Appetite awareness is a crucial aspect of maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle. It involves being mindful of your body’s hunger and fullness cues, as well as understanding the psychological and emotional factors that influence eating habits. Appetite awareness can transform your approach to nutrition, aiding in weight management, digestive health, emotional connection, food enjoyment, and mind-body connection.

Appetite is different from hunger. Hunger is our physical need to eat, whereas appetite is our mind’s desire to eat. You can want to eat but not need to eat (for example, wanting to eat dessert after a big meal). Or you can need to eat but not want to eat (for example, losing your interest in food when you’re stressed). The foods we crave are a product of physiology and psychology. Many adults have no real idea of what physical hunger and fullness actually feel like; in our society, it’s pretty normal to be out of tune with physiological hunger cues.

Basic appetite awareness is one of the most useful and accurate ways to recognize how much food your body actually needs. Acknowledging the information our body relays about hunger and fullness can be helpful in regulating our energy intake. When we can learn to recognize these cues, eating becomes much simpler and more intuitive. We can make more informed choices about what, when, and how much we eat.

The Benefits of Appetite Awareness


  1. Portion Control: Recognizing your body’s signals helps you avoid overeating, leading to better portion control and weight management.
  2. Enhanced Digestion: By eating when you’re moderately hungry and stopping when you’re comfortably satisfied, you provide your digestive system with an optimal environment to process food effectively.
  3. Reduced Emotional Eating: Learning to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional triggers empowers you to address emotional needs without turning to food, reducing the likelihood of overindulging due to stress or other emotions.
  4. Body Appreciation: Developing appetite awareness fosters a greater appreciation for your body’s natural cues, helping you reconnect with its innate wisdom.
  5. Balanced Eating Patterns: As you listen to your body’s signals, you’re more likely to establish balanced eating patterns that align with your body’s needs.

Learn to recognize your physiological hunger and fullness cues

What determines our appetite?

Appetite has a massive “real life” component. Subtle eating cues can trump physiology and override natural hunger and fullness signals. These can include cues from:

  • Our physical environment (The size of dishes, how close the food is to us, etc.)
  • Our tastes (We like certain flavors and textures)
  • Our other senses (What your eyes see and your nose smells. As the saying goes, “You eat with your eyes first.” There’s a reason that Cinnabon smells so delectable — it’s part of a deliberate strategy to lure us in.)
  • Our social environment (Our family, friends, peers, cultural messages about when and where it’s OK to eat)
  • Our emotional and psychological environment (stress, anxiety, high emotions, desire for comfort)
  • Our familiar habits and routines (morning coffee in our special mug, or “the usual” at the coffee shop; stopping at McDonald’s drive-thru when we’re rushed in the mornings; Friday beers after work with the boys; snacking in front of the TV; work lunch at noon regardless of hunger; etc.)

When we are perfectly in tune with appropriate appetite and fullness cues, we eat when physically hungry and stop when satisfied (not stuffed). We maintain a healthy body weight. When we are not in tune with these cues, our health and weight suffer. Years of mindless eating, restrictive dieting, and the “good” versus “bad” food mentality can warp the way we respond to internal body signals.

Practice learning body signals

Figuring out satiety cues involves trial and error. The level and intensity of hunger can vary, as can knowing what foods/amounts will satisfy hunger. How the body responds to food is going to be different for everyone. It can also be different at different times of the day, or with different emotions. Simply observe and notice what hunger or fullness feels like. What sensations do you feel? Use the How Food Feels Journal and the Emotional Eating Journal for help recording your observations. Be aware of how you feel:

  • Physically (Is your stomach growling? Do you have a headache? Are you feeling shaky or irritable? Tired or unable to focus?)
  • Mentally (Are you thinking, “I want to eat this” or “I need to eat this”?; Are you aware of what you are eating or are you just plowing in the food while you do something else? If your eating routine is disrupted, are you upset because it’s a change in habit, or because you’re genuinely hungry?)
  • Emotionally (Are you anxious or stressed? Are you happy or sad? Angry? BORED?)

Helpful Journals:

If you need a few more question prompts or something to track your accountability, download these helpful journals.

