What is a Hunger Scale?
Have you ever heard of the Hunger Scale? It is a subjective tool that helps to quantify your level of hunger and fullness on a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being the hungriest and 10 the fullest). It is also called the Hunger Discovery Scale, which is coined by the creators of Intuitive Eating (1).
One recent study using a hunger scale for “hunger training” found that those who successfully used the scale and blood sugar levels for eating had better recognition of their hunger and fullness cues, which improved food choices, portions eaten, and when/how often meals were consumed (2).
The Ultimate Goal of Using a Hunger Scale
Now it may sound kinda weird to walk around with a physical or mental scale to decide when to eat. However, this is not the goal of using this tool. That would be completely unrealistic!
The goal is to help you aim for comfortable hunger and fullness whenever you begin and end a meal, WITHOUT dependency on any external cues or tools.
When you begin a meal at a comfortable level of hunger (around 3 or 4), you are more likely to end the meal at a comfortable level of fullness (around 6 or 7). As you can imagine, the opposite can be true as well.
For example, if you wait to eat when you’re experiencing “primal” or intense hunger (1 or 2), you will likely eat until you experience painfully uncomfortable fullness (9 or 10) (1). We want to avoid this as much as possible!
Intuitive Eating: Honor Your Hunger and Feel Your Fullness
There are 2 Principles of Intuitive Eating (IE) that directly relate to hunger and fullness: Honor Your Hunger and Feel Your Fullness (1). When you can begin to reconnect to your body’s natural cues AND respond to them accordingly, you can experience the many benefits of IE.
One of the ways that diet culture manipulates is that it makes you question and distrust these cues. For instance, how many times have you heard food rules like “you shouldn’t eat after 7 PM” or “hunger is often just another sign of thirst and you need to drink water instead”? LOTS, I’m sure.
Rather than letting outside voices and arbitrary food rules dictate how and when you eat, take some time to monitor your body’s hunger and fullness cues throughout the day. Check out this blog post for more information about recognizing and challenging these voices.
Having a Hunger Scale to use as a guide can be a great place to start honoring your hunger and fullness. Keep reading for how to use the hunger scale and my free JNL Hunger Scale download!
The 10 Levels of the Hunger Scale
I’m so excited to share with you The Joyfully Nourished Life Hunger Scale! But first, let’s take a few minutes to break down what each of the 10 levels of the Hunger Scale mean.
Level 1: Extreme Hunger
If you’ve ever experienced food insecurity or actually felt an intensely painful form of hunger, this is level 1. As scary as it sounds, this level could mean you’re approaching starvation or malnutrition. Light-headedness and fainting may also accompany this stage. This is the kind of hunger you definitely want to avoid.
It most likely occurs after 24+ hours without food or a longer period of time without enough food for your basal energy requirements. If sustained, you may begin to lose the ability to feel your body’s normal hunger cues. However, there are other reasons to consider why you might be lacking hunger cues (3).
P.S. If you think you or someone you know is experiencing an eating disorder, please consider finding support here. Also, if you think you or someone you know is experiencing food insecurity, please consider finding support here. Both of these experiences can be health- and life-threatening.
Level 2: Uncomfortable Hunger
Level 2 is a significantly uncomfortable, ravenous hunger. I like to call it feeling “hangry” because you probably feel a combination of hunger and marked irritability as a result.
You may experience painful stomach rumbling, shakiness, or headaches at this level. This usually occurs when you haven’t eaten (or have eaten too little) for 6-24 hours.
Level 3: Comfortable Hunger
Level 3 is hunger that can be felt through mild to moderate hunger cues (ex: stomach growling, hunger pangs). You probably want to let this be your hungriest stage before eating. For some, this stage may be a bit too close to level 2, so the next stage may be more ideal.
Level 4: Gentle Hunger
Level 4 is the beginning of mild hunger. This is often the ideal starting point for eating before meals…but you may be challenged trying to detect it!
