Are You Actually Hangry? This Scale Will Help You Tell

Stay off the hangry-to-bingeing road by using the hunger-fullness scale -- here's how.

Lena Borrelli Contributor
Lena is a contributor for CNET.
Kim Wong-Shing Senior Associate Editor / Wellness
Kim Wong-Shing loves demystifying the world of wellness to make it accessible to any reader. She's also passionate about exploring the intersections of health, history and culture. Prior to joining CNET, she contributed stories to Glamour, MindBodyGreen, Greatist and other publications.
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Lena Borrelli
Kim Wong-Shing
6 min read
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It's one of those days: Time flies by and you're buried in work, chores or errands, and suddenly your stomach is growling. You missed lunch and haven't eaten for hours. 

Or maybe you're experiencing that feeling where you're bursting and could not possibly take another bite, but it feels impossible to put the fork down because your meal is just too good to give up. When is the right time to stop eating: When you stop feeling hungry, or when your belly feels completely full? 

With all of life's demands and pleasures, many of us have lost touch with our own body's hunger and fullness cues. But keeping a regular eating schedule is important for a variety of reasons, including maintaining balanced blood sugar, aiding digestion, keeping energy levels high and getting adequate rest. By learning your body's signs of hunger and fullness, you can make sure to get enough nutrition to be your best self -- and what's called the hunger-fullness scale makes it easy to keep track. 

Below, dietitians and nutritionists explain how to use the hunger-fullness scale for healthier eating habits.

It's not as simple as it seems

Many people rely on external metrics to figure out how much to eat and when to stop, like calorie budgets, macronutrient tracking or even diet apps. It's also easy to be swayed by other external factors, including social media influencers, family, friends and partners, according to Valerie A. Della Longa, a registered dietitian nutritionist.

"Therefore, many of us have lost touch with our internal cues of what and how much to eat," Della Longa explains. "This is where the hunger-fullness scale comes in, so people can check in before, during and after a meal to gauge how hungry and full they really are."

Eating habits are a sensitive subject for many, because of diet culture's constant pressure to be thin. That pressure can make feelings of hunger or fullness feel fraught -- feeling full, for example, might trigger guilt instead of satisfaction. Some diets may even teach you to ignore your hunger and skip meals on purpose. 

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"Many individuals today have disordered eating habits," says Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and author of the Candida Diet. "Meaning, we have gotten to where we are not listening to our true hunger and fullness but rather what diet culture [tells us], or are remembering being told to make a happy plate. These have created a sense of insecurity around trusting our hunger and fullness cues."

There are many other reasons that people learn to ignore hunger or fullness cues, from boredom to just being busy. However, education can help. Once you understand your body's reaction to hunger and fullness, you can begin to adopt healthier habits.

Read more:Eating Disorders: The Signs, Symptoms and How to Get Help

The hunger-fullness scale, from 1 to 10

Intuitive eating is an increasingly popular alternative to diet culture, and the hunger-fullness scale is a key component of it. Also known as the hunger-satiety scale, the hunger-fullness scale can help you determine when you are actually hungry, when you're just eating to eat and when you're not eating enough. It can also help you figure out when to put the fork down so that you leave your meal feeling satisfied and not sluggish or sick.

"The hunger-fullness scale is a 1-10 scale that is used to rate your hunger and fullness levels, with 1 being painfully, ravenously hungry and 10 being beyond stuffed, so full that you feel sick. A 5 is considered neutral. This scale is an important tool for helping people recognize their hunger and fullness cues, which may sound easy but many of my clients struggle with," says Meredith Mishan, MS, a registered dietitian nutritionist. 

10: Beyond stuffed. You're way too full and feel ill and nauseous.

9: Stuffed.You're full to the point of discomfort and may feel stomach pain.

8: Very full. You feel completely full or even a bit overfull, with no desire to eat more.

7: Moderately full.You feel comfortably full and satisfied. 

6: Lightly full. You feel satisfied, but could eat more (and will probably be hungry again within a couple of hours).

5: Neutral. You feel neither hungry nor full.

4: Lightly hungry. Hunger starts to set in. Your stomach may growl, and you have an appetite.

3: Moderately hungry.Your stomach growls more, and you start to feel uncomfortable, irritable or distracted.

2: Very hungry. You feel low-energy and weak. Your stomach may begin to hurt.

1: Starving.You're painfully hungry and very weak. You may experience dizziness, headache, inability to concentrate or fatigue.

Note that there are some different variations of this scale, some of which include a 0 for the strongest level of hunger. But the concept behind the scale is always the same: to measure the spectrum of hunger and fullness.

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When to start and stop eating

Whether you tend to overeat or not eat enough (or both), tuning into your body's hunger and fullness cues can improve your health and help you develop a better relationship with food. We're all unique individuals, so your body's specific cues may take a bit of time to recognize, especially if you're used to ignoring them.

That said, experts advise trying to stay within the 3 to 7 range of the scale, as a general rule of thumb.

"Most of the time, we want people to be able to identify when they are about a 3 on the hunger scale and eat something then," Mishan says. "Comfortably full is around a 7. We want to keep the body fueled and avoid the uncomfortable feelings of extreme hunger and fullness."

Eating until you're sick isn't fun, and doing so on a regular basis is associated with various health risks, regardless of how much you weigh. On the flip side, if you often wait until you're starving to eat, you can wreak havoc on your system and you'll be more likely to overeat or binge later -- it's a vicious cycle.

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If you're used to eating at specific times of day, using the hunger-fullness scale instead may take some adjustment. Mishan adds, "Using the hunger-fullness scale is more based on following your body's schedule than timing meals according to external cues, like a clock." 

Still, it's helpful to get your body into a regular routine, whatever that looks like for you, Della Longa says: "Our bodies love routine and it helps regulate our digestion and other body systems if we eat our meals and snacks consistently."

It's also important not to beat yourself up for sometimes missing a meal, stuffing yourself or eating when you're not hungry. Life happens, and there are other reasons to eat food aside from hunger, like community, pleasure or just plain necessity. "If you're not hungry now but you won't have access to food again for 5 hours because of your schedule, you should try to eat something while you can, otherwise you'll be ravenous later. As with anything in life, we do the best we can," Mishan says.

Being overly self-critical about how well you're following the hunger-fullness scale would be a sign that you're falling into the trap of a diet mentality, which is not what the scale is for. (Also note that, if you suspect that you have an eating disorder, it's best not to jump straight into intuitive eating without the support of a professional.)

The good news? Hunger and fullness cues are instincts, which means your body is the real expert here, even if you don't know it yet. Ann Silver, a registered dietitian nutritionist, offers an additional tip: "Watch a child eat. They eat when they are hungry and stop when they are satisfied. It's always amazing to observe children at a birthday party. When they get up, there is still some or most of the celebratory cake or cupcake left on the plate. Why? Because they are in touch with their hunger and fullness."

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.