Are you tired of diet culture and putting your health and trust in rigid food rules and fad diets that never seem to work long term? I hope so, I know I am. As a registered dietitian nutritionist I have seen first hand the harmful effects of chronic dieting and weight stigma on a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. That is why I am going to share with you expert tips I have gathered when using the hunger scale and intuitive eating.
The truth is up to 95% of all diets fail at achieving long term weight loss (1). For the majority of dieters who lose weight initially, they will eventually regain all the weight that was lost plus more. Nearly all diets fail not because of the shortcomings of the dieter, but because diets aren’t sustainable. The diet fails the dieter, the person doesn’t fail the diet.
I know that ditching the diet mentality can feel scary and overwhelming. This article is going to help clear the noise and introduce you to an anti diet framework known as intuitive eating and one of its most useful tools, the hunger scale. My 5 easy to follow expert tips will help you on your journey to reconnecting with internal cues of hunger and begin to understand the practice of intuitive eating.
We Are Born Intuitive Eaters
You might not believe this but you were once an intuitive eater. It’s true, you entered this world with full trust in your body’s hardwired, internal cues of hunger and fullness. You and your body were on the same team, a common goal for survival.
As an infant you didn’t question, ignore, or trick those internal cues for nourishment. You cried when you were hungry, you turned away from food when you were full. So what happened? When did you stop trusting your own cues and body sensations?
Losing Trust In Our Internal Cues
Children are losing trust in their internal cues and being exposed to dieting at younger and younger ages. Some children even as young as preschool age are exhibiting concern over the size of their bodies (2). There are many factors that can influences or disrupt our hardwired cues including caregivers, fat phobia and weight stigma in society and healthcare, marketing ads, social media, and diet culture.
Over time we learn that we need to control the growth and weight of our bodies. That hunger should not be trusted and fullness should be feared. So we disregard our internal cues and instead begin relying on external rules (dieting) to tell us when, what and how much to eat. But when the diet doesn’t work (either at all or long term), we blame ourselves and our bodies, not the diet and we often try dieting again.
Chronic dieting can lead to dulled sensations of hunger and fullness, as well as quieting other instincts such as intuition. These quieted cues cause us to mistrust ourselves and feel overwhelmed by the misinformation about what is healthy with respect to food, nutrition, and our bodies.
Hunger Scale Intuitive Eating Overview
Intuitive Eating an Anti Diet Framework
Through intuitive eating practices and using tools such as the hunger scale, you can strengthen those weakened cues. Intuitive eating is a self-care eating framework that unites instinct, emotion and rational thought (3). This framework has been studied more than 200 times (and counting) with scientifically proven associations between intuitive eating and emotional and physical benefits.
Some of the physical and emotional benefits include (1):
- Reduced cardiovascular risk
- Lower levels of triglycerides
- Higher levels of HDL (good) cholesterol
- Lower levels of disordered eating
- Less anxiety with food
- Increased pleasure with eating
- Wider variety of foods consumed
- Lower rates of body dissatisfaction
- Higher rates of body appreciation, body acceptance and self esteem
Intuitive eating is a weight inclusive framework with no promotion of weight loss, food rules, or diet behavior. The principles of intuitive eating work together to cultivate attunement and bring awareness to your internal cues and sensations. Attunement satisfies both your biological and psychological needs which provides a greater sense of health and wellbeing.
How to Use the Hunger Scale
One of the principles of intuitive eating is ‘honor your hunger’ and as previously discussed, many of us need help reconnecting with our internal cues and body sensations. The hunger scale is a tool designed to bring awareness and strengthen one of your body’s most primal instincts, hunger. The scale consists of levels of hunger and fullness ranging from zero to ten. Body sensations and cues help guide your understanding of what level you may be experiencing at that moment.
In general, levels of hunger 0,1,2 represent being overly hungry. Levels 8,9, and 10 on the hunger scale represent overly full. The favorable, or normal eating window, is represented by levels 3 – 7.
Internal cues and body sensations of hunger and fullness will differ from person to person. Use the hunger scale as a guide to begin identifying your unique cues. Over time you will be able to recognize the more subtle nuances of your hunger and fullness.
5 Expert Tips Using the Hunger Scale and Intuitive Eating
Now that you have some background on the hunger scale and intuitive eating, it’s time to reveal my 5 expert tips as you begin to practice.
