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How the hunger scale can help you understand your hunger cues

The hunger scale helps you get back in touch with your unique energy needs.

How to Use the Hunger Scale on a Weight Loss Journey | Juniper

Have you ever been in a quiet room and your stomach starts to growl? You wish more than anything it would just be quiet. What about picking up a few biscuits from the break room, even though you don't feel hungry?

Both of these situations are common. But, they are also a sign that you might be ignoring your hunger and fullness cues.

Between diet culture and health influencers, many of us have lost touch with how much food we should be eating and what a healthy appetite looks like.

The hunger scale helps you get back in touch with your unique energy needs. It helps you avoid feeling uncomfortably hungry and stop eating past satisfaction. And the best part is — it's all about your own body's hunger and fullness cues. No food rules. No starving to lose weight.

Here's everything you should know about the hunger scale and how it can form a healthy part of your weight loss journey.

What is the hunger scale?

The hunger and fullness scale is a 10-point system for breaking down your levels of hunger. The 10 points on the hunger scale are [6]:

  1. Starving – you feel weak or dizzy
  2. Very hungry – you feel irritable and all food looks good
  3. Hungry – your stomach starts to growl
  4. Slightly hungry – a snack would be nice
  5. Neutral – neither hungry nor full
  6. Almost full – you could still eat more
  7. Full – you feel satisfied
  8. Slightly full – you feel a bit uncomfortable
  9. Very full – you feel stuffed and uncomfortable
  10. Too full – you feel sick from eating

Each of these levels comes with hunger and fullness cues, like a growling stomach when we are hungry or bloating when we are too full. These cues are your body’s way of telling you that it’s time to eat or it’s time to stop eating.

Babies and toddlers are actually very good at following their hunger and fullness cues. They reach for food when they are hungry and turn their heads away when they are full [1].

But as we grow up, we tend to stop listening to our bodies. So many things contribute to this; like being too busy, being influenced by food marketing and social media, or having set meal times that mean we have to eat even if we are not hungry [1].

At what hunger level should I eat?

If you’ve lost touch with your hunger cues, we want to tell you that you’re not alone. Lots of us struggle with when to eat and how much food to have. The hunger scale is a tool to help you get back in touch with your food needs.

Ideally, you want to be within a 3-6 on the hunger scale at all times. When you get down to a 3, it means you're ready to eat soon. This is a great time to start preparing a meal [1].

At a 4, you'll be ready to start eating within an hour or 2. If you need it, you might have a light snack here too.

When you are between 5-7, you shouldn’t feel the need for food. Finishing eating when you feel full, around a 7, should mean you’ll be ready to eat again within a few hours at the next meal time [1].

It’s really important that you eat when you feel hunger pangs because waiting until you’re starving can contribute to weight gain. There are a few reasons for this [1]:

  • We crave more high fat, salt or sugar foods when we are overly hungry
  • When we are too hungry, we often overeat because our body wants to make sure we don’t run out of energy
  • Our bodies delay the fullness cues to make sure we eat enough, which means you end up in a food coma by accident

Using the hunger scale and getting back in touch with your body’s food needs goes hand in hand with intuitive eating.

How to use the hunger scale in intuitive eating

To understand intuitive eating, it helps to understand that there are 2 types of hunger cues.

The first are internal cues — these come from your body. Those are the signs of hunger like a growling stomach, feeling lightheaded, having trouble focusing or having a slight headache [2].

The second type are external cues — these come from your environment. For example, a large portion size at a restaurant might make you eat too much. Food advertising can also make you crave certain foods [2].

Intuitive eating is a new concept that is about paying attention to your internal cues and letting go of the external ones. There are 10 principles overall, and one of them is to listen to your own hunger signals.

The hunger scale is a useful tool for practicing intuitive eating. It can help you identify whether your body actually needs food or whether another type of hunger is at play, like emotional eating.

Getting to know your own hunger

You might not even realise that you are out of touch with your hunger and fullness cues, which is what a study in New Zealand found.

A group of 38 adults were asked to practice hunger training. When they felt hungry, the participants checked their glucose levels. If they fell below an individual cut-off, they were ready to eat. If they were not at the cut-off, then they would wait 20 minutes before checking again [5].

