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A secret to weight management: Honoring hunger and fullness

Breakfast meal pixabay

One of the most important things my clients work on when we begin our coaching relationship is to honor hunger and fullness. It’s one of the best ways to break away from the diet mentality. There are many examples of how this propels my clients forward in establishing a healthy relationship with food.

Just this morning on one of my coaching calls a client was explaining how much less she eats in the evening. “I’m just not that hungry.” In trying to understand why—why she eats so much less in the evening than she previously did—we considered a few reasons.

  1. She’s fueling her body more appropriately during the day. Before our work together she rarely ate breakfast, now she makes sure to get in a protein-powered breakfast. She also is eating a well-balanced lunch with adequate protein.
  2. She’s paying attention to hunger. Previously she was a nighttime nibbler, grazing through the night. That’s no longer an issue.

Maintaining healthy eating habits with adequate protein and fiber consistently through the day has propelled my client to a level she had never previously experienced. The many diets she had subjected herself to failed her. It’s the difference between dieting and good healthful eating. A major mind shift.

“The key was listening to my body”

And then I received an email from Heather, a client who returned from a working trip out of the country.

“I have been home one day, weighed myself and actually am about two pounds lighter!! I didn’t feel at all deprived on my trip. I ate one dessert, had some pasta, and even drank some wine. The key was listening to my body. I skipped eating when I wasn’t hungry but others around me were (eating). I made eating a priority when I was hungry. I stopped when I was satisfied, and best of all, didn’t allow myself to feel shame about leaving leftovers*. The next morning, I asked for one piece of toast. They gave me three! I still only ate one.”

On one of our coaching calls Heather and I had a conversation about mindless eating and Brian Wansink’s newest book Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life. We talked about habits of naturally thin people like Brian discusses in his book. She went on in her email:

“My friend who lives there and is naturally thin in great shape and I talked a lot about my habits. I told her I was going to spy on her and observe her habits. What is funny is she eats many and mostly healthy things, but she also chocolate croissant-pixabayeats things like entire chocolate croissants, whenever she wants them. She is really good at listening to her hunger. She definitely didn’t eat when she wasn’t hungry but she mentioned how hungry she had been lately and just had to eat all the time. It was kinda funny how hungry she was and how many chocolate croissants I saw her eat after a few meals but she had absolutely no shame about eating. None. That was really liberating to see. She feels hunger, she makes a decent choice, tries to eat fresh food at home, and then feels no shame if she is still hungry for something more.”

(*We had a Skype coaching call during her trip. One thing Heather recognized was feeling obligated to eat food prepared for her, not wanting it to go to waste. We had a long discussion about that. Who is going to benefit from her eating the food? It’s not Heather’s fault she was fed too much yet she was feeling the guilt, the shame of seeing food go to waste. Turning it around and putting the ‘blame’ on the establishment for over-serving helped Heather look at it in a different light and not feel badly about wasted food.)

Hunger and fullness scale

By paying attention to hunger and knowing when to stop there really is no food off limits. It takes away the good food/bad food idea. My clients use the following scale I developed. (Note: There are many similar hunger/fullness scales. I certainly did not invent the idea. However through my experience I created this one.)

Hunger fullness Scale

©Jennifer Neily and Neily on Nutrition 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this author is strictly prohibited.

  1. Ravenous. Weak, light-headed. You may have a headache. You can’t concentrate and may feel dizzy.
  2. Very hungry. You’re irritable and can’t concentrate. You’re anxious and want to eat everything in sight.
  3. Hungry. It’s clear your body wants food. You’re getting uncomfortable but not ready to bite someone’s head off. Ideal time to start eating.
  4. Slightly hungry. Hunger begins to diminish now that you’ve started to eat.
  5. Comfortable. Neither hungry nor full.
  6. Perfectly comfortable. You’re more or less satisfied, but could eat a little more. Your body has enough fuel to keep it going and is physically and psychologically starting to feel satisfied.
  7. Satisfied. Satisfied but not full or uncomfortable—hunger is gone. Feeling about 80 percent full. You can still find room for a little more. Ideal time to stop eating.
  8. Full. Almost uncomfortable. You feel bloated. You may need to loosen your clothes. Maybe you shouldn’t have had more, but it tasted so good.
  9. Stuffed. Very uncomfortable. Maybe you didn’t eat all day to leave room for this meal and you feel heavy and tired.
  10. Sick. You are so full you feel nauseous. If you have a tendency to overindulge at Thanksgiving, it’s that feeling. “Oh my gosh why did I eat so much?” feeling.

