Take a moment to think about what makes you want to eat something. Is it the sound of your stomach growling? Is it because it’s mealtime? Do you crave food when you’re bored? How about when you’re stressed? All of these reasons for eating are part of our hunger cues. Some of them (like physical feelings of hunger) are intuitive. Others (like eating dinner at 7 p.m. each night or having cake at a birthday party) are learned behaviors.
We all come with a built in hunger-satiety response system. If you want to see how well it works, just watch a baby eat. When infants are hungry they eat enthusiastically, and when they’ve had enough they simply stop. But as we get older our connection to hunger is often drowned out by other food cues. Growing up, you might have been complimented for finishing your plate, or learned to associate high-fat, high-sugar foods like hamburgers, ice cream, and chips with celebrations. As adults, we go on restrictive diets after we’ve gained weight, which put us further out of touch with our hunger.
But you can re-connect with your natural hunger system. I’ve come up with a “Hunger Continuum” that can help you do that. It’s a scale that represents different degrees of hunger, starting with 1 for “famished” and progressing through 10 for “painfully stuffed.” The goal is to stay in the center of this scale—between 3 (“strong feelings of hunger”) and 6 (“first signs of feeling full”)—throughout the day.
To do this, you’ll need to listen to your body and identify when you are truly physically hungry. If you find yourself reaching for food for a reason besides hunger, ask yourself why. And when you hunger is stronger (about a level 3) it’s time to eat.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is recognizing when you’re satisfied. Ideally, you should try to stop eating when you experience the first signs of fullness (about a 6 on the Hunger Continuum). At first, it may feel odd to stop at this point, but remind yourself that your stomach needs 20 minutes after you stop eating to tell your brain you are satisfied. By stopping when you first begin to feel full, you will be comfortably full and energized—rather than sleepy and sluggish—after your meal.
The key to recognizing your satiety point is to eat slowly. Chew each bite and stop periodically to check in with how you’re feeling. By doing this, you will find you not only eat less, you will enjoy your food more. Sure, it takes some practice, but once you tap into these cues you’ll have discovered the most natural, effortless form of portion control.