One important aspect of recovering from an eating disorder is hearing and listening to hunger and satiety cues. Anyone trapped in an eating disorder knows that your second head (the eating disorder) controls what you eat, when you eat, how you eat, etc. aka NOTHING to do with hunger and satiety. In fact, a lot of people with eating disorders completely lose these hunger and satiety cues and tell me they have no idea what I’m talking about when I ask about these signals.
First step at finding your hunger/satiety cues is following an appropriate meal plan, created by both you and your eating disorder dietitian. Together you can come up with suggestions for meals and snacks that are realistic and will meet your nutrition needs. Once your body starts “working” again, your metabolism will start to come back and clients say slowly but surely they start to feel subtle signs of hunger and satiety.
Once that happens I start having people track their cues. This is not to be “perfect” but to learn more about your signals and what they mean and where they come from. Take a few days or a few meals and rate what you are before and meal and after a meal. That’s all- no need to do this 3-4 times/day, 7 days/week. Pick a few meals and few days/week, that’s all the info you will need.
Here is an example of a hunger scale:
1: Ravenous, weak and light-headed.
2: Over-hungry. You feel irritable and unable to concentrate.
3: Hunger pangs. You may feel uncomfortably hungry and know it’s “time to eat”.
4: Hunger awakens. You are slightly uncomfortable and just beginning to feel signs of hunger.
5: Neutral. Comfortable. You’re more or less satisfied, but could eat a little more.
6: Just satisfied. Perfectly comfortable but might be able to get in a few more bites.
7: Completely satisfied. A little bit uncomfortable.
8: Full. Uncomfortable. You feel bloated and may need to loosen your clothes.
9: Stuffed. Very uncomfortably full.
10: Sick. You are so full you feel nauseous and don’t want to look at food.
So now what do you do??
1. Try to start eating when you’re at a 3 or 4 on the hunger scale- what does that feel like to you?. If this does not come easy to you try to figure out why you’re eating if you’re not hungry. Are you bored? Stressed? Tired? Overwhelmed? You need to figure out how to regulate these emotions. Not all emotional eating is bad, but that’s another topic!
2. Stop eating at 5 or 6- what does that feel like for you? It’s also helpful to sometimes wait to see if your body feels any different after digesting your meal (ex. 20 minutes later).
3. Instead of relying on external signals (like an empty plate) to stop eating, try to listen to your satiety cues. This may mean putting your fork down between bites and trying to sit still with food still on your plate.
4. If it helps, put your hand on your stomach a few times while eating to check for fullness.
5. In the beginning, it’s helpful to serve yourself less, knowing you can always go back for more if you’re still hungry. People find it very hard to “waste food”. Ask yourself why? Practice and know that people make mistakes. Just like a toddler learns to walk (and gosh, we would never blame a toddler for falling down!), people that have dieted need to re-learn their bodies signals.
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Jennifer is a Registered Dietitian and the owner of Eat With Knowledge in Nyack, NY. She is on a mission to help people heal from diets, and find peace and balance with their food choices. She leads a team of dietitians who support the philosophy, “Feel Fabulous about Food!”
Start your own healing by downloading her Free Stop the Cycle of Binge Eating guide or her Free Hunger – Fullness Scale.