Nicole Grant, RDN
You’ve almost certainly felt it: that gurgling-stomach, headache-y desperation to eat anything in sight. You’ve probably also sat back and groaned “I’m stuffed” after one too many second helpings, too. Those sensations are signals from your body, and the better you can respond to them, the healthier your relationship with food will be. The key is noticing and understanding your bodily signals, and that’s where the hunger-fullness scale comes in.
The hunger-fullness scale helps bridge the gap between what your body is telling you and the actions you take with your food. It provides a simple, practical framework for being present in the moment, listening to your internal bodily cues, responding appropriately, and, ultimately, improving your overall health and well-being.
Hunger and fullness cues are integral components of the complex gut-brain signaling system, which helps you decide when, what, and how much to eat. Ultimately the goal of this system is to ensure your body has the energy it needs to perform the tasks you ask of it.
Hunger develops from a variety of signals inside the body. When it perceives a state of emptiness, the vagus nerve in the stomach sends electrical signals to the brain. These signals are then reinforced by the secretion of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin and other physiological changes, such as declining blood sugar levels.
Fullness, on the other hand, arises during a meal from satiety signals coming from the stretch/distention in your stomach and intestines, as well as the osmotic load (i.e., the pressure your body senses from a given amount of digested food particles). These signals will ideally determine your meal size and lead you to stop eating as your brain translates the inputs and guides you to put your fork down.
The hunger-fullness scale is a tool commonly used in mindful eating to aid individuals in understanding their body's natural hunger and fullness cues. This scale typically ranges from 1 to 10, with 1 representing extreme hunger, sometimes characterized by physical symptoms like light-headedness or irritability, and 10 symbolizing extreme fullness or discomfort after overeating. The midpoint, 5, is a state of neutral satiety where you don’t feel hungry, but you don’t feel full, either.
Here is a more detailed description of the levels on the scale:
When you are content and neither hungry nor full, you are in the middle of the scale, at a 5. The further away from a meal you get, the hungrier you feel and the further up the scale you move towards a rating of 1. Then, when you start eating a meal or snack, your rating on the scale will move down towards a 10, or the fullness side of the scale. The goal is to remain within a moderate range, generally around 3–7, which you achieve by eating when hunger begins to build and stopping when you’re comfortably satisfied but not overly full.
To decide when you should eat — assuming you’re eating for the purposes of nutrition and not, for instance, fueling for a marathon — wait until your hunger level reaches a 3. If you find yourself reaching for a snack and determine that you are still only at a 4, 5 or 6, you may not need to eat at this moment; cravings or other triggers to eat may be at play. Zero’s Mood Journal is a great tool to help you put the hunger-fullness scale into practice; try logging your hunger level along with your mood before breaking your fast to determine whether you’re eating because you’re really hungry or for some other reason.
Once you’ve begun eating a meal, it’s helpful to build in pauses so you can reflect on how full you feel according to the scale. Ideally, you will stop eating when you are at a 7 out of 10, or when you feel appropriately nourished but not overly stuffed.
While many people like having set times for their daily fasts, you can also take a more mindful approach by strategically coupling the hunger-fullness scale with your fasting practice.
Beginning and ending your fast based on your hunger and fullness cues, also referred to as mindful fasting, can provide you with a more flexible, sustainable, and intuitive approach to your nutrition. For example, try using your hunger levels to determine when to break your fast. Ideally, you will wait until your hunger reaches a level 3. If you’re not quite there yet and are hovering at a 4 or 5, consider extending your fast until you are truly hungry. This might mean you fast beyond your ordinary 16-hour fasting window, extending to 17 or even 18 hours. Alternatively, on other days when your body is sending you hunger cues early, you might only fast for 14 hours. It’s a different approach to fasting than you may be accustomed to, but it’s no less effective if you follow it reliably.
Eating in response to natural hunger and fullness cues, a.k.a. intuitive or mindful eating, has been shown to provide a variety of health benefits. By aligning consumption with the body's genuine need for energy, individuals are often better able to maintain a healthy weight and avoid the discomfort of overeating or undernourishment. The hunger-fullness scale also promotes a healthier relationship with food, reducing stress around eating and potentially decreasing the risk of eating disorders.
From a metabolic perspective, intuitive eating helps you regulate blood-sugar and insulin levels, thus mitigating risks associated with metabolic syndromes such as type-2 diabetes. Ultimately, this practice encourages a more mindful approach to eating, which can enhance your enjoyment of food and overall well-being.
There are, of course, a number of challenges that can make it difficult to consistently implement the hunger-fullness scale. Social pressure to eat, for instance — often experienced during family gatherings or social events — can make it difficult to adhere to the scale's principles. Such pressure can push you to eat even when you’re not hungry or to continue eating past the point of satiety.
Lack of time, another potential barrier, can interfere with your ability to eat mindfully and attentively. The result is often rushed meals that don't allow for proper recognition of hunger and fullness cues. Rigid meal schedules pose a similar challenge; the lack of flexibility can cause you to eat out of habit rather than genuine hunger.
Finally, there’s the influence of emotional or reward-driven food consumption. This happens when you eat to experience pleasure or emotional comfort rather than to fulfill a physiological need and can often override your body's natural hunger and fullness cues.
Fortunately, you can overcome (or at least improve upon) many of these challenges by incorporating strategies and tools that promote mindfulness around food. First off, you need to practice. Designating at least one mindful meal per day will give you the time and space to practice listening to your body’s cues and applying the hunger-fullness scale. Then, consistent practice at home can also translate to social settings where, even in a less-than-optimal situation, you can apply the hunger-fullness scale. The more you do it, the more natural it will become. Lastly, research indicates that individuals who score higher on food addiction scales also have lower mindfulness scores. Therefore, consistent practice with the hunger-fullness scale and mindful eating may help counteract some emotional or reward-driven choices around food.
The hunger-fullness scale is a practical tool that encourages a mindful and healthful approach to eating. It helps you recognize and respond to your body's innate hunger and satiety signals, thereby promoting better weight management, metabolic health, and a healthier relationship with food. By bringing increased awareness and understanding to your eating habits, the hunger-fullness scale is a valuable asset in any individual's journey towards better health.
Nicole Grant is a registered dietitian and health coach who specializes in nutrition for metabolic health. She completed her undergraduate studies in Food and Nutrition at San Diego State University and her dietetic internship through the University of California San Diego’s medical system. Nicole enjoys blending her experience in clinical nutrition, preventative care, and mindfulness strategies to counsel clients, write evidence-based articles, and consult on all things nutrition to help people live better, longer lives.