A Simple Technique For Deciding When, What, and IF to Eat


A Simple Technique for Deciding When, What, and If To EatOne of the questions we hear a lot at Green Mountain at Fox Run is, “How do I know if I’m really hungry?” Here’s how we encourage our participants to explore that question.

When you want to eat something, ask yourself: what is driving that desire?

Is it:

  1. That you walk past that bag of chips on the table and think, yes!
  2. The smell of popcorn as you walk into the movie theatre?
  3. The remembered taste of a yummy food, even when you just finished a first serving of it?
  4. Hearing the crunch of that popcorn, or a crisp apple, or chips?
  5. A food that you feel you shouldn’t eat, yet that’s all you can think about?
  6. A growling tummy, a feeling of emptiness, even that tell-tale sign of grouchiness?
  7. A craving for something that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as a food you’d crave (think vegetables)?
  8. A comfort a certain food seems to reliably deliver?
  9. The pleasure of finger foods of your culture, enjoyed with others of your culture with the knowledge that it is your culture?

I’ve just described the 9 hungers that were first named by Jan Chozen Bays, MD, author of Mindful Eating: Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food.

(Fyi, Jan’s book only lists 7 hungers. Since its publication, ear and touch have been added to the list. Jan thinks there are likely more that will be added as readers continue to explore the many reasons they eat.)

Using the 9 Hungers to Explore Why You Want to Eat

We teach the 9 hungers at Green Mountain at Fox Run because we find them extremely useful for women who are working to understand their eating behaviors.

By checking in with each hunger before eating, it can help you do exactly what Jan’s book title says: Improve your relationship with food so that you can better support your health and well-being.

And help your healthy weight find you, thereby ending the seemingly never-ending search for weight loss.

How to Use the 9 Hungers

Here’s how it works:

When the urge to eat strikes, check in with each hunger. It’s easier for me to remember them by starting at the top (my head).

1 Eye Hunger

Is it that you just looked in a bakery window and thought, “Yum. Those rolls look good!”

2 Nose Hunger

Is it that you didn’t even look in the window but noticed the wafting smell of fresh-baked bread?

3 Mouth Hunger

Is it that you remember how good those particular rolls taste? (This illustrates how the different hungers interact; in this case, when you see or smell them, mouth hunger awakens.)

4 Ear Hunger

Do you hear someone tearing into a crusty roll and you recall how good crusty rolls taste? (Ear and mouth hunger interacting here.)

5 Mind Hunger

When you see that roll, do you automatically start to question whether you should eat bread? (Mind hunger often plays out via the diet mentality — “some foods are off-limits.” And of course, that just makes them more appealing.)

6 Stomach Hunger

Does your stomach growl, or you feel your desire at the pit of your stomach, when you see the rolls?

7 Cellular Hunger

Does your body seem to call out for the rolls? You feel at your very core that the rolls would supply something your body needs right now.

8 Heart Hunger

Do the rolls remind you of special times when you felt loved? Are they a favorite food when you are in need of comfort?

9 Touch Hunger

Do memories arise of tearing apart rolls, sopping up the sauce of a favorite family meal, surrounded by those you love? (Heart and touch hunger at work here.)

It may seem time-consuming to go through each of these hungers every time you want to eat. But in reality, it doesn’t take much time. As you become practiced, it can be a quick journey into yourself. And an extremely enlightening journey at that.

The End Result

When you understand why you want to eat, you can better determine if eating is the best strategy to meet your need, or if food is your best strategy to meet the need, or even if you need to meet the need at all.

Using the examples above:

  • Eye: Just because the rolls look good, do you really want to eat right now? You may decide yes, but you may just as readily decide no. It truly is your choice.

Freedom of choice gives you the power to decide what you really want. It’s something that’s missing from weight-loss diet regimens, and it’s at the core of the reasons they fail for the vast majority of people.

  • Nose: Just because the rolls smell good, do you really want to eat right now? Same rationale applies as with Eye hunger.

And so on. It’s pretty much the same process for each hunger. You decide whether eating is what you truly want and need at the moment.

Deciding Whether to Satisfy Stomach and Cellular Hunger

When it gets to stomach and cellular hunger, there’s an important difference. You actually need to eat. Perhaps not right at that moment but relatively soon.

If we get too hungry, it’s a sure set-up for emotional overeating for women who struggle with eating and weight. That’s because when you are overly hungry, you tend to eat more than usual. Then feelings of guilt or failure set in for those of us who are struggling with diet rules.

Further, perhaps rolls aren’t the best choice for you at the moment. You might need a balanced meal vs. a snack to truly satisfy your body’s needs. That’s about cellular hunger.

Noticing when it’s stomach or cellular hunger calling can be a big help for those of us who are confused about when we need to eat. This is a common problem for women who have dieted on and off, to the point where they aren’t clear anymore about their bodies’ signals.

If that’s you, the Hunger & Satisfaction Gauge provides a bit more guidance as you explore the 9 hungers.

So there you have it: a relatively simple (once you’ve learned and practiced it!) technique for deciding when and what to eat, and whether you need to eat at all.

We’d love to hear what you think about this process. Have you tried it before? Did it help? If you haven’t tried it, does it sound like it’s worth trying? 

4 responses to “A Simple Technique For Deciding When, What, and IF to Eat”

  1. Phoebe says:

    I read Jan’s book and appreciated it from the point of view of exploring my eating and hunger. But, for me, considering a list of hungers on a daily basis when determining if I am hungry does’t work. What works for me is knowing I feel light hunger as being slightly lightheaded (probably blood sugar) and heavier hunger as a growl in my belly. So basically I try to wait until one of those things happens before i eat.
    And when I eat without the symptoms of hunger that is okay, but I need to tell myself the truth – ah, right now I want food and I’m not hungry. or right now I am eating and it has nothing to do with being hungry.
    I think this combo of listening for real hunger, responding with food when hungry, and telling myself the truth about non-hunger eating will evolve back into a good relationship with food.

    • Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD says:

      Hi, Phoebe,

      Sorry for the looong delay in responding. Just saw this comment!

      I love that you have found your way to figuring out your eating, and it’s a much simpler process for you. I’m always for everyone doing what works for them!

      all best,

  2. cwarner3548 says:

    Truly is is emotional hunger that sets me off for sure. And it is hard to stop if I am near access to my trigger foods. Thank you for these reminders and hints on how to measure hunger and identify what is causing it. Beth

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About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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