10 - Absolutely stuffed. You are not only uncomfortable, but you may be nauseous, sweating, need to sleep and painfully full.
9–10: FORGIVE YOURSELF. Then, if you can, get up and walk around. Don’t make it worse by beating yourself up and punishing yourself by eating even more. If you find yourself here often then it is time to talk with a counselor or do some serious work and introspection. You are getting here not because the food tastes too good to stop. There are other, deeper issues, and I implore you to work on figuring them out.
You will notice levels 9 and 10 include the narrative: “Forgive yourself and learn the lesson.” You can never do good things for yourself if you are coming from a place of hating yourself. What can you learn and what can you do about what you have learned? I have been dieting for 55 years now. I have finally forgiven myself and have learned my lessons.
I have more on the power of forgiving yourself in this blog.
(The link to a hunger scale for you to print out and use is at the end of this blog.)
What are the lessons to learn?
Eating when not hungry
Before we leave working with your hunger scale, there is something to address, and that is whether or not you should ever eat if you are not hungry.
- I counsel my clients that is okay to eat even if they are not hungry.
- We explore that before they go off on their way saying, “Miriam said I could eat even if I’m stuffed.”
- I am not saying that at all.
- What I am saying is that food and meal-taking is entrenched in our cultures.
Food is everywhere and a part of our lives
- There is food at happy occasions, such as weddings and birth celebrations.
- There is food at holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
- There is food at sad occasions, such as funerals.
- Like it or not, food does show love.
- It might be the special dinner or dessert requested by the birthday person or
- a special food gifted to you.
When it does become a problem
- The problem arises when the food itself becomes love and happiness and when the association of food to sadness develops at a visceral level for us.
- when we are upset, we eat
- when we are lonely, we eat
- when we are happy, we eat.
- There is also that “short-chain” reaction:
- “My boss yelled at me so I’m going to eat cupcakes.”
These circumstances do not give you permission to eat when you are not hungry.
However, you do not have to be at a 5 or less on the scale to eat. Example:
- Maybe you had a late and satisfying breakfast and intend to skip lunch but there is a mid-day Christmas party at the office and there is a favorite dessert you like.
- You can wrap it up for later, or you can have a bite or piece and enjoy it.
- You do not then have to hate yourself because the food was off your plan or you ate when you were already at a 6.
- Have it, enjoy it and move on.
Do not give in to food pushers:
- “Here, I made your favorite pie, and you will hurt my feelings if you don’t eat it” or
- “Take one more bite, it won’t kill you.”
- Furthermore, if you ate lunch which you brought with you and the office orders out, you shouldn’t have a second lunch or eat food because it is there, or it is free.
Eating out when you are not hungry
Another situation would be if you are going out to dinner, but you had a late and satisfying breakfast.
- Let yourself get a little hungry during the day – have a snack or half of your lunch, so that you are at a 5 or below when you go out to dinner.
- But if you are not that hungry, you don’t have to sit there and drink a glass of water while everyone else is eating.
- Have just an appetizer or salad.
- Join the meal and don’t feel guilty.
Eating past a 6 or 7 is not a moral issue
- This is not the tipping point between whether you are a good person or a bad person, a worthy person or an unworthy person.
- It is a question of how do you want to feel?
- There is the physical layer.
- You certainly don’t want to make yourself sick or feel so bad you are popping TUMS all night.
- The mental layer is actually more important.
- How will you feel if you eat food not on your plan and feel way past full?
- Can you give yourself permission or will you beat yourself up, hate yourself and maybe get totally derailed from your food plan?
- It is important to see yourself through several of these situations.
- Sometimes eat, sometimes don’t eat.
- Eventually you will learn what is best for you.
- One size does not fit all!
Go to the bonus guide I gave you in an earlier blog to reference how to use the Good-Better-Best method for handling some situations.
Don’t make yourself sick at a Thanksgiving dinner. Let’s say you did have too many appetizers because you were talking with friends and were not paying attention. Before you know it, you are already at a 5 or 6.
To handle this, go to the Good-Better-Best model.
- GOOD would be to make a plate and have it but at least don’t have seconds or desserts.
- BETTER would be to take a little of your most favorite thing and just eat that.
- BEST would be to not eat. If it is at a family member’s house, you can ask to wrap up a plate to go.
The point is, eating when you are not hungry does not have to be black or white, right or wrong. You can look at Good-Better-Best and take the route that is best for you.
Don’t let GOOD derail you because it is not BEST. GOOD is a valid option on the journey.
Learning about the mechanics of physical hunger and how you can self-regulate using your Hunger Scale is an important step towards leaving that diet prison behind you. Taking the time to ask yourself "Am I Hungry?" and to come up with the right number for the right answer is your mightiest key out of diet prison.
Learn more about this with my book and course:
Book Breaking Free From Diet Prison: Common Sense Keto and Low Carb
Course Breaking Free From Diet Prison: The Roadmap to Low Carb and Keto Success