Eat when you’re hungry. This should be the most self-evident piece of nutritional advice out there, right? But somehow, an ever-rotating roster of dieticians seem to offer contradictory plans: Eat every 2 hours. Fast one day a week. Eat whatever you want, as long as it’s below 1,250 calories. With so many ideas on the table (so to speak), it can be hard for a girl to know what and when to eat … especially when she can’t tell if she’s really hungry or just reacting to a “Chopped” binge-athon.
According to Baltimore-based nutritionist Diana Sugiuchi of Nourish, however, the best way to get back on track is surprisingly easy: a 10-step hunger scale, crafted to help gauge appetite levels. The commonly used scale from MIT Medical, for example, begins at 1 (“Beyond hungry … you can’t concentrate and feel dizzy”) and ends at 10 (“Beyond full … you are physically miserable”).
“A lot of times when people eat, it’s for emotional reasons,” says Sugiuchi. “Not just stress or sadness, but also boredom, happiness or even just habit. By introducing the hunger scale, you’re able to take a step and identify emotional eating.”
Sounds easy, right? Trust me—it’s not. Though most scale adherents advise starting at 4 (eh, I could eat) and ending at 5 (starting to feel satisfied), those criteria are tricky to qualify.
“Many people can’t just jump into the mindfulness [of the scale] because they’ve lost that connection to their bodies,” Sugiuchi says. “For them, I recommend eating about every four hours or so.”
Surprise! This advice actually works for me. Eating more regularly prevents over-hunger—that starving feeling that makes me want to order everything on Taco Bell’s dollar menu—and is slowly but surely helping me distinguish between real hunger and a craving, which Sugiuchi says is key.
“True hunger tends to come on slowly, while cravings will come on all of a sudden,” Sugiuchi says. “When you’re actually hungry, you’re open to eating anything—a salad, a sandwich, whatever—whereas emotional eating tends to be for a very specific food, like ice cream or chicken.”
To get the most from the approach, Sugiuchi also advises combining appetite awareness with snacks like nuts, hummus and yogurt, as well as strategic meals: a quarter whole grains and starch, half veggies and a quarter lean protein. Also important? Giving oneself time to process by getting up from the table and doing something else for a full 15 minutes before considering seconds.
Do I always remember to wait on a sweet treat post-meal for the requisite 15 before my brain clangs its fullness bell? Absolutely not. And do I still sometimes scarf that last sushi roll because I don’t want it to feel lonely on the tray? Yeah.
But I actively stopped myself from eating the second half of my sub today, too —and in time, I’m hoping that changes made via the hunger scale will result in changes on the bathroom scale. Meanwhile, I’ll pack a sack of healthful snacks in my work bag and aim to set my cell alarm after a sammie. Oh, I’ll still be watching “Chopped”—but mindfully.