Okay, it sounds obvious, but it’s not always easy to tell if you’re physically hungry or not. Emotions, your environment, and the people you’re with all play a role in whether or not you grab a snack. But when we’re talking real hunger, you have to listen up to the physical clues: an empty, rumbling stomach or sudden sleepiness or “hanger.” “It’s different for all of us,” says Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, an intuitive eating expert in private practice in Newport Beach, California. Other signs: feeling lightheaded, headachy, or weak. Figuring out what true hunger feels like to you will make it easier to ID in the future. Oh, and if you’re hungry, eat!
It’s important to know and honor your hunger cues because then you’re more likely to heed your fullness cues. “If you respond to your hunger cues on time and with the right amount of food, you’re not living in a feast-or-famine cycle,” says Lily Nichols, RDN, owner of The Pilates Nutritionist. “This helps maintain more steady blood sugar levels. And you’re sending your body the signal that you respect and respond to its needs,” she says.
In the absence of physical signs of hunger, there’s something more going on. Ask yourself, “What am I really feeling right now?” advises Tribole. It might be boredom or restlessness, for instance. Then, think about what you can do to actually address that feeling. If you’re restless, getting up for a walk outside can be a healthy distraction. (It’s also been shown to quash sugar cravings when you’re stressed, per 2015 research.) Addressing the actual need will fulfill you in a way that food likely can’t.
Sometimes you may use food to procrastinate on a task or because you’re not willing to give yourself a break otherwise, says Tribole. Give yourself permission to take a breather every now and again so you don’t have to use food as an excuse. If you’re having trouble starting on a task, set a timer for 10, 15, or 20 minutes and promise yourself you’ll work that long. After the time is up, you can have the snack if you still want to.
It’s completely fine to eat what you crave, all while reaching your health goals. Nichols says you can go about it one of two ways: Eat the very food you’re craving, or choose a healthier swap. Maybe you scoop some ice cream into a bowl or whirl a chopped-up frozen banana in the food processor to make banana fro-yo. If you choose to indulge, pay close attention to the smell, sensation, texture, and taste of the food. “This helps prevent overeating, reduces guilt, and lets you focus on the pleasure of that food,” says Nichols.
There’s a normal (even good) side to emotional eating—like when you’re celebrating a friend’s birthday with a slice of cake and enjoying every last sugary bite. “There’s nothing wrong with matching your mood with a desire for a certain food,” says Tribole.
Everyone fantasizes about food sometimes. (Ooey-gooey cinnamon rolls. Salty, crispy fries. Super cheesy pizza. Right?) “But if you’re suddenly thinking about it all the time, it can be a sign that your diet is too restrictive,” says Tribole. It’s not about willpower, because biology will always win out. “Your body has mechanisms like hormones to get us to eat,” she says. Hunger and cravings—especially for carbs—can be an indication that you’re not giving your body the fuel it needs. (Learn how to turn off your weight-gain hormones.)
Integrate healthy carbs into your diet, focusing on complex carbs like fruits, veggies, and grains (try quinoa, farro, brown rice), as well as beans and legumes.
So you had quite the weekend full of brunching and dinner-ing and boozing. Today, oddly, you’re hungry for all the veggies. That’s great! It means your body is working and self-correcting, says Tribole. It’s huge progress and a great sign that you are able to apply some principles of intuitive eating (eat what your body craves in an amount that satisfies). It can be a huge relief to trust that your body knows what it wants—as long as you listen.