Using the Hunger Scale

  1. Record your hunger level (1 – 10) for each eating occasion before you begin eating or when the thought or desire to eat begins. Use the tracking sheet on page 5 of the handout available at the end of the post.
  2. Use the same scale to record how full you feel when you finish eating.
  3. As you get comfortable monitoring your appetite, try to start eating at about a 3 and stop at about a 7.
  4. Once you get the feel for it, you’ll notice yourself becoming more intuitive and mindful of eating occasions. Ideally, eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’ve had enough.
  5. Continue doing a self-evaluation as needed.

Where normally my clients set 2-3 goals each week to work on between appointments, after reading the book, The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, a client made the decision to focus only on one goal recently. That one goal was to stop eating at a 7 on the hunger/fullness scale. On our call I could not have been more thrilled. She had taken a business trip to Chicago—home of amazing stuffed pizza (my hometown, so I know!).

Photo courtesy Lou Malnati's

Photo courtesy Lou Malnati’s

Prior to the trip, she made a conscious decision of knowing she was going to treat herself. She did and felt no guilt. Starting the meal with a filling salad, she enjoyed some wonderful Chicago-style stuffed pizza and paid attention to her fullness. Stopping at that point—not full or uncomfortable, hunger is gone—has been a turning point for her and many of my clients. (Interested? Work with me. Learn more.)

“I had cocktails and dessert but listened to my body”

Personal trainer and boot camp owner Titia Sivils and I have worked together on projects. Titia eats amazingly well, but as she noted there’s always room for improvement. I shared my Honoring Hunger and Fullness handout (see end of post for access) with her and after a few days she sent me an email:

“I am really learning about myself with this thoughtful mindful eating stuff. Over the week I realized how much mindless eating I was doing. After 1 o’clock my normal response was to eat when I passed through the kitchen, sat still or started cooking. At none of those times was I having true hunger cravings. They were all emotional cravings! I also was very mindful in my portion control and eating until only comfortably full. I allowed myself the things I wanted occasionally. I had cocktails and dessert but listened to my body again when I had a meal.

“I know why I gained weight. I ate too darn much, too frequently. Not necessary the wrong foods but too much of the right foods too often and not having balanced meals. Trying to low carb it threw me off! Thank youcompletely eye opening!”

“I used to be like that”

Yet another client recently shared an experience honoring her fullness when a relative was visiting town. They had gone out to eat on several occasions and my client became amazingly aware how different she had become in her habits.

“I was able to look at my relative as she plowed through her food and think, gosh, I used to be like that. I know I’ve got a ways to go but am so much better. Several times through the course of my meals, I would put my fork down, lean back in my chair, check in with myself and ask if I had enough. I’ve never done that before however realized how helpful it was to eating less. I actually left food on my plate. Rarely did that before.”

It’s not only what you eat, it’s how you eat

If you want to build healthy food habits, it’s not only what you eat—you also want to evaluate:

  • How you eat
  • Whether you eat when you’re not hungry
  • How your environment influences your habits
  • Whether the presence of others affects how much or how little you eat
  • If you’re eating because you’re bored, emotional, or hangry? (anger disguised as hunger)

Tell me how you are at honoring hunger and fullness. Leave comments below.

If interested in my Honoring Hunger and Fullness handout including tracking sheet and 16 ways to practice honoring your hunger and fullness, here’s the free PDF link to download.


Helping people build a healthy relationship with food so they end the diet cycle forever without giving up their most pleasurable food…that is my focus.  – Jennifer Neily, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

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