Physical Hunger

By Megrette Fletcher

Hunger and FullnessWhat is physical hunger? How is physical hunger different than other types of hunger? First, physical hunger builds slowly. Physical hunger doesn’t that just “pops” into your head.  Physically hunger typically happens a few hours after eating.  It will have more than one symptom, and it is physically felt in the lower part of the body, typically in the small V-shaped space between your ribs and belly button.

Quick Summary: Physical hunger is a slow building sensation that has multiple cues and is felt in the body typically in the abdominal area.

Lots of parents tell me they don’t notice if they are hungry, or full which is why learning about hunger and fullness feels strange, foreign and maybe unnecessary. What I can share is the growing amount of research that has confirmed restrictive eating AKA: Dieting doesn’t work. Therefore,  parents need a different approach to eating then going on a diet.  This is why I am so committed to mindful eating! Children are learning all the time, so why not teach them (and maybe yourself) about what hunger feels like. What is a comfortable level of hunger, and a healthy satisfying level of fullness?

As you start your journey in mindful eating, begin by “checking in”.  This “checking in” to how you observe experience with hunger, and your ability to notice the sensation of blood sugar shift, rumbling, and grumblings stomachs.  As you check in, mindful eating asks you to hold the understanding that there isn’t a single experience you are trying to have, a feeling that is “Right” or a sign of hunger that is “Good.” In mindful eating, there is a shift in thinking from “Good and Bad,” to a more curious stance.  Questions such as, “What is my experience?” “Is this experience pleasant, neutral, unpleasant?” “What would help me ease this level of hunger?” Are great ways to learn more about your food and eating choices. Curiosity with hunger and fullness can start table time conversation, improve food choices and strengthen bonds at the table. Also, by shifting to a curious, nonjudgmental stance you are helping your child learn from both the pleasant and unpleasant experiences with food and eating. This is  great way of “holding” for your child the idea that there are no “Bad” opportunities to learn, just some we enjoy more!

Remembering that physical hunger is an experience that is a group of signals.  I think of hunger as a detective game, where there are three or four clues, and my job is to determine if it was physical hunger or something else?  For example, to make sure you child is physically hungry, instead of being influenced by his/her mood, emotions or proximity to food, I think back to those fourteen signs  and then identify what is present. I try to remember, “When was the last time he/she ate? What did he/she have? Could this be hunger?” My conversation might sound like this, “Describe your tummy. Are you feeling tired? Do you have a headache? Is there a touch of irritability in my child when he/she is typically happy? Could this be hunger? Or is this just a difficult situation?”

Checking in is important because, and I would like to be very clear on this point, Eating only fixes the problem caused by hunger.  Eating when your child is not physically hungry, does not produce feelings of energy, a sense of calm, or a sense of health. It doesn’t make a difficult situation easy, it doesn’t make the fatigue from a bad night sleep, go away. Eating when you or your child are not physically hungry is using food as a way to cope. Most people report using food to cope offers a temporary solution, and once the food is gone – you or your child is needing either a new way to cope or more food. This creates a cycle of eating that promotes physical fatigue, and a whole host of emotions that can range from a sense of guilt, frustration, and anger.

When the body does not physically need more energy, and you overfill your body with the energy from food, (which is saying eating when you are not physically hungry) is making your body deal with something it doesn’t need. Think of it like this, eating when you are not hungry, is the same as trying to put 20 gallons of gas in your car when you have a 15-gallon tank.  That would be silly! So what do you do? Make eating when you are physically hungry the intention.  The intention to eat when your child is physically hungry becomes the family learning, “Is my child  physically hungry?” Helping your child understand the experience of hunger is an educational process, like learning to count or read.  It takes time.  A child doesn’t just “start” reading, or “counting” because these are skills that are learned slowly. 

Hunger and Fullness ScaleReview the two different types of hunger/fullness scales.  The first is Hunger Peas, and it has a small child in mind. The second is a hunger/fullness scale which is for an older child or adult.


These hunger rating scales and the activities that will follow can help you begin the process. You may even find it will change your behaviors. So, stay tuned for my next post when I review the many ways these two tools work.  It is helpful to remember that Mindful Eating is more than a way to feed your family, it creates a whole new relationship with food, explore with me! Sign up for Mindful Eating for Kids!


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