Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale: A Powerful Tool To Stop Overeating

This blog article is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical advice.

This post is your guide to using the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale, a powerful tool that can help you get to know your hunger and fullness cues. 

In this article, I’ll share expert tips on how to use the hunger scale to make mindful, energizing, satisfying eating choices throughout the day. 

I’ll also delve into the importance of connecting to your body’s hunger and fullness cues and what these signals feel like. Becoming attuned with these cues and responding appropriately to them can prevent feeling out-of-control around food.

Let’s get started! 

What is the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale?

The Intuitive Eating hunger scale is a tool that helps you identify your body’s cues for hunger and fullness. The scale helps you evaluate these feelings by assigning them a numerical value that corresponds to certain body sensations. Additionally, the scale rates the overall quality of the sensations as pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.

The hunger-fullness scale ranges from 0 to 10. Hunger lies on the low end of the numbered scale, ranging from extreme hunger at 0 to neutral feelings (neither hungry nor full) at 5. Fullness is represented with numbers 6 through 10, with slight fullness at 6 and extreme, unpleasant fullness at 10. 

This scale encourages you to get to know and assess your body’s signals. It’s not a prescriptive tool that dictates exactly what or how much to eat. Instead, it’s a compass that helps you understand your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues so you can respond accordingly. 

By understanding hunger and fullness levels, intuitive eaters are better able to satisfy their hunger before it becomes extreme or respond to their fullness before it becomes unpleasant.

The Hunger Levels on the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale

The hunger levels on the hunger fullness scale are numbered 1 through 5.

0 = intense hunger; an unpleasant, desperate need to eat

1 = ravenous hunger, accompanied by a negative mood

2 = very hungry, looking forward to eating; pleasant hunger

3 = hungry, but not urgently so; a pleasant feeling

4 = just a tad hungry; peckish; neutral feeling

5 = neither hungry nor full; neutral feeling

Level 0: Painful Hunger

This feeling of hunger is extremely intense and uncomfortable. It has likely been many hours since your last meal or snack. Your stomach feels totally empty. You may have a headache or feel shaky due to low blood sugar. This hunger is quite unpleasant – desperate even.

At this level of hunger, it is difficult to make rational, well-thought-out nutrition decisions because our brain is clamoring for fuel. You’re getting signals to eat easy-to-digest carbohydrates to get your brain the fuel it needs: glucose. 

Level 1: Moody, Anxious Hunger

At level 1, you’re feeling anxious to eat and your mood has been negatively impacted by your hunger. You feel irritable, easily annoyed or “hangry.” This level of hunger is also unpleasant.

Level 2: Very Hungry

Here, you’re eager to eat, but you haven’t passed into unpleasant hunger yet. You are able to differentiate between whether you need a snack, a meal or a big meal. Hunger feels pleasant and welcome.

Level 3: Comfortably Hungry

At number 3 on the hunger scale, you are looking forward to eating and hunger is a pleasant feeling. There is not an immediate urgency to your hunger at this level. There are no uncomfortable symptoms to this level of hunger. 

Level 4: Slightly Hungry

There’s no urgency to eat at level 4. You might be thinking about food just a bit, but aren’t hungry enough to take action. Your hunger feels neutral at this level. 

Level 5: Neutral

You are neither hungry nor are you full at level 5. Your focus isn’t on food or eating at all. This body sensation is neutral.

Knowing where you stand on the hunger scale empowers you to make mindful eating choices that fuel your body’s needs. 

As you practice using the hunger scale, you’ll develop a deeper trust in your body’s ability to regulate itself. This newfound awareness allows you to move away from calorie counting and cultivate a more flexible and balanced relationship with food.

The Fullness Scale on the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale

The fullness levels on the Intuitive Eating hunger scale are numbered 6 through 10.

