What is a hunger scale?
The hunger scale in intuitive eating is a tool that can help you recognize and identify your natural hunger and fullness cues. The scale is labeled from 1 (painful hunger) to 10 (painful fullness), and includes a spectrum of hunger and fullness in between.
Why is a hunger scale important in intuitive eating?
We are all born with natural hunger and fullness cues! However, many of us get disconnected from these cues over our lifetime as a result of dieting and attempts to lose weight. Dieting often encourages you to use external cues to tell you when to eat, and when to stop eating instead of using your own hunger and fullness cues. Examples of external cues might be counting calories, points, or macros, or using a fasting window to tell you what and when to eat.
The hunger scale in intuitive eating can help you reconnect with your internal cues through identification and exploration of your unique hunger and fullness. After dieting for many years, you may only recognize hunger and fullness when they feel most intense at either end of the scale. Practicing with the hunger scale may reveal the subtle differences in your hunger and fullness that occur on a spectrum between ravenously hungry and sickly full.
Interested in learning more about the ten principles of intuitive eating? Check out this blog first!
How to use a hunger scale in intuitive eating
Pre-, mid-, and post-meal check in’s
Set aside just a few minutes each meal or snack to do some checking in with your body. Before you start eating, use the scale to gauge your hunger. Are you ravenously hungry? Subtly hungry? Or completely neutral? As you start eating, pay attention to how your hunger shifts into fullness. Set your fork down mid-way through your meal and check in again. Has fullness started to emerge? How many bites away from comfortable fullness are you? Check in again at the end of your meal (Hint: you may reach fullness BEFORE your plate is clean, or you may need to add MORE food to your plate—this is the time to experiment!). When you are finished, try rating your fullness using the scale as well.
Document your findings
As you practice with the scale, you will find it helpful to document your findings in a food log or an app (I love the Nourishly app for this). Jot down how you’re feeling at each meal over the course of the day. You may also find it useful to jot down other information, like when you ate, how long it took you to eat, what you were eating, where you were eating, who you were eating with, and how satisfied you were with your meal when you were done.
Put on your curious detective hat and review your notes from the day or even the whole week. You may notice trends emerging in your eating behaviors and your hunger cues. Trends might look like:
- When you wait too long to eat between meals, you often reach ravenous or painful hunger before your next meal
- When you eat on the couch in front of the TV, you tend to eat past comfortable fullness
- When you eat when you are not feeling very hungry, or when you eat too quickly, your overall satisfaction with your meal tends to decrease
- You tend to feel full after eating a big leafy salad, but find that you get hungrier sooner compared to when you eat meals that contain more carbs, protein, and fat
And more! There are no “right” or “wrong” findings—only information that you can use to help you make more intuitive choices in the future.
Frequently asked questions about using a hunger scale
Can I use the hunger scale if I am really out of touch with my hunger cues?
Yes and no. You might feel out of touch with your hunger and fullness cues for many reasons, including years of dieting, body distrust, or trauma. Before practicing with the hunger scale, you might first just want to focus on creating consistency with your eating. This means scheduling and eating meals and snacks at regular intervals throughout the day. Consistency can help awaken hunger and reteach you and your body what normal and natural fluctuations in your hunger and fullness feel like throughout the day. When your cues feel stronger you might find practicing with the hunger scale more rewarding.
What’s the “right” level of hunger and fullness?
There is no “perfect” level of hunger and fullness—every day, even every meal, can be different! That said, you might notice that it becomes more difficult to eat mindfully and reach comfortable fullness when your hunger is at a 1. Or you might find that when you eat when your hunger is neutral or when you’re still a little full from your last meal, that you don’t enjoy your food as much as when you are slightly more hungry. This is why documenting your hunger and fullness and identifying trends is so helpful! You get to decide what feels best in your body.
What if I identify that I’m not hungry, but I still want to eat?
Intuitive eating is NOT the hunger-fullness diet! Hunger is incredibly nuanced. The hunger scale can help identify physical hunger, but it doesn’t account for emotional hunger, taste hunger, or practical hunger. There are no rules that say you can’t eat when you aren’t physically hungry. As you document your eating habits, continue to document when you eat for reasons other than physical hunger. This, again, might help you identify trends, like if you find yourself emotionally eating exclusively when you are home alone, you might benefit from including other types of self care that address loneliness or boredom (which you can read more about here).
Will I have to use a hunger scale forever?
Probably not. Many people find using the hunger scale helpful in the beginning of their intuitive eating journey when they are just learning about their body and their hunger and fullness cues. With enough practice, you won’t need to set aside time or need a special chart to check in with your body, you’ll just do it naturally.
Want to practice with a hunger scale at home?
Purchase and download your own hunger scale and tips to begin mindful eating here! This mindful eating resource is a part of our Gentle Nutrition Guide, designed to help you implement non-diet nutrition alongside your intuitive eating journey to rebuild body trust and make peace with food.
Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Kristin specializes in eating disorders and intuitive eating, and is an advocate for weight-inclusive care for all her clients.