3 Ways to determine if you are actually hungry

Renee Gunn, MS, RDN, LD‍
November 4, 2022
3 Ways to determine if you are actually hungry

I could safely argue that one of the most powerful substances in this world is food. You might disagree, but hear me out. 

Food is a basic necessity for life. It brings people together and unites cultures. It can elicit powerful emotions and memories.  This is society’s favorite view of food – the ability to create memories or heal emotional pain.

In today’s society we are inundated with images of food in both traditional and social media forms.

Facebook is flooded with recipe videos. Instagram has entire accounts dedicated to food photography.

Food blogging is hugely popular and can create food industry giants – ever heard of The Pioneer Woman.

Television shows and movies have entire scenes revolving around food. 

Why does food have this power over us?

Why do we turn to food when we are bored, upset, or tired in the guise of being hungry? 

It’s partly physiological. When we are stressed, our bodies release a chemical, cortisol, that can trigger sweet or salty cravings. This used to be a helpful reaction in our ancestors’ time when stress reactions could mean the difference between life and death. Stress in today's society, but our bodies don’t know this. The body’s natural instinct stays the same and unfortunately so does our immediate response.  

When we are hurting, we also revert to happier memories. More often than not, those memories are associated with food. Growing up food is often used as a positive reinforcer. This modifies our behaviors for a lifetime to associate positive, good feelings with certain foods. These foods often tend to be foods that are higher calorie and lower in nutrients.  Sometimes those nutrients trigger certain areas of the brain that can enhance positive moods. They may taste good and make us feel good for the short time, but in the long run they add up and can pack a punch to the waist line. 

“How do you know if you’re really hungry?”

Hunger is a true physiological sensation but as you can see, sometimes our mind tricks us into thinking we’re hungry when we aren’t.  

There are a few simple tricks that can help differentiate true hunger from our mind games:

1.  If you think you are hungry, drink a glass of water and wait about 10 or 15 minutes.

Sometimes when our body is thirsty, it will think its hungry. Food provides us with some water, especially if you are increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables. If you aren’t providing your body with fluids by drinking enough water, then your body’s going to take the next step and make you think you’re hungry. One way or another, your body is going to get the fluid it wants and needs. 

2.  Use the H.A.L.T. method.

H.A.L.T. is an acronym for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. When you “feel” hungry, stop and ask yourself: “Am I really hungry or am I feeling something else? Am I angry or upset about something that I’m not acknowledging or allowing myself to deal with? Am I lonely? Have I been stuck doing something for too long and haven’t seen or spoken to anyone for a bit? Am I tired? Did I get enough sleep? Do I need a nap?” Even if you think it might be one of these other things, take the action steps to fix those emotional items first. Take a 15-minute nap. Take a walk outside. Call a friend. Journal about the day or your worries and concerns. Do something fun and distracting. Meditate. If you do these things and you still feel hungry then eat something healthy. 

3. The last thing takes a lot of soul searching.

Open the door to your fridge and look at that apple or those carrots, and then look at that cookie or cake sitting next to it. Now, ask yourself, “Will I really be satisfied if I eat the apple or carrots? Or do I really just want that cake or cookie?” If your answer is the apple or carrots, then you are hungry. If it’s the cake and cookie, then something else is going on and you might want to revisit step 

Don’t let your mind and emotions control your eating.

Find something else you enjoy that elicits the same positive emotional responses you “think” food can. 

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