Many of the participants were surprised to find they would often eat when they weren’t really hungry. Some of the reasons for this were:

  • Feeling bored — e.g. I’m at home with nothing to do
  • Social pressure to eat — e.g. I’m out with friends and we ordered food
  • Not enough flexibility with meal times — e.g. my lunch break is from 12pm-1pm

It was also common for participants to confuse hunger with other needs — like feeling thirsty or tired.

Once they understood what true hunger felt like, they were better able to avoid non-hungry eating. Many chose to have a sugar-free drink (like water or tea), go for a walk or distract themselves with a chore.

By the end of the study, most participants had a good understanding of how much food they needed to feel full and many were reducing portion sizes because of it.

The hunger scale may not be as accurate or scientific as glucose levels, but it can still be incredibly helpful. By checking in with yourself regularly on how hungry you feel and if you’re not hungry, why you want food; you can learn a lot about your body’s signs of hunger.

The hunger scale and mindful eating

Mindful eating is another practice that can work alongside the hunger scale and intuitive eating to help you understand your body better [6].

So often, we are eating in a distracted way — from watching TV to being on our phones or about to rush to our next meeting. Research has shown that this kind of mindless eating can mean having more than our body needs to feel full.

Mindful eating is about bringing attention back to your food. You should eat slowly so that you notice the flavour, texture, smell, and colour of what you’re eating.

Practising this can help you feel more in touch with your body so that you stop eating when you feel full.

Can I lose weight with intuitive eating?

We know that many diets don’t work, so we understand why you might turn to intuitive eating for a weight loss plan.

Even though there is promising research on the health benefits of intuitive eating, the results are inconsistent when it comes to weight loss. The practice seems to be best used for weight management [5].

Having said this, we also know that emotional eating is linked with overeating and weight gain [4]. Intuitive eating and the hunger scale could be useful tools for understanding your emotional eating better and eventually, letting go of it. 

One of the hardest parts when it comes to losing weight is getting started. With Juniper’s Weight Reset Programme, we want to make weight loss easier. The programme combines weight loss medication — we use Wegovy, a GLP-1 medication containing semaglutide — with a supportive community to help you stay motivated on your weight loss journey.

Our goal is to help you build sustainable, long-term habits so that you reach your weight goal in a healthy way and feel empowered to maintain the new you.

What are the benefits of using the hunger scale?

The hunger scale is a really simple method, which is one reason that many people are willing to give it a go. If you stick with it, you might experience a few benefits beyond getting to know your body's natural cues.

Curb unnecessary food cravings

One of the main benefits of using the hunger scale is that you practise listening to your body. This can help you tell the difference between hunger that's physical and hunger that isn't [2].

All of us give in to emotional and environmental hunger cues sometimes. Whether that’s eating because we feel sad or bored, we were tempted by the smell of hot food or we are enjoying a feast at Christmas or at a wedding.

What’s important is that we learn to make these the exceptions, not the norm. Using the hunger scale can help you learn the difference between physical hunger and environmental or emotional hunger. It may also help you combat food noise, or food chatter.

Many people describe food noise as food that is calling to you, whether you are hungry or not. When you start to feel food noise taking over, you can use the hunger scale to assess whether it is your body or your mind asking you for food.

Listening to your individual needs

Even when 2 people eat the same meal, one might feel satisfied while another still feels hungry [3].

Your nutritional needs will also vary depending on the type of day you’ve had. If you’ve been walking around all day or have done some exercise, you’ll probably want to eat more.

If you’ve been stuck at your desk or decided to enjoy a restful day on the couch, you might want to eat less.

One of the reasons the hunger scale is so useful is that it reminds you to check in with your own personal hunger and energy levels.

Improved self-esteem

A recent study of over 6,000 young adults in 8 countries around the world compared eating habits and their impacts on health and wellbeing [4]. The results were positive if you were seen as an intuitive eater. They were found to have higher body image, better self-esteem, and typically a lower weight overall.

It’s not the first study to make links between intuitive eating and better health either. A growing body of research is finding that the practice is linked with better weight management and lower weight than other eating habits, like diets [4].