There is a lot of confusion about the best way to achieve and maintain a healthy weight long-term. Many think of weight status through the flawed traditional calories-in, calories-out framework. However, I’ve found that learning to interpret and properly respond to our internal hunger and satiety cues is a far more successful and maintainable approach.
From birth, humans are wired to be able to automatically regulate their intake if given access to age-appropriate nourishing foods in sufficient quantities. Infants respond to their hunger cues and initiate eating by crying and rooting for their mother’s breast, then when they are full, they stop eating. Unless food is withheld (or a rare medical condition exists), this cycle repeats itself several times a day for months, until solid food is introduced. Generally the move to solid food is the first time a child’s internally directed intake can begin to be overridden by external influences.
During this time, caregivers have more control over meal timing, the types and quantity of food offered, and the rules around meals. As children grow, their intake patterns and food environment begin to influence their emotional relationship to food, hormonal signaling, the gut microbiome, and gene expression. If children are fed adequate amounts of whole and nourishing foods in a safe environment, they usually maintain their ability to properly regulate their intake. But what happens when this is not the case? What happens when food quality or quantity is poor, or there are unnecessary rules placed around food (clean your plate, shame around food waste, meals at only certain times, forbidden foods, diets)? Children begin to respond less to healthy hunger and satiety signals and respond more to improper hormonal or gut signaling, and to emotional or environmental cues.
Of course, as we age, the problems that may have begun during childhood are compounded by more external factors: peers, food advertising, ubiquity of low-quality convenience foods, societal norms. Food choices through childhood and the teenage years often deteriorate and we consume greater amounts of highly-processed junk-foods laden with sugar, gluten, refined carbohydrates, added colors, preservatives, and chemicals. These foods are particularly damaging to our ability to self-regulate intake as they directly interfere with brain and gut health and hormones.
The first step to retraining ourselves to listen to our hunger and satiety cues is to clean up our diet and lifestyle. Focus on whole, unprocessed foods with an emphasis (in descending order of the percentage each food group should have in your diet): vegetables, healthy fats, protein, legumes, fruit, and gluten-free grains. Drink lots of water. Sleep. Move your body, ideally everyday. As you improve diet and lifestyle components, begin to pay attention to how you feel during and between meals and throughout the course of your day. Compare those feelings to how you felt prior to making these beneficial changes. Is anything different? Do you have fewer sugar cravings? Are your energy levels higher or more even? Has your mood changed? What do your hunger patterns look like — does your hunger between meals return gradually or does it surface suddenly and violently, demanding your immediate attention like a toddler throwing a temper-tantrum?
Ideally, your hunger and satiety should gradually move from one side of a spectrum to the other, never getting too extreme, and never appearing out of nowhere. A great way to visually conceptualize hunger and satiety is with a ten-point scale, an example is below.
We have all likely encountered every point on this scale, but our individual interpretations of the discrete points are likely to be different. When considering the scale, think about what each point feels like to you. When taking the concept of hunger and satiety and applying it to your diet, I recommend keeping a few points in mind:
- It’s most ideal to begin eating when you’re near three on the hunger side, and finish when you’re around seven or eight on the satiety side of the scale. This pattern works well for people who eat three square meals per day.
- The further to one extreme you allow yourself to go on the scale, the harder it is to respond appropriately to hunger and satiety at your next meal. Some people get ravenously “hangry” and then eat everything in sight, landing them on the opposite end of the spectrum, feeling Thanksgiving full. Sometimes the response to over-consumption is restriction, which can lead to becoming overly hungry, and a binge-restriction cycle can ensue. This pattern can appear on daily, weekly, or even monthly cycles and can be broken by working to honor your hunger and satiety — by not allowing yourself to get too hungry and ending your meal at an appropriate place of fullness.
- Be aware of other eating cues — hunger and satiety should be the primary driver of intake. This is an enormous challenge for many of us — we eat because food is available; we eat because of emotions, stress, boredom, and fatigue; and we eat to celebrate and to mourn. Coincidentally, as we get better at paying attention and responding to our hunger and satiety cues, it becomes easier to navigate our intake of, and relationship with, food. There will always be times when we eat even though we aren’t hungry, or when we continue past the point of fullness. But eating in accordance with hunger and satiety means we make consumption decisions consciously and with awareness.
- If you are substantially over or underweight, or are struggling with disordered eating, this scale can be very helpful, but I suggest working with a Registered Dietitian to help you learn to appropriately interpret and adjust your intake for your specific needs.
Once you’ve begun to tune into your physical and emotional feelings as they relate to your intake, consider tracking this information in tandem with what you eat. The process of food journaling is one of the most powerful tools to help us identify patterns between our food choices and how we feel. A simple spreadsheet is a great place to do this journaling, but a notebook or food-tracking app are also good options.
Armed with insight into our habits around hunger and satiety, we can make adjustments that respect our biological wisdom and result in weight optimization.