How to Know You're Hungry (and Avoid Eating when You're Not)

Three Methods:Evaluating Your HungerLimiting Food When You're Not HungryManaging Emotional Eating

Understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger can be difficult. This is especially true if you're not quite familiar with your body's true hunger signals. Physical hunger generally comes on gradually, can wait and stops when you've eaten a meal.[1] However, many times we eat even when we don't feel physically hungry. This may refer to emotional eating or eating in response to an emotional state - stress, boredom, anxiety, happiness or depression all can lead to emotional eating. However, understanding hunger and how it affects your body may help you determine when it's an appropriate time to eat or if you should address emotional issues instead. A few tips and tricks can get you on the path to understanding your body, your levels of hunger and how to keep away from tempting treats when it's not time to eat.

Method 1
Evaluating Your Hunger

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    Rate your hunger level on a scale from 1-10. Rating your hunger level on a scale may help you determine what to do - have a snack or wait for your next planned meal. Try rating your hunger from 1 (almost faint with hunger) to 10 (overly full, sick feeling).[2]
    • If you're hunger level is around a 3-4, it may be time to eat. If your next planned meal isn't for another 2 hours or more, have a planned snack. If your next planned meal is within the next 1 hour or so, try to wait until your meal to eat.
    • Ideally, do not let yourself be at either extreme - starving at a level 1 or so full you're at a level 10. Fluctuate between a 4-7.
    • It's normal and expected to be hungry prior to eating meals and even right before going to bed in the evenings.
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    Do the apple test. This is a simple test that can help you figure out if you're experiencing physical hunger or emotional/head hunger. In general, emotional hunger is a craving or desire for a very specific group of foods (like carbs) or a specific food (like chocolate cake). Physical hunger will be satisfied with a wide array of food options.[3]
    • Ask yourself would you still want this snack if it were only an apple, raw carrots or a salad?
    • If the answer is yes, go for that apple (or other fruit or vegetable) or other healthy, planned snacks to truly nourish that physical hunger.
    • If the answer is no, then the hunger/craving you are experiencing is probably not a physical hunger in your stomach, but instead an emotional hunger.
    • If you've determined you're experiencing emotional hunger, this might be a good time to take a walk or take a 10 minute break and reflect on what may be bothering you.
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    Take a "self scan." Before eating any meal or snack, take a minute or two to do a self scan. This may give you clues about your hunger level and desire to eat.[4] Think about:
    • Your level of hunger. Are you starving? Are you full? Are you satisfied?
    • Take note of any physical signs of hunger. Your stomach may be growling, you might feel an "emptiness" in your stomach or you might feel hunger pangs with physical hunger.
    • If you feel like you might be craving food without being physically hungry, assess your emotional status. Are you bored? Did you have a stressful day at work? Are you tired or fatigued? Many times these emotions cause us to feel "hungry" when in all reality, we are not.[5]

