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The New Rules of Hunger

It's amazing how feeling famished can suddenly sneak up on you. One minute you have an inkling for a little nibble, the next you want a gallon of cookie dough ice cream and you want it now!

Your temperamental tummy is likely not the problem—the issue is that you’re misreading its cues. “Not all hunger is created equal, but we often treat it the same,” says Susan Albers, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and author of Eat. Q. “We're prone to say we're hungry, and yet there are different levels of hunger.” And this miscommunication may lead to making bad food choices, which can result in sugar spikes, fatigue, brain fog, weight gain, and other health issues.

Learn how to interpret your stomach, however, and you can hone in on how hungry you truly are and act accordingly. Use this guide as your Rosetta Stone to keeping your healthy eating (and weight!) on track as you progress through a typical day.

Level 1: Cravings (10:00 a.m.)
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You ate breakfast only an hour and a half ago, but you can't shake this urge to munch on something savory, and the Cheez-Its in the vending machine would do just the trick. Don't be fooled: If you're pining for something specific, then odds are you're not actually hungry. “When you need to eat, you'll settle for whatever is in front of you,” Albers explains. So if you're passing up the natural almonds you keep in your desk in favor of selection B5, then you're simply having a craving. [Tweet this fact!] These sudden food desires usually stem from boredom, stress, an emotional response, and even thirst, not an empty belly, Albers adds.

Hunger Helpers
Hold your tongue. Ask yourself, “Does it makes sense to be hungry right now?” If you had a filling meal earlier, then your next nibble should be in at least three hours. Keep your emotional eating habit in check by waiting it out; the craving should pass in about 15 minutes. In the meantime, tell yourself that succumbing is not worth it: Eating poor-quality chocolate soothed a bad mood for a mere three minutes in a study published in the journal Appetite.

Shine a new light on things. Trick your brain into thinking it's getting what it wants with a sweet- or savory-scented candle, suggests Alan Hirsch, M.D., founder and director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. “It's called sensory-specific satiety. About 90 percent of what we call taste is really smell. So if you get a whiff of something like chocolate, it'll eliminate your craving for it and other sweet foods,” explains Hirsch, who has lead many studies on this subject. Conversely if you smell something savory, such as pumpkin spice, it'll eliminate your desire for salty foods. One caveat: Lighting a scented candle only works in the absence of food, so be sure any coworkers’ candy dishes aren’t in sight.

Level 2: Honestly Hungry (1:00 p.m.)
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Your pounding head, urge to crawl under your desk for a nap, or snippy outburst at your intern could just be PMS or that tough HIIT workout you did this morning—or you may need some fuel. “The biological signs that let you know that you need to eat soon are different for everyone,” Albers says. But your mind will help you figure it out. When your body needs energy, it'll send a message to your brain to launch a mental slideshow of foods that can't (and won’t) stop playing until you eat, she says.

Hunger Helpers
Head off getting “hangry” (hungry + angry). Instead of lashing out at anyone, chew on this: a handful of filling, high-protein pistachios in their shells. A 2011 study published in Appetite found that people consumed fewer calories (86 to be exact) and were more satiated when they had to remove pistachios from their shells. “Anything that naturally slows you down will help you to be more in charge of how much you eat,” Albers says.

Leave a trace. Keep a pile of those shells as you snack to visually remind yourself how much you've eaten, a trick that research shows may also help you cut down on consumption. If you’d prefer something sweet, Albers recommends a medium mandarin orange. “They're easier to peel than regular oranges, contain only 50 calories, and are loaded with vitamin C, which helps your immunity when you're feeling stressed.”

Level 3: Ravenous (2:30 p.m.)
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You don't need to glance at the clock to know you've missed your lunch break—you can practically taste the juicy cheeseburger dancing in your head. You know better than to hit up McDonald's, but your willpower is fading. Even the now-stale bagels you proudly passed up at this morning's meeting are starting to look as good as a gourmet dinner.

Hunger Helpers
Respond, don't react. “At this point, your energy is too low to hunt down healthy food,” Albers says. “This is when people will go for the fast fix—like sugar or coffee—for a quick high.” But just because you’re thinking about a carby, sweet, or caffeinated treat doesn't mean you need to commit to it. “There's a seven-second gap between when we make a decision and when we're aware of it. You do have the power to steer in a new direction,” Albers adds. In the case of the bagel, cut it in half and eat super slowly. There's a chance you may not finish it if your body realizes that it's full before the last bite. If you end up having the other half, really savor it (chew even slower) to ensure satisfaction, which may keep you from scavenging for more fast food afterward.

Reminisce. When you're already in a funk, it's easy to turn to comfort foods that are actually far from comforting. Eating an Oreo or two may feel good at the time, but devouring half the box in one sitting will leave you swigging right outta the Pepto-Bismol bottle. “Women are bad at taking out anger on themselves, so they may self-sabotage their diets,” Albers says.

Rather than let things shift from bad to worse, stop whatever you're doing and close your eyes for a moment. “When you stop multitasking and block out all the stimulus in your sight path, you're able to think more clearly,” she says. Doing this can give you a chance to recall how horrible it felt the last time you went to town on Oreos. “Focusing on the immediate consequences, such as an upset stomach, is much more effective than thinking about the future, like weight gain,” Albers adds. Conversely, it also helps to remind yourself how good you felt after eating a healthy meal, such as a soup or salad from a nearby joint. Where to order your late lunch should be a no-brainer.

Level 4: Satisfied (3:15 p.m.)
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You've heard of this magical Goldilocks place where you feel “just right” after a meal. Sure, it's not easy to find that happy medium where you're neither hungry nor full, Albers acknowledges. It takes a level of mindfulness to become aware when you're no longer thinking about or wanting food—but it can be done.

Hunger Helpers
Feel the heat. “Hot food has a greater odor and therefore better flavor,” Hirsch says. Because you can't scarf it down while it's scalding, you'll eat it slower, which will buy your body time to ring the satiety bell (it takes about 20 minutes). [Tweet this tip!]

End on a high note. Contrary to popular belief, the last bite is not the best. “It's a lore that finishing your plate is going to make you happy,” Albers says. Put down your fork before you’re full, and you’ll stop thinking about your meal. Besides, nothing will ever compare to the first bite, which is the real showstopper. “So much of the sensory experience of the food is in that first bite,” Hirsch says. “Your sense of smell drops down with each subsequent bite. If you're eating a steak and someone swaps it out for horse meat halfway through, you might not notice the difference.” Let's hope none of your dining partners are jokesters.

Level 5: Stuffed (3:30 p.m.)
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Did your loud, overzealous chomping drown out the tolling of your satiety bells 15 minutes ago? It’s not too late to fix your faux pas. As soon as you become aware that you have overeaten, put the fork down and follow this active recovery plan.

Hunger Helpers
Keep up. While a siesta sounds tempting, going horizontal will only signal your body to shut down, literally go into sleep mode, and slow digestion. Stay upright—sitting, standing, or walking—to help flush out your meal.

Become the walking fed. A lap round the office or a stroll before you climb into your car after dinner will help speed up digestive transit a bit, Albers says. Sure, you make look like a zombie with your wide, labored gait, but at least you’re staving off a no-good food coma. If you can’t move, try rubbing your bloated belly gently in clockwise circles to relax your abdomen and aid digestion.