“How much do I need to eat?” “How do I know when to eat?”

As a dietitian, that is a question I have received from countless clients and patients. I wish the answer was as simple as a calorie level, but the truth is that it’s not.

Many nutrition and wellness professionals preach about particular calorie levels and I’ve found that it’s more impactful to learn how to read your hunger and fullness cues rather than eat this or that.

Enter the hunger scale. It’s a helpful tool I use with clients that can help create more ease. I find that when we are not tuned in to the subtleties of our hunger and fullness, it can be easier to become more out of tune with our bodies and food. The hunger scale comes with variance and keep in mind that it’s more important to focus on sensation instead of a hard and fast number on the scale. It’s also important to remember that sometimes we eat for other reasons other than hunger and that’s ok too (celebrations, family gatherings, social outings, etc).

Ideally, you would eat when you’re at a 3 and stop when you’re around a 7 or 8. Again, this might not always be the case and I wanted to give you some real life examples of “how to do intuitive eating” in the real life aka when there are timing and schedules and other people. The hunger scale can still work for you but it take practice and patience until the thinking ahead and establishing a sense of ease around eating happens.

Note: Hunger Scales can vary slightly and it’s more important to focus on the hunger/fullness qualities you notice rather than any one scale being right or wrong.

For Athletes:

You have a long endurance run or workout today and even though you’re only at about a 5 now, you know that you need to eat something to provide fuel for your exercise and prevent bonking later.

You have a long endurance run in the morning but you know that a considerable amount of food doesn’t settle well before running for you. So you choose to eat a bit more than usual (until an 8 or 9) at dinner the night before and a lighter snack when you wake up feeling more like a 5 or 6 the next morning.

After a hard workout, you don’t feel hungry at all (more like a 5) and slightly even nauseous because most of your blood is now in your large muscle groups that were just being worked rather than in your GI system. Yet, you know it’s a good idea to eat something with protein and carbohydrate after your heart rate returns to normal to help recover and repair tissues. Maybe this is when you choose smoothies, shakes, or soups that don’t require less effort.

You have a workout planned for after work this evening but with a busy afternoon of meetings, you won’t have time for your usual snack so you eat more at your lunch (until you’re about an 8 on the scale) to provide lasting energy for your workout later that day.

For Busy Professionals/Parents:

You are snapping at your friends while out to eat waiting for food as you realize you’re more hungry than you thought (more like a 2) and you realize you should’ve probably had a snack but since you’re already out, you catch the waitress to put in an appetizer order so you can fuel to return to normal, enjoyable conversing with your friends. This could also be taken into account with a momma trying to get dinner prepped and realizes she’s hungry and unnecessarily snapping (a 2 on the scale). So rather than continue, she takes a moment to eat a few crackers with peanut butter to help sustain energy and restore emotional balance and increases to 3 or 4 on the scale. In both of these instances, you would still be ready for a meal but intuitive eating means listening to these subtleties and honoring them appropriately.

You’re not hungry for breakfast when you leave the house at 6:30am (5) but by 8am you’re ravenous (2). In intuitive eating, you would recognize that you will get hungry and bring breakfast with you to eat at your desk. In non-intuitive eating, you may think, “oh, I’m not hungry” or “oh, I don’t need to eat breakfast today” – both of these examples do not set yourself up for success and in fact succumb to diet mentality that is not helpful.

You had an early dinner and you go to bed hungry. You think this is no big deal but you wake up soooo ravenously hungry that even water feels funny or unsettling so you decide you should probably not eat breakfast. NO. I know it can sound counter intuitive, but when you’re “so hungry that you don’t feel hungry anymore” you still need to eat something. It can be hard because you may say that you don’t feel hungry anymore or you just know food is not going to settle well. If you truly have an empty pit, there are few foods that will settle well (or at least that’s been my experience and the experience of others I know), so choose the path (or food) of least resistance that sounds the most soothing.

You’re going to to eat later with friends but you’re currently starting to get a smidgen hungry. Intuitive eating asks that you honor this and have a snack to keep you content and happy until you go meet up with your friends later. Diet culture would insist that you shouldn’t have a snack because you’re going to eat later. That’s just silly and doesn’t honor your body.

Part of honoring your body is in listening to these subtle cues using the hunger scale as a guide. The more you start to listen (and honor) these cues, the more you’ll start to trust your body and strengthen your relationship with your body.

Did you find this helpful?? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

If you did find this helpful, you may also enjoy: Satisfaction vs. Fullness: What’s the Difference in Plant-Based Intuitive Eating?

How Do I Know When to Eat? A Real Life Guide to the Hunger Scale

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