1) Be Curious
Working with the hunger scale and intuitive eating is all about getting curious and tuning into your unique cues and body signals. You can’t approach this with that same diet mentality of the past. So adopt a mindset of curiosity over shame and guilt.
Expect to that some meals will be pleasant, others unpleasant or neutral. The goal is to stay curious about what your body is trying to communicate and what factors may be affecting your awareness of those cues. With curiosity and self compassion there are no bad experiences, only information that brings you closer to understanding your internal cues of hunger and satiety and reconnecting with your intuitive eater voice.
2) Be Present
You may or may not be aware of potential distractions while eating meals. Take a minute to reflect on what may be disrupting your internal awareness. Here are a few common distractions:
- Cell phone
Eliminating distractions and being present in the moment increases the likelihood that you will be able to perceive the cues your body is trying to communicate. I recommend printing a copy of the hunger scale so that you can put your phone, tablet or computer away. You may be surprised to find your meals are more satisfying when you are fully present.
3) Be Patient
Recognizing and strengthening your internal cues will not only require limited distractions, but also a lot of practice. Be prepared to repeat this process of utilizing your hunger scale many times. Keep several printed copies of the hunger scale on your dining table so that you can check in before and after each meal.
If using your hunger scale every time you eat feels too overwhelming initially, pick one meal time to focus on such as dinner. You may even want to jot down some notes about your eating environment. On page two of my Hunger Scale Intuitive Eating pdf you will see prompting questions to make some additional reflections.
Be patient and remember that with practice, you will begin to tune into your internal cues of hunger and fullness. Like a muscle, those cues will strengthen with repetition, even if they’ve been dulled by years of dieting, food rules, and diet culture messages.
After you’ve been practicing the hunger scale for a while, you’ll likely have some data to review. Reviewing your eating experience in the moment may not be as helpful as taking a birds eye view of the overall patterns. With the same curiosity I mentioned in tip #1, review your collection of completed hunger scales and see what patterns emerge.
Here are some questions to consider in your review:
- Have you noticed any unique body sensations that help you identify different levels of hunger or fullness?
- How many times do you start a meal overly hungry?
- How many times do you end a meal overly full?
- Does a lower level of hunger before a meal affect your overall fullness level?
- Are most of your eating experiences pleasant, unpleasant, neutral?
- What factors may be influencing your overall satisfaction with the meal?
5) Reflect and Respond
Once you’ve taken some time to review, reflect on what you’ve discovered about yourself and your eating pattern so far. Your experience with the hunger scale and intuitive eating is personal, there are no right or wrong answers. Reflection will help you understand what patterns are not serving your best interest and perhaps help to identify areas you may want to make adjustments.
For example, if you notice that after dinner you often feel uncomfortable and overly full, reflecting on this pattern allows you to start applying that knowledge to future experiences. Maybe you will decide to adjust your schedule by adding an afternoon snack so that you can see how that changes your scores on the hunger scale.
Reflection can also help you identify thoughts and beliefs about food and nutrition that have become potential barriers. Let’s say a few hours after dinner you recognize you feel hungry but you hold a belief that eating after dinner is bad and decide not to have an evening snack. That rigid food rule is an obstacle to honoring your hunger. Strengthening your internal cues requires that you listen and respond to what is being communicated.
Practicing the hunger scale and intuitive eating is an investment in honoring your physical and emotional wellbeing. I hope you have found these tips helpful as you create a relationship with food, nutrition and body that YOU feel good about. It is time we stopped putting our health and trust in rigid food rules and fad diets that tell us when we are hungry or full and what we should or should not be eating.
To learn more about intuitive eating, weight stigma, body appreciation and size acceptance, and so much more visit my resources page for recommended books, podcasts, and videos.
- Resch E, Triole E. 2020. Intuitive Eating. A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach (St. Martin’s Essentials, New York) (Fourth Edition). St Martin’s Publishing Group.
- Brooks S, Severson A. 2022. How to Raise an Intuitive Eater. Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence (St. Martin’s Essentials, New York) (First Edition). St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
- Definition of Intuitive Eating. Intuitive Eating Website. https://www.intuitiveeating.org/definition-of-intuitive-eating/. Reviewed December, 2022.