The human body is a pretty amazing thing. It knows when it needs rest, when it's too hot or too cold, and whether we've gone too long without blinking. It will give us indications to let us know what it needs and (for the most part) we learn in childhood how to fix each of these things (take a nap, remove or put on clothing, blink).
The same is true for hunger.
We are born with a set of signals that tell us when to eat and when to stop. With a bit of learning, the body should be able to identify what will satisfy us each time we get hungry. That is, until something gets in the way.
There are a number of factors that can interrupt our ability to interpret and respond to hunger, from eating due to emotions (where those become the driving force rather than hunger), consistent overeating (which dulls our sense of satiety), and eating foods that perpetuate a cycle of hunger (addressing cravings but not really nourishing the body).
The impact of how we're taught to eat as children can play a large role. If a child is regularly required to eat every last bite of dinner - the Clean Plate Club, were you a member? - regardless of hunger, they learn to eat for their parents rather than for the sake of refueling their body. The same is true for children who are given food as a distraction or reward and end up eating in the absence of hunger. In fact, children who learn to eat for reasons beyond hunger tend to have a difficult time identifying when they're truly hungry, truly full, and which foods would satisfy them. (Check out this post on 'competent eating'.) These kids are more likely to overeat, even into adulthood.
If you've been out of touch with hunger for some time, getting back in touch with it can take some work. It requires us not only to identify which foods are satisfying, but to pay attention to the signals that tell us what we need to know: am I truly hungry right now? Now that I've eaten, have I had enough? How much fuel do I actually need? Is there something else - a walk, some water, a break - that will quell this sensation right now?
Start by identifying where you notice your hunger: your head? your stomach (above the belly button)? your stomach (below the belly button)? your mouth? your throat?
Then ask yourself how long it has been since you last ate. Often, the sensation of digestion (behind the belly button, usually within an hour of eating) can feel like hunger. The same is true for the lightheadedness that can follow a meal, particularly if our diet isn't predominantly clean foods (the lightheadedness is what Dr. Fuhrman calls 'toxic hunger', and it is actually the body detoxifying after eating). Being able to differentiate this from true hunger is tough, but starting by just asking 'Should I, realistically, be hungry right now?' is a good step!
The sensation of thirst is really similar to hunger, so start there. Hydrate with water first, then reassess.
Consider, too, the content of the last meal or snack you ate. High-carbohydrate, high-sugar, nutrient-void processed foods (cereals, snack foods, etc.) tend to make us feel more hungry because, although the body has consumed a large volume of food, it has missed out on nutrients. The body will continue to ask to be fed until it feels it has received everything it needs. (The spike-and-drop in blood sugar from eating these foods doesn't help, either.) If this happens for you, honor what your system is asking for by refueling with some kind of protein (beans, for instance, in the form of hummus), fats (nuts, seeds, avocado), and/ or something nutrient-dense (kale chips, goji berries, orange vegetables). Make a mental note to incorporate those into meals next time, especially if you're having something on the starchier side of the spectrum.
Getting specific about what your body wants is also key! Take a step back from the snack-attack feeling and really ask yourself what you're hungry for. Don't assume the first thing that comes to mind (A DOUGHNUT!) is really what your system needs. Think, too, about whether you've been eating the same food for an extended period of time (like that bag of pretzels you've been munching on for an hour, constantly returning to the kitchen to refill your bowl as if on auto-pilot). Is hunger driving you back to the kitchen, or is it something else? Boredom, maybe? Mindless eating comes not from hunger, but from being stuck in a rut: get in touch with this and ask yourself - truly - is this food what my body needs right now?
The flowchart above is intended as a starting point for asking these questions when you feel those first twinges of hunger. Don't be afraid of the sensation! Just engage with it, ask the deeper-than-usual questions, and really pay attention to the answers your body gives.
If you're hungry, by all means, eat! If you're not hungry, get creative with the answer to the question, "What do I need, if not food?"
Do you struggle with feeling hungry or full? Where do you experience these in your body?