Knowing exactly how much (and what kind) of food your body needs to stay healthy and maintain your weight—or lose if need be—is not an exact science. Far from it, as anyone who has ever noshed until they were uncomfortably full knows all too well. These six tips will teach you how to spot hunger and eat to stay satisfied, so you can control calories and shed pounds without “dieting.”
1. Use the hunger scale
Do you really know what hunger feels like? Before eating, use our hunger scale below to help figure out your true food needs:
Starving: An uncomfortable, empty feeling that may be accompanied by light-headedness or the jitters caused by low blood sugar levels from lack of food. Binge risk: high.
Hungry: Your next meal is on your mind. If you don’t eat within the hour, you enter dangerous “starving” territory.
Moderately hungry: Your stomach may be growling, and you’re planning how you’ll put an end to that nagging feeling. This is optimal eating time.
Satisfied: You’re satiated—not full, but not hungry, either. You’re relaxed and comfortable and can wait to nosh.
Full: If you’re still eating, it’s more out of momentum than actual hunger. Your belly feels slightly bloated, and the food does not taste as good as it did in the first few bites.
Stuffed: You feel uncomfortable and might even have mild heartburn from your stomach acids creeping back up into your esophagus.
2. Refuel every 4 hours
Moderate to full-fledged hunger (our ideal window for eating) is most likely to hit 4 to 5 hours after a balanced meal. Waiting too long to eat can send you on an emergency hunt for energy—and the willpower to make healthful choices plummets.
To slim down: If you’re feeling hungry between meals, a 150-calorie snack should help hold you over. Munch on whole foods such as fruit and unsalted nuts—they tend to contain more fiber and water, so you fill up on fewer calories.
3. Eat breakfast without fail
A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition tracked the diets of nearly 900 adults and found that when people ate more healthy fats and carbohydrates in the morning, they stayed satisfied and ate less over the course of the day than those who ate their bigger meals later on.
To slim down: If you’re feeling full-blown hunger before noon, there’s a chance you’re not eating enough in the morning. Shoot for a minimum of 250 calories and make it a habit, with these three strategies.
- Prepare breakfast before bed (cut fruit and portion out some yogurt).
- Stash single-serving boxes of whole grain cereal or packets of oatmeal and almond or soy milk at work to eat when you arrive.
- Eat a late breakfast if you can’t stomach an early one.
4. Build low-cal, high-volume meals
Solid foods that have a high fluid content can help you suppress hunger. “When we eat foods with a high water content like fruits and vegetables, versus low water–content foods like crackers and pretzels, we get bigger portions for less calories,” says Barbara Rolls, PhD, author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan and a professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University.
To slim down: Eat fewer calories by eating more food. Try the following healthy ways to fill up.
- Start dinner with a salad, or make it into your meal (be sure to include protein such as sea food or beans).
- Choose fresh fruit over dried.
- Boost the volume of a low-cal frozen dinner by adding extra veggies such as steamed broccoli or freshly chopped tomatoes and bagged baby spinach.
5. Munch fiber all day long
Because the body processes a fiber-rich meal more slowly, it may help you stay satisfied long after eating. Fiber-packed foods are also higher in volume, which means they can fill you up so you eat fewer calories.
To slim down: Aim to get at least 25 g fiber a day with these tips.
- Include produce such as apples and carrots—naturally high in fiber—in each meal and snack.
- Try replacing some or all of your regular bread, pasta, and rice with whole grain versions.
6. Include healthy protein at each meal
When researchers at Purdue University asked 46 dieting women to eat either 30% or 18% of their calories from protein, the high-protein eaters felt more satisfied and less hungry. Plus, over the course of 12 weeks, the women preserved more lean body mass, which includes calorie-burning muscle.
To slim down: Boost your protein intake with these ideas.
- Have a serving of lean protein such as egg whites, chunk light tuna, or baked fish at each meal. A serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand—not including your fingers.
- Incorporate beans into your meals. Black beans, chickpeas, and edamame (whole soybeans) are low in fat, high in fiber, and packed with protein.
Akilah M. El, N.D. is a Naturopathic Doctor and board-certified Master Herbalist with a private practice in Atlanta Georgia and Berlin Germany. Join Dr Akilah El on Facebook and Twitter