6 = Fullness is starting but you’re not quite full yet; neutral feeling

7 = Comfortably full and content; pleasant feeling

8 = You ate a bit more than is comfortable for your body, but not so much that it feels unpleasant

9 = Overly full and uncomfortable

10 = Painfully full to the point of feeling ill

Level 6: Emerging Fullness

At this level, you are eating and beginning to feel some fullness, but not enough to feel truly satisfied. If you stopped eating now, you’ll likely feel the need to eat again very shortly. This sensation is neutral overall.

Level 7: Comfortable Fullness

This is the sweet spot! Comfortable and content, you feel totally satisfied and ready to move on from eating. You feel energized. This fullness sensation is pleasant.

Level 8: Just Past Full

Here, you feel slightly over-full. The feeling is not unpleasant, but your body is giving you a little bit of feedback: that meal or snack was just a bit more than you needed.

Level 9: Uncomfortably Full

Fullness at level 9 reminds me of Thanksgiving day: even though you’re full, you eat the pie anyway. At 9, you need to unbutton your pants or lie down on the couch. You feel very full and unpleasantly uncomfortable.

Level 10: Over-full

At level 10, you are feeling much too full and it is extremely unpleasant. You may even feel ill, nauseous or in pain.

The Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale: a visual depiction of the hunger fullness scale, with levels 0 to 10 with emojis depicting hunger and fullness sensations and a color gradient from light to dark depicting the levels of hunger or fullness.

Click this link to download the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale pdf.

Honoring Hunger Using the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale

Intuitive eating is based upon 10 principles. One of the core principles of intuitive eating is to  honor your hunger. This means recognizing early hunger cues and responding to them with nourishing food. 

Ignoring hunger cues can lead to a number of negative consequences:

  • Restrictive eating often leads to a binge restrict cycle: When you restrict yourself for too long, your body inevitably sends out strong hunger signals, often in the form of primal hunger (hanger). Hanger can lead you to make impulsive food choices, overeating and feeling worse off than before.
  • Ignoring hunger can disrupt your metabolism: When you constantly ignore hunger cues, your body can go into starvation mode, slowing down your metabolism in an attempt to conserve energy. 
  • Hunger can make it harder to make mindful food choices: When we’re ravenous, we’re more likely to grab whatever is readily available, and the risk of binge eating is multiplied. Honoring your hunger allows you to approach your meals with clarity and focus, making nutritious decisions about what to eat.

Responding to hunger cues throughout the day helps regulate your appetite and prevents overeating later on. When you nourish your body consistently, you’re less likely to experience cravings or feel the urge to overeat at your next meal.

Expert Tips for Using the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale

Here are five tips to incorporate the hunger fullness scale into your daily life:

1) Check-in With Yourself Regularly

When you’re starting to learn your hunger and fullness cues, paying attention to your body’s sensations every couple of hours can be helpful. Throughout the day, take a moment to pause and ask yourself, “Where am I on the scale?” This simple practice helps you stay attuned to your body’s needs.

Check for these hunger signs throughout the day:

  • Energy dips
  • Fatigue 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Irritability and mood swings 
  • Headaches or lightheadedness 
  • Cravings and food thoughts 
  • Feeling cold 
  • Stomach growling

Read more about the 7 subtle signs of hunger and the 4 types of hunger in Intuitive Eating.

2) Eat Before Desperate Hunger Takes Over

Don’t wait until you’re ravenous to listen to your hunger cues. As you get to know your hunger levels, eating somewhere in the 3 to 7 range is quite normal. Waiting until you are overly hungry, at a 2 or lower, sets you up to eat a larger amount of food to “catch up” for missing earlier meals or snacks. You also may find that you eat past fullness when you eat from a place of desperate hunger.

Clients often tell me that when they wait until their hunger is below 3, they make poor food choices. They grab whatever is quickly available in the pantry, like chips, cookies or crackers. They start to think they can’t control themselves around carbs or feel addicted to them. This is often how desperate hunger rears its head:

Comic strip showing the brain sending signals to the body to eat and the body ignoring hunger cues and becoming hangry.

