Dr. Kim: Are you physically hungry or is your mind playing tricks on you?

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Written by: Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Kim Feinstein, RedMountain Weight Loss’s Behavioral Weight Loss Specialist


After reading our January blog, hopefully, you are feeling motivated and ready to lose weight and change your lifestyle once and for all! The first step to losing weight and changing your relationship with food, yourself, and your body is to increase your self-awareness. Not only do you need to be cognizant of what you are eating, but also of the reasons why you eat. People often eat for many different reasons. Do you know what signals you to eat?


Are you eating because you are physically hungry or are you eating because you are psychologically hungry? Often times, people confuse the two. Do you know how differentiate physical hunger from psychological hunger and identify their distinguishing characteristics?


Let us begin by defining physical hunger defined by RedMountain Weight Loss Owner & Medical Director, Dr. Suzanne Bentz, D.O.:


“The dictionary describes physical hunger as “the painful sensation or state of weakness caused by need of food.” More specifically, physical hunger involves a complex interaction between the digestive system, endocrine system and the brain. For instance, when the body needs refueling, we begin to feel physical symptoms, which build gradually.


The hormone Ghrelin triggers symptoms of physical hunger that include feeling tired, weak, and irritable. Additionally, your stomach begins to rumble and you may even feel shaky and get a headache. If you don’t feed your body when it needs food, the physical symptoms intensify. You find it more difficult to concentrate and may experience significant lightheadedness, irritability, nervousness, and indecisiveness.


Hunger and fullness are regulated by hormones that act on the hypothalamus, which is an area of the brain. When your body has had enough food to satisfy its needs, the hormone Leptin signals the hypothalamus, registering fullness (also called satiety). When we eat to the point of satiety, the stomach feels comfortable, and satisfied–not stuffed. We soon begin to feel calmer, more alert and energized and our physical hunger symptoms have subsided” – Dr. Suzanne Bentz, D.O.


The ability to feel physical hunger and fullness is a quality that we were each born with. Babies do not need to be told how much milk or food they need to consume to feel satisfied and stay healthy; instead, when they are physically satisfied, they become disinterested in food and simply stop eating. As we mature, this ability becomes diminished for various reasons and we learn to ignore it and/or forget it altogether.


Luckily, we can retrain ourselves to tune in to our internal signals for hunger and fullness by utilizing a Hunger/Fullness Scale.


Imagine a scale ranging from 0–10, with “0” being starving and “10” being stuffed. Use the Hunger/fullness scale to help you begin eating when you are physically hungry and stop eating when you are physically satisfied.


The Hunger Scale


1.     Starving: Ravenous, weak, your stomach acid is churning.

2.     Uncomfortably Hungry: Irritable, light-headed, difficulty concentrating and making decisions.

3.     Very Hungry: “I’m ready to eat now.” Your stomach is growling.

4.     A Little Hungry: Your just beginning to feel physical signs of hunger (i.e. stomach rumbling a little).

5.     Physically Comfortable: More or less satisfied “I could eat more but…”

6.     Perfectly Comfortable: You feel completely satisfied.

7.     Full: A little bit uncomfortable.

8.     Very Full: “I ate more than I needed.” You feel bloated.

9.     Too Full: Feeling Heavy and Uncomfortable. You need to loosen your clothes.

10. Thanksgiving Dinner Full: Stuffed! In A Food Coma! So full you feel nauseous .


How To Use The Hunger Scale


If you want to gain better control and lessen the chances of overeating, try using this scale. Begin eating when you are between a “3” and “4”. You want to feel some hunger pangs but still have control over what you will eat.


Halfway through your meal, rank your hunger again using the same scale of 1–10. As you move through your meal, continue to check in with your physical satisfaction level instead of eating mindlessly on autopilot. If you are physically satisfied and still have food left over, do not continue eating. Instead, ask for a to-go box, push your plate away, or throw it away.


If you are still physically hungry, continue eating. At the end of your meal, rank your hunger again using the same scale. Try to stop eating at a “5” or “6”. If you find that you have passed the point of satisfaction and are uncomfortable, realize that this happens and try not to beat yourself up or feel guilty. Instead, ask yourself, “Why did I continue to eat past the point of satisfaction?” “Was I overly hungry when I started?” “Did the food just taste too good, so I didn’t want to stop?” “Was it out of habit?” Or maybe “I didn’t want to “waste” it?”


Try implementing this scale method into your next meal and see if you leave the table simply satisfied rather than still hungry or excruciatingly full! Stay tuned for the next blog where we dive into the psychological hunger, where your mind is playing tricks on you to eat more and tips how to cope with the issue.



You Count, Calories Don’t, Ominchanski, L. (1992)




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