The cues for gentle hunger can be quite subtle. You may experience mild stomach rumbling, a heightened sensitivity to food smells, or increased salivation at this stage. Most people begin to experience gentle hunger 3-5 hours after their last meal.
Level 5: Neutral
Level 5 is a neutral stage where you are neither hungry nor full. So what should you do here? It depends. This might be a great place to consider the other 3 types of hunger: practical hunger, taste hunger, and emotional hunger.
Practical hunger is choosing to eat outside of physiological hunger when waiting for your hunger cues would be impractical. An example might be choosing to have a small, balanced snack with carbs and protein/fat (i.e. apple with peanut butter) before going out to eat to avoid ravenous hunger when your meal arrives.
Taste hunger is exactly how it sounds: having a TASTE for something even though you aren’t hungry! This is totally normal and can even help you avoid overeating as a result of intense cravings.
Emotional hunger is a trigger to eat when you experience certain emotions. There is nothing wrong with this! It is normal to desire food for comfort or to enhance or diminish certain feelings. It is important to be mindful of what your body is feeling and whether eating is a healthy choice for you in the moment.
Level 6: Gentle Fullness
Level 6 is the twin sister of level 4. It is the beginning of mild fullness, and, like the opposite of level 4, is often the ideal stopping point for eating. I would argue that for some (myself included), this is another tough one to find!
A good word for level 6 is satisfied. Your stomach isn’t quite “full”, but you could stop eating and be fine. Eating another few bites wouldn’t hurt either.
For many of us, there may still be food on our plates at this stage. This means our minds may be triggered to keep eating based on the external, visual cue of seeing food left uneaten. I encourage you to really sit in this space and ask yourself “Do I really want to keep eating?”
There is no right or wrong answer. Whatever you choose is okay, but it is good to become AWARE of what your choice is and why.
Level 7: Comfortable Fullness
Level 7 is the twin sister of level 3 (you might be detecting a pattern!). It is mild to moderate fullness that can feel like slight belly distention or a mild, full feeling that isn’t uncomfortable. There may be a small amount of room left in your stomach for more food.
You probably want to let this be your fullest stage when you finish eating. Again, this stage may be too close to level 8 for some.
Level 8: Uncomfortable Fullness
Level 8 is the twin sister of level 2. It is an uncomfortable fullness. This is where you might end up if you started eating at level 2. You have little-to-no room left in your stomach after eating.
You may experience noticeable belly distention, gassiness, or sleepiness at this stage. You’ve probably overeaten once you’re here. You may feel better after taking a leisurely stroll or wearing loose clothing to help your food digest.
In fact, I have found myself secretly unbuttoning my pants under the table while eating out with friends at this stage. Whoops!
Level 9: Stuffed
Level 9 is exactly what it sounds like. You have extended your stomach beyond its normal capacity and you feel it too! Some equate this to “Thanksgiving Day” fullness, which feels like a more intense version of level 8. You may have little desire to do much at all (except sleep) at this stage.
Level 10: Overstuffed
Level 10 is the counter to level 1. You are so full that you experience intense abdominal pain or nausea that may lead to vomiting or another compensatory behavior. This is the most extreme version of fullness that those with binge-eating disorder (BED) or bulimia nervosa can experience often (4,5).
If you find yourself getting to this level, I encourage you to consider reaching out for help and support, as this too is a very serious stage and one that can be health- and life-threatening. You are not alone and there is free, 24/7 help available to you!
The Joyfully Nourished Life Hunger Scale + Free Download
Based on the levels above, you can see that you likely feel your best when you stay within the boundaries of levels 3 through 7. In order to help you assess your hunger and fullness, I’ve created a FREE downloadable Hunger Scale with original, bonus content for all my JNL friends!
Just click the link above to get instant access! What is your favorite takeaway from this week’s blog post? Feel free to share in the comments below!
Much love, friends! <3
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Much love, friends!