It's not always easy to tell if you're hungry. You may question if the need to eat that you feel is because you're actually hungry or just bored. Also, because of the trendy diet culture, many people do not understand their hunger cues and don't know when they are hungry.

Hunger can be frustrating and hard to understand when trying to eat right and live healthily. Relearning how to listen to your body's signals for hunger and fullness can help you see things more clearly and get you on the road to peace with food and control of your life.

Kounsel Live recently hosted Andrea Porter on a discussion about how you can improve your relationship with food. Andrea is a registered dietitian helping families work together to eat well and live a healthier lifestyle.

What causes hunger?

Hunger is the physical feeling your body gives you when it knows you haven't eaten enough. It can also show up as obsessed with food or thinking about it. Several things, like hormones and chemical reactions, can be why this happens.

On the other hand, hunger can be a mental reaction learned or brought on by your feelings. When you are bored or feel intensely emotional, you may start feeling hungry. You may also feel hungry if you are in a place where you can see desirable food. Sometimes, these situations can make you want to eat even if you just ate or are not hungry.

Another cause of hunger is your body's chemical reaction triggered by hormones. Your appetite, hunger, and digestion are controlled and affected by these hormones. For example, if you have a calorie deficit, which means you eat less than you burn, you will activate a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin sends signals to your brain that make you feel hungry.

Why am I always hungry?

Common hunger cues to look out for

Different people feel physical hunger in different ways. People who have ignored their hunger cues for a long time probably don't know the signs that show that they are hungry.

If you have been on a diet for a long time or cut calories, you may need to see a nutritionist or dietitian to help you understand your hunger cues.

Common hunger signs to look out for

3 easy ways to know when you are hungry

Here are simple ways to assess your hunger level:

  1. Keep a hunger diary. A hunger diary is different from a food diary in that you use it to indicate what's going on with your hunger cues. You will record the time you feel hungry and the intensity of your hunger. Keeping a hunger diary helps you track your hunger cues, identify patterns in your mood and response to hunger, and know the best time of the day to eat.
Keep a hunger diary - easy ways to know when you are hungry.
  1. Rate hunger intensity. When you feel/think that you are hungry, it helps to assess the situation by rating your hunger level from 1 to 5. When you are at 1, you are slightly hungry, but when you are at 5, you feel ravenous with other signs like headache, irritability, and shaking all over the body. It is good to start planning your snack or meal when you are at a 2 or 3; that way, you are not eating too soon or too late.
  1. Record your mood. Whether you are eating or not, record how you are feeling at that moment in your hunger diary. Some mood words to use include sad, numb, hurt, angry, calm, afraid, nervous, etc. This gives an idea of your emotional response to food or hunger.

8 Factors that affect your hunger cue

Although hunger is how your body naturally shows that you need to eat, some factors may affect your hunger cue. These include:

  1. Food insecurity. This is a psychological factor that can make you ignore your hunger cue. If you have limited resources and cannot meet your basic needs, the anxiety of your next meal may make you overdrive on survival mode. This means that you start ignoring your hunger and just consume what is available, leading to overeating.
  2. Lifestyle. Your social life, activity level, and culture may affect your hunger cue. For example, if you are religious, you may be undertaking a fasting regimen that compels you to ignore your hunger. If you are physically and socially active, you may also overlook your cues to spend more time with people, work out, or complete a diet plan.
  3. Too much screen time. This causes overstimulation in the brain. Studies show that you are likely to ignore your hunger cues to continue watching when you enjoy too much screen time. It leads to a problem where you are compelled to binge on food or slip into unhealthy eating and drinking high-caffeinated drinks.
Too much screen time - Factors that affect your hunger cue
  1. Hormones. Clinical situations may affect the ghrelin hormone that drives you to eat. When this happens, you lose the hunger for food and stop eating, leading to a nutrition deficiency.
  1. Environment. Your workload or schedule can affect hunger cues, which is the most significant factor for most people. For instance, if you have a huge workload that forces you to skip meals, you can make a habit of not eating and ignoring your cues. In the end, you may lose the ability to tell when you are hungry.
  1. Illness. Illness or injuries can cause metabolic changes that disrupt your hunger cues. While it may not be permanent, experiencing this long-term can make you lose the ability to recognize when you are hungry.
  1. Age. As you age, your appetite changes, becoming less interested in food and drinks. Although this is an entirely regular occurrence, you must ensure that you get enough nutrients in those smaller food portions.
  1. Chemotherapy. This is a significant factor that can influence your eating habit. If you are doing a chemo procedure, you may lose your desire to eat or not feel hungry. This is why you need a dietitian/nutritionist to walk through this with you and ensure that you get the nutrient your body needs.

How to Stop Overeating

If you struggle with overeating or do not know how to stop eating, here are 6 tips that can help you stop overeating.

1. Practice embodied eating. Eating while distracted is a regular occurrence for most individuals, whether it's working through lunch on the internet or snacking on chips while watching your favorite show.

Although it may seem innocent, eating while distracted can cause overeating.

A review of studies shows that persons who were preoccupied while eating ate more calories. They also ate more later in the day because they weren't paying attention to their meals as they were eating. That is why it is important to practice embodied eating.

Practice embodied eating - How to Stop Overeating

Embodied eating is being intentional and aware of what you are eating. Find more information on it in our counselor's post.

2. Eat slowly. Devouring your food might cause you to overeat while eating slowly can help control overeating by increasing fullness and decreasing hunger.

Taking your time to chew your food completely reduces food intake and increases fullness. This also allows the brain time to know when the stomach is full and stop eating. Taking more time to eat may increase fullness and make people feel like they ate more.

To start eating slowly, put down your utensils between bites or take deep breaths. You can also set a timer to monitor your speed.

3. Know your trigger foods. It is easier to avoid eating too much when you know the foods that you tend to binge on. For example, if ice cream makes you eat too much, you should stop keeping it in the freezer. That way, a more difficult access may reduce overeating.

Instead of binging on unhealthy food, you can keep healthy snacks like hummus and veggies, apples, peanut butter, etc at hand. Be sure to keep unhealthy snacks like chips, sweets, and cookies out of sight to avoid temptation.

4. Eat some of your favorite food. Restrictive eating behaviors that omit many of your favorite meals can make you start unhealthy eating. While whole, unprocessed foods are better, occasionally giving yourself a treat is healthy because many people cannot totally give up on eating ice cream, pizza, or chocolate,  

If you are addicted to food, you may need permanent abstinence from trigger foods. However, make sure to find healthy, satisfying substitutes. Focus on healthful, nutritious eating while allowing yourself the occasional indulgence.

5. Eat fiber and protein. Beans, veggies, oats, and fruit are high-fiber foods that can help you feel full longer and minimize overeating. A study shows that people who ate fiber-rich oatmeal for breakfast felt fuller and ate less at lunch. Snacking on nuts and adding beans and vegetables to your plate can help you eat less.

Eat fiber and protein - How to Stop overeating

The same is true for protein foods, as it keeps you satisfied all day and reduces overeating. High-protein breakfasts reduce your appetite and snacking later in the day. A protein-rich meal like eggs reduces hunger hormones. Greek yogurt and other high-protein snacks can help you eat less and reduce hunger.

6. Do calming activities. When you are experiencing the urge to overeat, it is always a good idea to do something that calms you down. Sometimes, the impulse results from stress, so taking care of yourself can help you get over it.

Do calming activities - Factors that affect your hunger cue

About Andrea Porter

Andrea Porter is a registered dietitian in Idaho. Her passion revolves around the idea of nutrition – helping families work together to eat well and live a healthier lifestyle. You can connect with her on the Kounsel App.