Cultivating Awareness

  1. Check-in with Yourself: Before eating, take a moment to assess your hunger level. Are you truly hungry, or are you eating out of habit or emotions? This practice helps you make mindful choices about whether to eat or wait. We want to eat primarily for physical rather than emotional or environmental reasons, relying on internal hunger and satiety cues.
  2. Eat Mindfully: As you consume your meal, periodically pause and reflect on your level of fullness. Are you still hungry, or is your hunger subsiding? This awareness can prevent overeating. Learn more about Mindful Eating »
  3. Use the “Hunger Scale”: Imagine a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is famished and 10 is overly full. Aim to start eating when you’re around a 3 or 4 and stop when you’re about a 6 or 7. This scale serves as a visual aid for understanding your hunger and fullness.
  4. Listen to Your Body, Not the Clock: Don’t eat simply because it’s a designated mealtime. Allow your body’s cues to guide you. If you’re not feeling hungry, wait until you genuinely are.
  5. Stay Present: During your meal, focus on the sensations of eating. Chew slowly and savor each bite. This practice not only aids digestion but also gives your body time to signal when you’re satisfied.
  6. Amplify the Physiological Feedback: Use physical sensations, like ice water in the stomach, or a vigorous walk after a meal, to tune in to your insides and make the effects of food more obvious.
  7. Use an Appetite Tracker: Use the Hunger Game or How Food Feels Journals to track how hungry you are, and how satisfied you were when you finished eating.
  8. Hit a Satiety Goal: Once you have better awareness of how hungry and satisfied you are when eating, try to sense when you hit a goal like 80% Full.
  9. Normalize Eating Habits: Our bodies tend to prefer some measure of stability, including relatively regular meal times. Using your own natural appetite cues, build structure in your eating plan. Scheduling appetite check-ins can be hugely helpful!

Hunger Spectrum

Starving: This extreme end of the spectrum is characterized by intense hunger pangs, low energy, and sometimes even lightheadedness. Eating at this point might lead to overeating or making less-than-ideal food choices.

Moderately Hungry: This is the sweet spot to aim for when starting a meal. You feel hunger but not to the point of discomfort. This state allows you to appreciate the flavors and textures of your food and make more conscious choices.

Neutral: At this point, your hunger subsides, and you’re neither hungry nor full. It’s a state of balance where you’re satisfied and can continue with your activities without feeling weighed down.

Moderately Full: This is where appetite awareness becomes crucial. You’ve had enough to satisfy your hunger, but you’re not overly full. You feel comfortable and content.

Full: At this stage, you feel pleasantly full but not stuffed. You might stop eating or continue with smaller portions depending on your preference.

Overfull: This is the point where discomfort sets in due to excessive eating. It’s often accompanied by feelings of heaviness and sluggishness.

One way to approach eating may be to play The Hunger Game. Start with a typical meal and then tune in to how you feel physically, immediately after and every hour after that meal.

Immediately after eating: If you’ve eaten the right amount for optimal health, you’ll likely feel a slight level of hunger, but still content. It takes about 20 minutes for the satiety signal to go from the gut to the brain.

About 60 minutes after eating, you should feel satisfied with no desire to eat another real food meal.

When you approach the 2 hour mark, you may be starting to feel a little hungry, and could probably eat something, but it’s not a big deal yet. If you are feeling quite hungry, you may not have had enough food or enough of a given type of food to hold your satisfaction.

At 3 to 4 hours, you should be feeling like it’s about time to eat again. Your hunger should be stronger, and will vary depending on when you exercised and what your daily physical activity level is. If you aren’t hungry yet, you probably had a bit too much food at your previous meal.

After 4 hours, you’re likely hungry and ready to eat. This is when the “I’m so hungry I could eat anything” feeling kicks in. If you wait much longer, chances of making an unwise food selection goes up dramatically.

There is variability with all of this, but getting to a point where you’re slightly hungry between meals is a healthy sign. If you’re trying to get or stay lean, it’s OK and normal to feel hungry occasionally. If you are eating every 2-4 hours without ever feeling a level of hunger, you are likely eating more than you need.