Are You an Emotional Eater? Try the Hunger Scale
Pinpointing your hunger signals can help you determine when you should eat - and when you should stop. Learn how a "hunger scale" can help.

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Are You an Emotional Eater? Try the Hunger Scale

Do you sometimes eat because you're bored, lonely, happy, anxious or angry? It's not unusual to eat in response to emotions. If this happens often, it can lead to overeating and weight gain. All of the weight loss information in the world won't help you stop overeating until you address the underlying reasons. Remember the old saying: "it's not what you're eating; it's what's eating you."

You want to get in touch with your body's internal signals. Eat only when you feel physically, not emotionally, hungry. Mastering this skill takes practice. But it's a tool that can help you avoid overeating.

Understanding true hunger
Real hunger is a physical sensation. Try to remember a time you were too busy to eat and skipped a meal. You probably felt a gnawing or growling in your stomach. You may have felt irritable. Your body was likely giving you signs that you were hungry!

But be sure you know the difference between hunger and thirst. Some people will eat when they are actually thirsty.

To pinpoint feelings of real hunger, nutrition experts often recommend using a "hunger scale". This 10-point scale can help you identify hunger and fullness using specific symptoms. The scale can help you better understand whether your hunger is "real" or not. Sometimes you may eat for an emotional reason, such as anxiety and not because of hunger.

Recognizing your hunger signals can help you learn when you should eat and when you should stop eating. You learn to trust your body about what it needs and when.

Hunger scales vary but most look like this:

  1. Extremely hungry. Gnawing hunger pangs.
  2. Very hungry.
  3. Stomach growling. Beginning to feel hungry.
  4. Mildly hungry.
  5. Not hungry but not satiated.
  6. Satisfied and comfortable.
  7. Beginning to feel full.
  8. Starting to feel very full.
  9. Uncomfortably full, stomachache.
  10. Painfully full, need to lie down.

Using the hunger scale
For a few days, jot down your hunger level before and after each meal and snack. Use the scale and follow these guidelines:

  • Eat when you're at a level 3 or 4. If you let yourself get too hungry (1 or 2), you're more likely to overeat.
  • Try to stop eating between a 5 and 6. At 7 or above, you are most likely eating more than you need.
  • If you eat when you're in the 5 to 10 range, you're probably eating out of boredom, stress or other emotion.

As you are keeping track, be sure to note the times you want to eat something, but your physical hunger is a 5 or higher. Try to identify the emotion you're feeling. Instead of feeding the emotion with food, try the following tips:

  • Make a list of quick and easy things you enjoy - besides eating. Examples might be walking, exercising, reading or listening to music. When you get the urge to eat but aren't hungry, try doing some of the things on your list.
  • Drink water, or brew some tea or coffee. Drinking can substitute for eating.
  • Tell yourself to wait 10 minutes. The urge may pass. If not, have a small portion of something special. Make a point of enjoying it.
  • Call a friend or relative.
  • Have coffee with a friend.
  • If you feel stressed, take a warm bath, meditate or exercise.
  • If you feel bored, see a movie. Cook something special that is also healthful. Plan a day trip or vacation. Consider taking up a new activity or hobby.

Changing habits takes time and patience. A registered dietitian can help you monitor your appetite and eat the amounts and at times that are best for you. But if you get to the root causes of your eating, you are more likely to succeed on your journey to a healthier weight.

Greg Breining contributed to this report.
By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Contributing Writer
Created on 06/07/2010
Updated on 12/13/2012
  • American Psychological Association. One bite at a time. Monitor on Psychology. 2008;39(6):48.
  • Joslin Diabetes Center. How to deal with hunger by using a hunger scale.
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Am I really hungry?
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