How to Recognize Hunger Signs

woman looking in the fridge

Nikola Ilic / EyeEm / Getty Images

The signs of hunger are not always straightforward. You may wonder if your desire for food is due to physical hunger, an emotional response, boredom, or another cause. Diet culture may have blunted your ability to recognize the signs of hunger.

When trying to lose or maintain your weight, dealing with hunger can be frustrating and confusing. Re-learning how to respect your hunger and fullness cues can provide clarity and put you on a the path toward peace with food. Learn more about recognizing the signs of hunger and how to respond to them.

One to two-thirds of people who diet regain more weight than they lose. Dieting increases the risks of developing eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, osteoporosis, psychological stress, physical issues resulting from weight cycling, and psychological issues including depression and low self-esteem.

The Causes of Hunger

Hunger is a physical sensation caused by your body's response when it senses you lack enough food. It can also present as having a preoccupation with food, or constantly thinking about it. There are several reasons this can happen, including hormonal and chemical reactions.

On the other hand, appetite is a psychological manifestation that can be learned or triggered by events such as boredom, emotional events, or the presence of highly desirable foods. Sometimes, these psychological triggers lead to having a desire to eat in the absence of physical hunger.

Various hormones regulate and influence hunger, appetite, and digestion. If you've been eating in a calorie deficit, meaning you are consuming fewer calories than you burn, hormones such as ghrelin send signals to your brain that lead to hunger. Through human evolution, this process encouraged food-seeking to prevent starvation.

Other causes of increased appetite and hunger include medications (such as corticosteroids and tricyclic antidepressants), diabetes, thyroid diseases, hypoglycemia, and premenstrual syndrome.

Reactions to stress can also increase appetite and hunger. This reaction can be due to hormonal and psychological responses to stress. The stress hormone cortisol can lead to increased feelings of hunger and desire for foods, mainly those higher in sugar and fat.

Managing stress is essential for overall health. Stress can both increase and decrease hunger and appetite. If you find yourself overwhelmed with stress, reach out to a health care provider for help.

How to Recognize Signs of Hunger

The signs of physical hunger can be different in everyone, and some people have spent a lot of time ignoring their natural hunger cues and are no longer in touch with what those cues look like. Additionally, long-term calorie reduction can slow the metabolism, leading to hunger even when you aren't losing weight.

If you have spent a lot of time dieting, this may be the case for you. If so, it's best to speak to a dietician, nutritionist, or therapist specializing in this area.

Signs of Hunger

  • Growling stomach
  • Low energy
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble focusing
  • Shakiness

How to Use Hunger Cues

Research indicates that most weight-loss diets fail. As the body responds to a lack of calories, your metabolism often slows while hunger increases. Eating based on hunger cues can be more effective for weight maintenance but may not always work for weight loss.

Learning to use your hunger and satiety cues by eating more mindfully can help you get in touch with when to eat and when you may be seeking the comfort of food for other reasons.

Tuning In to Your Hunger Cues

  • Pause to ask yourself if you are feeling physical hunger
  • Scan your body head to toe to determine your mood and physical state
  • Slow down your eating to give your body time to sense fullness

Intuitive Eating

Understanding hunger and fullness cues to help guide eating choices are key principles of intuitive eating. This method of eating can help people learn how to balance a healthy weight and lifestyle with their dietary decisions. One of the prominent aspects of intuitive eating is respecting your body's biological hunger signals.

To successfully honor your hunger and fullness cues, you can use a scale. Eat when you reach level 3 or 4 and try never to let your hunger get below 3. Eating when you are extremely hungry can reduce your ability to choose foods that may help satisfy your needs to the fullest extent. Also, hunger hormones are released in more significant amounts, increasing your hunger even more, which may lead to eating beyond fullness.

Slow or stop eating when you reach level 6. Wait 15 to 20 minutes to see if you are still hungry, allowing your body to send fullness cues. Often after waiting, you'll feel full, but not uncomfortable. If you are still hungry, continue eating up to level 7.

