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Identifying True Hunger Vs False Hunger 
by Dr. Stephanie Coate


Have you ever actually asked yourself, “Am I really hungry?” before you ate something? Many people are not aware of whether they are eating because they are hungry or because they are responding to some other physical or environmental cue. Some may not even remember how it feels to be truly hungry. We are all born with the innate ability to know when we are hungry. As babies, we naturally got fussy or cried in response to sensations of hunger. We learned to use words as toddlers to ask for food when we needed it. As we grew and became able to obtain food on our own, however, many of us began to eat for reasons other than pure hunger. The more we ate when we were not hungry, the more our natural hunger signals became distorted and difficult to recognize. As a result, false hunger signals emerged and became interpreted as the real thing. The simplest way to learn to distinguish true hunger from false hunger is to begin paying attention to the body’s hunger cues again.

When the body is truly hungry it sends signals to the brain, which then creates specific physical sensations that are interpreted as a need for food. We each feel these physical sensations somewhat differently. Because they can vary from person to person, it is important to learn how your own hunger begins and progresses over time. 

Example: Hunger Process

The first signs of hunger can begin in the space below the sternum. To find this space, feel the area between and slightly below the breasts or pectoral muscles. Move your fingers down, stopping at the bottom of the sternum and above the space between the lower ribs. The signals may start here because the lower end of the esophagus can contract when the hypothalamus—the part of the brain that is connected to food consumption—signals that you are beginning to need nourishment. As your hunger intensifies, the physical sensation may slowly move up the esophagus and into your throat area. In time, the stomach will start to contract. This is felt in and slightly to the left of the open space between the lower ribs. For some, the sensation of the stomach grumbling is actually one of the last sensations of hunger. If the body doesn’t get any fuel at this point, it will send out other signals that are experienced as lightheadedness, dizziness, headaches, irritability, etc.

The best time to eat is in the early stages of true hunger. If you miss the subtle signs of these early stages, you might end up waiting too long to eat. Your body may then enter starvation mode, which will cause overeating as the mind signals the body to stock up in case food is scarce. The body runs most efficiently on frequent, small meals. If you eat small portions, you may start to notice sensations of hunger within three hours of your previous meal. 

False hunger signals can be as intense as true hunger signals, but they are usually not felt in the same way or at the same time as true hunger. For example, you may experience false hunger in the upper area of your throat, but not at the same time that you feel true hunger around the lower sternum. 

Example: False Hunger Signals

Signals of false hunger are usually felt in slightly different locations than those of true hunger. False hunger sensations might appear in the upper portion of the neck, right below the jaw, or inside the mouth at the back of the throat. They may also be located around the center of the lower abdomen below the stomach. These locations are marked with black X’s in the illustration to the right.

The easiest way to start identifying false hunger is to pay attention to the sensations that are occurring in your body whenever you know that you are not hungry but want to eat anyway. Often, this can be done when you have finished a meal but crave something more, such as dessert or seconds of a favorite dish. In this situation, your body does not actually want more food. It is your mind sending false hunger signals that makes you believe that you need to eat more.
You can also use the time of your last meal as a way to help you distinguish true hunger from false hunger. If you want something to eat but had a meal less than two hours earlier, you are probably not really hungry, yet. Rather than eating, you can take time to become more aware of what your false hunger feels like. If you are an emotional eater and recognize that you are wanting to eat as a result of stress, boredom, or some other emotion, then take time to notice the physical sensations associated with the emotions that are driving you to eat.

Hunger is often confused with emotional states, especially emptiness. Emotional emptiness is the sense that you are unfulfilled or missing something. It is related to feelings of depression, loneliness, boredom, and sadness. It can often be mistaken for physical emptiness or hunger. In reality, emotional emptiness signals that your soul, rather than your body, needs to be fed. You can nourish your soul by participating in fulfilling activities or by simply being with the emptiness until it passes.

When you become aware of how false hunger signals feel and begin choosing not to eat in response to them, your brain will start disassociating the false signals from the need to eat and they will subside. This will result in fewer cravings and urges to eat when you are not hungry, leading you to eat less overall.

Five Steps to Eating When You Are Truly Hungry

1. Before you decide to eat something take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, and tune in to the physical signs of wanting food.

2. Take time to notice the location and intensity of the sensations, and then decide if what you are experiencing is true or false hunger.

3. If it is true hunger, you will probably want to eat. If it is false hunger, you might decide to wait.

4. Try not to judge yourself or your actions no matter which decision you make.

5. Continue to practice these steps before eating and you will begin to shift back to the natural rhythm of eating when you are truly hungry.

___________________

Dr. Stephanie Coate is a licensed psychologist who holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology. She created The Awareness Diet out of her personal and professional knowledge with the intention of providing an alternative avenue to help people heal their relationship to food and their bodies. Dr. Coate provides individual coaching on the program and can be contacted for information about this or other inquiries at stephanie@awarenessdiet.com

If you would like to learn more about how to improve your relationship to food and your body, visit awarenessdiet.com where you will find a comprehensive program to guide you in this process.

 

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