Hunger is often thought of as a bad thing, especially if you are trying to lose weight. Unfortunately, this type of thinking can actually make it much harder to change your eating habits. Why? Hunger is a normal and natural body signal and should not be viewed negatively. Physical hunger tells you that it is time to eat. However, the idea of letting your hunger guide food and eating choices may seem too good to be true, especially if you have diabetes. Yet, hunger can not only help you adjust your portion sizes, it can also help you better manage your blood glucose level. How? One way is to rate your hunger in three levels. Rating your hunger may help you turn your mindless food choices into mindful food choices and can also actually reduce your portion size.
Rate Your Hunger:
On the hunger scale below, there are three sections.
Small hunger: When you are at this level, you may be feeling somewhere between not hungry and slightly hungry. If you wanted to give it a number rating, it would be between 0-3.
Moderate hunger: When you are at this level, it means that physical hunger is present. This might feel like rumbling, or an empty feeling in your stomach moving to a stronger but still comfortable sense of hunger. If you wanted to rate your hunger it would be between 4-6.
Large hunger: When you are at this level, it is no longer comfortable. If rated, your hunger would fall between 7-10.
Now Evaluate Portion:
When your hunger is absent or very slight, say a level 0-3, recognize that it is small and it may not be necessary to eat because in a little while, a meal may be served. Experiencing hunger when it is small makes it easier to say, “No, thank you,” if food is offered. When there is very little hunger, people often have more willpower.
Now notice your hunger when it is at a level of 4-6. You may find that when you are at this level it is the perfect time to eat because your hunger is ‘just right.’ It is not too small or too big. The next step is to let hunger guide you and help you adjust your portions. This often requires a shift in thinking. Instead of thinking, “What am I allowed to eat?” set your intention to fill, but not overfill, your hunger. Think, “How much food does my body need with this level of hunger?”
Let’s take a closer look. Imagine you have a hunger of a 4. You realize that this level of hunger doesn’t require too much food and you would be satisfied with a half of a sandwich and a cup of vegetable soup, which is about 30 grams of carbohydrate. Now imagine your hunger was at a 6. Would this amount of food be enough to fill your hunger? Chances are, no. So begin to explore your hunger by asking questions. For example you could consider, “Would I still be hungry if I ate a bowl of soup? How much food do I need to fill this level of hunger?”
If you find you do need to eat more, it doesn’t mean you will be eating too many carbohydrates. Increasing the amount of soup from a 1-cup to a 2-cup bowl adds only 15 grams of carbohydrates to the meal. Another option could be to have a whole sandwich instead of a half, which again only adds 15 grams of carbohydrates to the meal. In each of these examples: 2 cups vegetable soup with a half of a sandwich or 1 cup soup with a whole sandwich offer 45 grams of carbohydrates for the meal. So, keeping hunger at the moderate level of 4-6 can help you to adjust your portions.
However, the moment hunger grows to, or is above a 7, discomfort sets in. Pain causes willpower to vanish and the desire to limit portions, or make ‘healthy’ choices, evaporates. Why? Making informed, healthy choices when you are uncomfortable is very, very hard. It really doesn’t matter how ‘good’ you want to be or how much knowledge you have about diabetes. Pain is unpleasant and it is normal to react to the pain of hunger. As Vince Lombardi, the famous football coach, said, “Pain makes cowards of us all.”
When you think about it this way, it is easy to see how checking in and avoiding being too hungry can help guide portion choices – making managing your diabetes easier. Better yet, this method might even make eating a more pleasant experience! Keep in mind that there is no ‘right’ amount to eat. You need to eat the amount of food that will satisfy your current level of hunger and help you keep your blood glucose levels on target.
Research is showing that there are benefits to noticing these slight differences in your appetite. Eating more attentively can help you make small changes in eating that have big results. This single step of checking in with your hunger and being more mindful can be helpful to change the amount of food you eat. Brian Wansink, PhD, a researcher at Cornell University calls this reduction in calories a “mindless margin,” which he describes as small changes in portions size that are not viewed by the mind as a decrease in calories.
Looking for other ways to decrease unaware or mindless eating? Wansink encourages people to make other changes, like using smaller plates, moving high-calorie foods to top shelves, and having lower calorie, healthier food choices such as fruits and low-carbohydrate vegetables in plain sight. Keep in mind that making these types of food choices are often welcome when hunger is not strong or uncomfortable. However, when hunger becomes an uncomfortable sensation many people notice that their willpower decreases and their ability to say, “No, thank you” disappears. This can trigger familiar thoughts such as, “I can’t resist potato chips, I can’t resist cookies, I can’t resist having seconds!” To silence this type of thinking, rate your hunger. Now, mentally remind yourself to fill but not overfill your hunger. Open up possibilities by focusing on what you can do, such as “I can have some soup with my lunch, or I can have some vegetables on my sandwich, I can stop eating when I am comfortably full.”
Many things can help you adjust your portions and find a level of fullness that is right for you. Keep in mind that hunger is not a fixed feeling and it changes throughout the day. Although in the past you may not have paid close attention to your hunger level, it is easy to see why it is so important to be aware and use this information to adjust your portion and change your diet. The next time you are making a food choice, try checking in with hunger, setting the intention to fill but not overfill your hunger and seeing what you can do to make a positive choice. These steps may be all you need in order to discover what portion your hunger really is at your next meal.
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