Hunger and Satiety Scale

  • 10: Extremely stuffed to the point of nausea
  • 9: Stuffed and very uncomfortable
  • 8: Overly full and a bit uncomfortable
  • 7: Full but no discomfort
  • 6: Satisfied but more food would feel ok
  • 5: Feeling a bit hungry
  • 4: Hunger signals such as growling stomach
  • 3: Feeling hungry to the point of discomfort and irritability
  • 2: Very hungry with dizziness, shakiness, weakness, and low energy
  • 1: Ravenous, extreme hunger with greater weakness and no energy

Tips for Responding to Hunger

If you are finding yourself hungry much of the time, but seem to be gaining weight when your doctor has advised weight loss or maintenance, there are some ways to manage it.

Incorporate Exercise

Exercise provides a wide range of health benefits. Interestingly, exercise also helps with appetite and hunger regulation.

Research shows that exercise blunts appetite without creating hunger which leads to future overeating. This means that adding exercise to your healthy weight balance lifestyle can increase calorie burn, provide protection against diseases, while not leading to increased hunger.

Take a Diet Break

If you have been trying to cut calories and lose weight for a long time, or you have drastically reduced your calories recently, it may be best to stop this behavior and increase your calories. Dieting leads to hormonal, metabolic, and digestive reactions that make you feel increasingly hungry while also leading to undesirable side effects like low energy, irritability, and decreased mood.

The best strategy for you, in this case, may be to increase your calories with a focus on high-quality nutritious foods. You can use this calculator to get an idea of your caloric needs.

Keep in mind, however, that if you've been dieting for some time, you may have a much lower metabolic rate and therefore will require fewer calories to maintain weight. If this is a concern, you can try increasing calories or portion sizes slowly to a more sustainable level. Consult a dietician or nutritionist for personalized recommendations.

A Word From Verywell

Eating does not always have to be an act that occurs solely based on hunger. There are many reasons to eat, including enjoyment, social events, and celebrations.

If you are concerned about your weight and your doctor has indicated weight loss or maintenance is a healthy goal for you, learning how to listen to your hunger and satiety cues can help inform your nutrition decisions.

10 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Erhardt GA. Intuitive eating as a counter-cultural process towards self-actualisation: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of experiences of learning to eat intuitively. Health Psychology Open. 2021;8(1):205510292110009. doi:10.1177%2F20551029211000957

  2. Müller TD, Nogueiras R, Andermann ML, et al. GhrelinMol Metab. 2015;4(6):437-460. doi:10.1016/j.molmet.2015.03.005

  3. National Library of Medicine. Appetite—Increased.

  4. Harvard Health Publishing. Why stress causes people to overeat.

  5. Hall KD. Metabolic adaptations to weight loss: metabolic adaptations to weight lossObesity. 2018;26(5):790-791. doi:10.1002%2Foby.22189

  6. Leblanc V, Provencher V, Bégin C, Corneau L, Tremblay A, Lemieux S. Impact of a Health-At-Every-Size intervention on changes in dietary intakes and eating patterns in premenopausal overweight women: Results of a randomized trial. Clinical Nutrition. 2012;31(4):481-488. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2011.12.013

  7. Borkoles E, Carroll S, Clough P, Polman RCJ. Effect of a non-dieting lifestyle randomised control trial on psychological well-being and weight management in morbidly obese pre-menopausal women. Maturitas. 2016;83:51-58. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2015.09.010

  8. University Health Services Berkeley. The Hunger-Satiety Scale.

  9. King JA, Wasse LK, Stensel DJ. Acute exercise increases feeding latency in healthy normal weight young males but does not alter energy intake. Appetite. 2013;61:45-51. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2019.00162

  10. Douglas, J., King, J., Clayton, D. et al. Acute effects of exercise on appetite, ad libitum energy intake and appetite-regulatory hormones in lean and overweight/obese men and womenInt J Obes 41, 1737–1744 (2017). doi:10.1038/ijo.2017.181

By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.