Method 2
Limiting Food When You're Not Hungry

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    Drink enough water. Aim to drink adequate fluids daily. It's generally recommended to consume around 8 glasses or 64 oz daily. This is just a general recommendation - you may need slightly more or less. Adequate hydration can help aid in weight loss, but can also help you manage your hunger levels throughout the day. [6]
    • Thirst or low-level dehydration can feel like hunger. If you're not drinking enough each day, that dehydration can cause hunger-like feelings that may be triggering you to eat more or more often than you should.[7]
    • Keep a water bottle close by and monitor how much you're drinking each day.
    • Also, drinking right before a meal can calm your hungry and decrease your overall intake at your meal.
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    Wait for 10-15 minutes. Emotional hunger can come on very suddenly. It's also quicker to go away compared to physical hunger.[8] If you remove yourself from the situation for about 10-15 minutes, you may find that your craving or desire to eat subsides or is more easily controlled.
    • Waiting a few minutes might not take your cravings away completely, but they may reduce them enough for your willpower to win.
    • Try telling yourself that in 10-15 minutes, you will revisit your thoughts to eat a certain food or snack. Engage in another activity and come back to your craving if it's still there.
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    Clean out your kitchen. Having a pantry or refrigerator full of unhealthy, tempting foods can make emotional eating easier to do.[9] If you know you typically reach for a box of crackers or bag of chips when you're bored or stressed, not having those foods around when those emotions hit may help you decrease eating when you're not truly hungry.
    • Take an hour or two of your free time to survey your kitchen. Look in your pantry, freezer, refrigerator or any cabinet/area in your house where you keep food items. Place all tempting foods and snacks on a table to evaluate which foods should stay and which should go.
    • Donate unopened foods to a food bank or church if you do not want to throw them in the garbage.
    • Make a pact with yourself to not buy or purchase tempting snack foods so you can keep your kitchen and home a healthy environment.
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    Leave the area. Sometimes, being in the same room with a favorite food or an item you're craving makes it difficult not to consume it.[10] If you're in a spot in your home or office that's adding to your desire to eat, get out of there. Give yourself the time and space to get your mind clear of your cravings.
    • Take a walk for 15 minutes if you can. Clear your head and refocus your attention on other things besides your craving or desire to eat.
    • Many times, people crave snacks at night.[11] Instead of staying awake, go to bed. You'll be away from the kitchen and won't be tempted to eat mindlessly in front of the TV. If you're not tired, read a good book or a magazine until you're tired enough to fall asleep.
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    Write a list of activities you can do instead of eating. Journaling ideas that can help distract you from cravings of the desire to eat can help you manage emotional eating.[12] Jot down a list of activities you enjoy or that are distracting enough that they'll refocus your attention away from food. Ideas can include:
    • Cleaning out your closets or reorganizing a junk drawer.
    • Going for a walk.
    • Engaging in a favorite hobby like knitting, scrap-booking or drawing
    • Reading a book or magazine
    • Playing a game
    • Doing something that requires a lot of brain power like hard, long-winded maths calculation
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    Consume a small portion of the food you're craving. Sometimes, cravings or the desire to eat is incredibly overwhelming. Even when you try to distract yourself or give your craving time to subside, it's still very intense. Some experts recommend consuming a small, portion controlled serving of the food you're craving.[13]
    • Eating a small portion may help the craving subside while giving you the pleasure of eating something tasty.[14]
    • Ensure that you follow an appropriate portion size. Check the food label and measure out your portion, put the food away and then slowly consume it so you can enjoy and savor it.

Method 3
Managing Emotional Eating

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    Journal. A emotional eating food journal is a great tool to help you become aware of and manage your emotional eating. You can use it to see where or when you eat and what types of foods seem to be craving or comfort foods.
    • Purchase a journal or download a journaling app on your smart phone. Track as many days as you can - both weekday and weekend days. Many people eat differently on the weekends so including both weekend and weekdays is important.[15]
    • Also take note of any emotions you may be feeling when you eat. This may help you gain insight into what emotions trigger you to eat certain foods.
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    See a registered dietitian or therapist. These health professionals can help you manage emotional eating. If you're having difficulty managing your eating or it's taking a toll on your health, plan to meet with both a registered dietitian and behavior therapist.
    • A registered dietitian is a nutrition expert that can help you understand emotional eating, talk to you about true physical hunger and provide you with alternative food choices.
    • A behavior therapist will help you understand why you emotionally eat and give you ideas for changing your reaction or behavior to certain emotional triggers.
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    Find a support group. No matter what health goal you have, having a support group in place is key for long-term success. This is especially true for emotional eating. Having a support group when you're feeling low or stressed can help you feel more relieved without the use of food.
    • Whether it's your spouse, family, friends or co-workers, a support group are your cheerleaders that will motivate and encourage through your progress.
    • Also try finding an online support group or a local group to meet up with. Email new friends that share your long-term goals.


  • If emotional eating is taking more control on your life - interfering with with your work or home life or taking a toll on your overall health - seek professional help. Meet with a doctor or dietitian to give you the tools help manage emotional eating.
  • Be smart about snacking. The occasional snack is more than appropriate. Continue to pay attention to your body and hunger signals to let you know when a good time to snack or eat is.
  • Do not completely cut out or discontinue certain foods. This may cause a binge or over indulgence of eating that food when presented with it in the future.

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Categories: Nutrition and Lifestyle Eating