young woman looking at a piece of cake

Do you ever notice that sometimes you eat when you are not actually hungry? Or that, all of a sudden, you can be “hangry”? If so, it is likely you are missing your body’s hunger cues.

Two nutrition researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham claim that hunger cues go well beyond your stomach’s rumbling and grumbling — it has more to do with your overall mindfulness.

Department of Nutrition Sciences Professor José R. Fernandez, Ph.D., and Tara Harman, M.S., RDN, an instructor in the department, have insight into the science behind hunger and how to recognize cues the body sends when you are full.

What is hunger?

Hunger is a physical sensation experienced only when the body needs food. It may cause you to feel empty, or your stomach may rumble.

“We typically throw this term around loosely when we want something to eat, not when we actually need something,” Harman said.

Harman says there are several reasons people eat — social occasions, celebrations, boredom, stress — but there are a few good reasons people should eat: nourishment, sensation of hunger, to meet health requirements and health goals.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve eaten birthday cake because it is there, not because I’m hungry,” she said. 

Harman says people are often not paying enough attention to hunger cues and hunger hormones — ghrelin and leptin — that tell the body when it needs to eat. 

Ghrelin is the hormone that tells you that you are hungry and it is time to get something to eat. It signals the brain when the stomach is empty. After the body receives food, it will begin to shut down the ghrelin hormone and the body begins to release leptin. Leptin signals the brain to stop eating.

Tara Harman, M.S., and José R. Fernandez, Ph.D.
Tara Harman, M.S., and José R. Fernandez, Ph.D.
(Photography: Steve Wood and Lexi Coon)

How do we miss these hormonal cues?

“We tend to eat based on other societal cues,” Harman said. “Many people tend to eat visually, which is eating based on plate and bowl sizes and eating everything on them. I like to call this the ‘Clean Plate Club.’”

Another way people may miss their hunger cues is simply by being distracted. 

“Many people eat with the television on,” she said. “After a long day, you may just want to sit on the couch and relax while eating; but the problem is that you may be so absorbed in something else, it may be easy to be distracted from the cues your body is sending that you have had enough to eat.”

Eating nutrient-poor foods, such as high-sugar or empty-calorie items, can also distract from those cues.

How do we learn to recognize these cues?

Fernandez, a certified mindfulness consultant, says achieving mental awareness and focusing on the present can help you take control of your hunger.

 “Mindfulness has been scientifically used to demonstrate that people who engage in practices of awareness without judgment have better outcomes related to health, pain, eating behaviors, weight control, and employee well-being and performance,” Fernandez said.

Mindfulness is not meditation, Fernandez says, but simply being aware. It is a method of mental training that allows the person to be present without judgment.  

“It is not limited to meditation or technique, and it is not about accepting the unacceptable, but rather about seeing the world with greater clarity so we can take wiser, more considered action in our lives,” Fernandez said. “It’s a practice you can incorporate into your everyday life.”

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