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Providence Health & Services
Swedish Health System | Seattle, WA
Kadlec Regional Medical Center | Richland, WA
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How do you know when you need to eat – or when you should stop eating?
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I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!

You know that feeling. The one where you go from “I’m as hungry as a bear!” to “I ate so much I hurt!”

Some people eat by the clock. Whether they feel hungry or not, they eat because the clock says it’s time for a meal. As in, “It’s noon. I should eat lunch.” Some people eat when their stomachs growl. Others get busy and forget to eat until they feel shaky or become “hangry.”

Once you start eating, how do you know when to stop? Do you stop when you’ve cleaned your plate? When all the food is gone? When the clock says it’s time to go? When your stomach is so full you need to loosen your belt?

The science of hunger

A lot of studies have been done on appetite and hunger. Many different things can trigger your sense of hunger, but most appetite-related actions start with your brain, your hormones and the nervous system in your gut. 

Researchers have discovered a sophisticated connection of neurons, chemicals and hormones linking the brain with the gut. Some have termed it an “information superhighway” that, among other things, measures hunger.

“Eating and feeling full is a process driven by your brain and the nerves in your gut,” explains Providence expert Osa Peck. As a registered nurse and certified diabetes educator, she teaches people to manage their appetite and control diabetes by paying attention to their hunger cues. “A ton of things can affect both your desire to eat and the feeling of being full,” she says.

As you eat, Peck explains, volume receptors in your stomach sense the stomach is filling and beginning to stretch. Those receptors tell your brain that your stomach is getting full. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to get that message. If you continue eating during those 20 minutes, you’ll overeat. You’ll consume too many calories, get too full and feel miserable.

To maintain your best health and best weight, you need to fuel your body on a regular basis with the proper amount of food and nutrients. Becoming too hungry is not healthy. Neither is overeating. You want to find the midpoint between those two extremes.

5 tips to managing hunger

To avoid that painful, overstuffed feeling, Peck offers a few tips:

  1. Decide how hungry you are. If you’ve ever been a patient in a hospital, a nurse may have asked you to rate your level of pain. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain?” Nutritionists use a similar scale to measure hunger, with 1 being “I’m starving” and 10 being “so stuffed I’m in pain.”

    Think honestly about your level of hunger. Ideally you should always be within the 3 – 7 range. This will allow your body to have the fuel it needs without being overfed with extra, unneeded calories.
  2. Drink a glass of water 10 to 20 minutes before eating a meal. Thirst can make us feel tired. When we need an energy boost, we often grab a snack. What we really need may be a glass of water to restore our energy and refresh us.

    Also, if you drink before a meal, the liquid will start to fill your stomach. By the time you begin to eat, the volume receptors will already be starting to communicate with your brain.
  3. Chew your food slowly. Put your fork down between every bite. Give the receptors time to send the “I’m full” messages to the brain.
  4. Start your meal with a salad, fruit or veggies. Foods that contain a lot of water, such as fresh produce, as well as those that are high in fiber and protein, like whole grains, will make you feel full faster and stay full longer.
  5. Don’t let yourself get too hungry between meals. Eat a healthy snack to keep your blood sugar and energy levels stable. A good snack option? Try 150 calories of fresh fruit or unsalted nuts. (How much is 150 calories? It’s about one cup of berries, one small apple or 20 almonds.)

To learn more, Peck recommends two books: “Mindless Eating” by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., and “Eating Mindfully” by Susan Albers, Psy.D. You may also contact Providence Diabetes Education or Providence Nutrition Services, or ask your health care provider for resources in your local area.

How do you know when you need to eat – or when you should stop eating? Your sense of hunger is triggered by a lot of things. Our hunger scale and diet tips can help you monitor your appetite.

How do you manage your hunger? If you've got a tip, leave us a comment below. 

How do you know when you need to eat – or when you should stop eating?