Gauging hunger can be tricky. However, it’s always a good idea to make your doctor aware of any intestinal bloat or feelings of fullness that you’re experiencing to help rule out a possible medical condition. That aside, the difficulty in gauging hunger usually centers around social or environmental cues that can often lead many of us to eat out of habit or emotions- even when we’re not actually hungry (CDC, 2012). These triggers can be based around people, places or things that remind us consciously (and often unconsciously) of food. The first step in determining whether you are experiencing true physical verses emotional hunger is to create some awareness around it. You may want to begin by keeping a food journal containing both the foods eaten as well as the time of day they were consumed. This should offer a better prospective on eating patterns and may help you to determine whether there are certain times when your hunger is more eminent.
Some people also find it helpful to note their feelings just prior to eating. For example, were you stressed just before that mid-afternoon snack, angry at a loved one, tired or just plain bored? All of these feelings can further intensify existing environmental cues- making it even more difficult to determine whether real hunger exists. As a dietitian, I sometimes use a 20-minute strategy which starts when the individual experiences their first hunger pang. I ask my clients to simply wait 20 minutes and if those feelings of hunger still exist or have intensified, chances are its true physical hunger.
If it’s been more than 3 hours since your last meal, you are likely experiencing true physical hunger and should probably eat soon to help avoid getting too hungry. Excessive hunger inevitably leads to unplanned eating and over indulgence in foods that may or may not necessarily be healthy choices.