Using a Hunger Scale to Lose Weight
Many of us struggle with tracking calories, points, carbs, or fats to lose weight. It’s tedious to track everything we eat and write it down or put it into an app, day after day, meal after meal, and ensure we stick to our goal. These can be effective ways to lose weight — however, for many, they are difficult to maintain over the long-haul. As most of us have experienced first hand, we might be able to lose weight but if we can’t keep up the habit we developed, we will just gain it right back. Finding a way to lose weight that is maintainable in the long-term is critical if we care about enjoying the benefits of a healthy weight and svelte figure for our whole lives, not just for a month or two.
Luckily, there is another way to manage the calories you take in that doesn’t require tracking every bit you eat: You can use a hunger scale.
The Hunger Scale
We often eat when we are not physically hungry, or we eat beyond the point where we are comfortably satisfied. All of those calories are extra calories our body can do without and still be well-fueled and feel great, without excessive hunger. Instead of tallying up every calorie or point we eat and using that to drive when we eat, we can learn what the signals are that our bodies give which indicate hunger or fullness. Then, we can learn to wait for those signals to eat and stop eating. If we aren’t losing weight, we simply wait until we are just a little hungrier to eat or a little less full to stop eating.
There are many hunger scales out there and all can work — but this is the one I use and recommend:
How to Use the Hunger Scale
The hunger scale is a fairly straight-forward tool that provides ratings that can be used to assess your hunger and fullness levels. However, it can be a little difficult to determine how to begin using it. Here’s a guide to get you started:
- Understand Your Hunger: Spend a couple of days rating your hunger on this scale before and after each meal. Take note of how hunger feels in your body and brain, and consider adding notes about your unique experience to the scale.
- Set Hunger Level Goals: I recommend you start by trying to wait until you are a -2 or -3 on the hunger scale before you eat, and stopping eating when you are a +2 or +3 on the scale. Don’t eat if you aren’t in that range. However, it’s up to you to choose what an appropriate goal is for your body.
- Commit to The Habit: In order to build the habit of waiting until you are genuinely hungry to eat and stopping when you are comfortably full, commit to practicing this habit intentionally for two full months. Intentionally stop before you eat to assess your hunger level. If you are not -2 or -3 (or more), then don’t eat. If you are, eat until you reach a +2 or +3. Be consistent. Set a reminder on your phone to practice if you need to.
- Evaluate Your Mistakes: Few people can do this perfectly right away. Be compassionate with yourself when you eat something when you’re not at least at a -2, or if you eat past a +2… but also commit to learning from your mistake. Each time this happens, spend a few minutes to note what went wrong and make a plan to improve.
- Re-Evaluate Your Hunger Level Goals: After you’ve been practicing this consistently for a couple of months, evaluate whether you have lost weight or not. If your weight hasn’t moved down, then you need to reset your hunger level targets. For example, if you were consistently eating to a +3, set a goal of eating to +2 instead. But be honest with yourself — if you weren’t consistently hitting that +3 goal you set and instead were exceeding it, the first step is to get consistent with that goal before decreasing it.
“I don’t feel hunger”: Some people have a complicated relationship with the hunger signals their body produces. Many people have spent so long eating every couple hours that they legitimately haven’t felt hunger signals in a very long time. Other people do have hunger signals, but they have difficulty identifying them because they have been ignoring them for so long. The solution to this is to experiment with feeling hunger. Pick and day and skip a meal or two. Note the symptoms you feel as your body starts to get hungry. How does your stomach feel? How does your mind feel? How focused on food are you? How easy is it to redirect your attention to things other than food? Then note where that falls on the hunger scale. Repeat this exercise a few times until you feel confident about identifying hunger.
“I am consistently eating past the fullness level I’m targeting.”: Eating is pleasurable and sometimes we continue eating without thinking. When we pay attention again, we’re more full — farther up on the hunger scale — than we intended. The solution is to deliberately cultivate the habit of stopping frequently during your meal to pause and assess how full you are. Initially, you may have to set a reminder every 5–10 minutes (a timer on your phone works well) to alert you that it’s time to assess your fullness level. It helps to build a longer 5-minute pause into the middle of the meal, perhaps after 15–20 minutes to allow your body to catch up with what you’ve eaten so far. It can take up to 20 minutes for your brain to fully sense your stomach’s fullness levels. It can also be a good habit to deliberately slow down your eating rate by putting your spoon or fork down between bites and deliberately pausing occasionally. When you reach the hunger level you are targeting, deliberately get your food away from you. Get up from the table if you can and go do something else.
“I regularly find myself snacking or eating when I’m not yet to the target hunger level”: Many people have a habit of snacking or starting a meal when they aren’t yet physically hungry. It can be a hard habit to break. The first step is awareness and developing the habit of asking yourself what number you are at on the hunger scale every time before you eat. You may need to set a reminder at your normal snack times to give you a nudge to remember to do this. If you are not at the desired hunger level, do something to distract yourself. Eventually, you will get out of the habit of eating when you are not hungry.
Part of maintaining a healthy weight is watching what you eat, no way around that, but there are many ways to do that. Counting calories/points/macros is one way, but keeping a clear awareness of hunger levels and allowing them to guide your eating choices is another effective method. Some people enjoy counting calories/points/macros and can do that the rest of their life, but if you aren’t one of those people this tool could be the one that allows you to achieve and maintain a healthy weight for life.