This situation is quite common. Here’s why: 

  • Your brain needs consistent energy throughout the day.
  • It needs glucose to function, available in carbohydrate foods.
  • When your brain senses low blood glucose, it sends out hunger signals.
  • Some folks ignore or are unaware of their hunger signals and don’t choose to eat.
  • Silencing or ignoring your hunger signals only makes your brain to shout them LOUDER!
  • After a while, your brain, starved of energy, signals you to eat foods that will deliver glucose quickly, ie. simple carbs.
  • Carbs, such as chips, cookies, crackers or sweets give the brain glucose PRONTO!
  • When you eat these simple carbs, the brain’s immediate energy needs are taken care. Unfortunately, some folks feel guilty or shameful for eating this way.
  • The bottom line: Listening to hunger cues early on can help satisfy your body’s needs for energy and stave off desperate hunger.

3) Listen To Fullness Midway Through Your Meal

During meals, pause halfway through and pay attention to your body’s signals. Are you starting to feel full? Are you still enjoying your food? Listen to your body and stop eating when you reach comfortable fullness and satisfaction. 

Learn to identify your body’s fullness signals:

  • Decrease in appetite – food is less appealing
  • No longer wanting more of your meal or snack
  • Feeling calmer than when the meal began
  • Slowing down or putting your utensils down
  • Feeling satisfied and content
  • A tensing in your stomach

4) Assess How You Feel After You Eat

Finally, after a meal, take notice about how you feel. Still a bit peckish? Pleasantly full? Uncomfortably stuffed? With this information, you can start to understand what kinds of foods help you feel comfortably full or how much food matches your hunger level.

Additionally, note how you feel an hour or two after your last meal. Still thinking clearly? Is your mood stable? You probably ate enough. Hungry again? Maybe you needed a bit more food or a better balance of food groups. Use this information to guide your choices next time you eat.

5) Self-Compassion Is Key

Learning to respond to hunger and fullness cues takes practice. There will be times when you overeat or miss a meal by accident. Instead of beating yourself up, view it as a learning experience. Use the information from each experience to refine your awareness and make more attuned choices next time.

How Dieting Disrupts Hunger and Fullness Cues

When we allow external forces decide what, when or how much we eat, we may end up ignoring hunger and fullness cues. Doing so can have detrimental effects. Here’s how dieting can disrupt these signals:

Disconnection from Hunger Cues

Restrictive diets and disordered eating often lead to a suppression of hunger cues. When you skip meals or limit yourself to low-calorie meals, your brain will stop sending out hunger signals to conserve energy.

Altered Perception of Hunger

Dieting can warp your perception of hunger. You may start to misinterpret normal hunger cues as signs that you’re overeating, leading to guilt and shame around eating. This is especially true in those suffering from eating disorders.

Eating Past Fullness

The restriction of dieting often leads to a rebound effect, where you overeat later in the day to compensate for the missed energy. This can also lead to ignoring fullness cues as you try to “catch up” on missed food and it becomes way harder to detect your satiety cues. 

Guilt and Shame

The restrictive nature of diets often leads to feelings of guilt and shame when you “slip up” and eat something you consider “off-limits.” This can create a negative cycle around food.

Restoring a healthy relationship with food and reconnecting with your natural hunger and fullness cues takes time and support. If you find yourself struggling after a period of dieting, consider seeking support from a registered dietitian. RDs (like me!) provide nutrition coaching and support strategies to help you heal your relationship with food.

Final thoughts on the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale

What I love about intuitive eating hunger scale isn’t a rigid rulebook. It’s a helpful tool for getting attuned to your body’s signals. Once you’ve tapped into that internal wisdom, the hunger scale guides you to find a more satisfying approach to eating. 

The hunger fullness scale empowers you to trust your body’s natural cues, ditch the diet drama, and make peace with food. Intuitive eating isn’t a destination, but a transformative journey towards a healthier relationship with food and your body. 

Are you ready to embark on this adventure? Are you ready to ditch diet culture and rediscover the pleasure of eating? Let me be your guiding light! Let’s work together to develop a personalized plan that supports your intuitive eating journey!