It happened again. You sat down to a meal or started to snack and, despite your intention not to overindulge, somehow kept eating until you were stuffed. Curses! Perhaps you’ve tried that “mindful eating” business in the past—paying attention to the physical and emotional sensations during every moment with food—because you’ve heard that it helps people avoid overeating. Problem is, that “every moment” aspect is tough to pull off. After all, sometimes you want to converse with your meal companions or look at the newspaper or just gaze out the window while you eat, rather than focusing fully on every single bite.
Well, there’s an easier way to achieve the same kind of control that mindful eating provides. It’s called the five-point hunger scale. I learned about it when I read the new book The Diabetes Breakthrough, coauthored by Osama Hamdy, MD, PhD, medical director of the Obesity Clinical Program at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. But you don’t need to have diabetes to benefit from this scale, Dr. Hamdy told me when I called him to discuss the technique. The idea is to simply rate your hunger on the following scale…
1 – Starved
2 – Hungry
3 – Comfortable
4 – Full
5 – Stuffed
The beautiful simplicity of the five-point scale is that, rather than thinking about it constantly while you eat, you need only to give it a moment’s focus three times—before, midway through and after any given meal or snack. Dr. Hamdy has seen time and again that the hunger scale helps his own patients…and it can help you, too. Here’s what to do…
When you’re tempted to eat, before you begin: Rate your hunger, asking yourself…
• Are you feeling ravenous, spacey or light-headed? Do you feel like almost any kind of food would satisfy you? You’re at point one, starving, and you must eat—in fact, you have waited too long. When you’re feeling starved, self-control becomes extremely difficult and you’re likely to end up overeating…after which you’ll feel guilty, so you’ll starve yourself again. In essence, you bounce back and forth from starving to stuffed all day, Dr. Hamdy said, without ever feeling truly comfortable and satisfied. Best: Don’t let your hunger reach point one.
• Is your stomach growling, letting you know that your body needs fuel? Has the feeling come on gradually? You’re at point two, hungry. “Hunger is a slow sensation. It doesn’t jump into your brain all of a sudden…and it usually occurs around the same time that you’re used to having breakfast, lunch or supper,” Dr. Hamdy said. Remember: Point two is the perfect point at which to eat.
• Are you physically comfortable but still feel like eating—with a specific type of food in mind? You’re at point three, and you’re facing a craving, not true hunger. “A craving is a psychological issue rather than a physical one…a spark sensation that comes on suddenly,” Dr. Hamdy noted. What to do: Don’t jump right into eating. Instead, consider what emotion is driving your urge to eat. Then try to satisfy that need with a food-free activity to see whether the craving goes away. Feeling lonely? Pick up the phone. Bored? Tackle a crossword puzzle, or clear some clutter out of your garage or closet. Stressed? Soak in the tub, or take a hike. If you still desire that particular food afterward, go ahead and indulge in moderation, eating only as much as you need to satisfy the craving.
Halfway through your meal: After you’ve been eating for five to 10 minutes, put down your fork and rate your hunger again…
• Have your physical sensations of hunger lessened but still linger? You’re just past point two, on your way to three. “Some people stop here, especially when they want to lose weight. But this backfires because it usually triggers a second eating period not much later,” Dr. Hamdy said. Better: Keep eating!
• Do you feel pleasantly sated? You’re at point three, comfortable—which is ideal, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. If you stop now, you should have enough energy to last until your next scheduled meal. But if you’re enjoying your food, you don’t have to stop yet…it’s OK to keep eating slowly for a few more minutes.
• Are you on your way to discomfort? Is your waistband starting to feel snug? You’re at point four, full—and you should definitely stop eating now. “Remember, it takes 15 to 20 minutes for your stomach to send the signal to your brain that it is full. If you eat until your stomach feels full, you will be beyond full—in fact, you’ll be painfully stuffed, point five—by the time your brain gets that signal,” Dr. Hamdy said.
Twenty minutes after your meal: Rate your hunger level one last time…
• Is your belly a bit distended but not painful? Congratulations—you’re at point four, full. You stopped eating in time.
• Do you feel the urge to groan or lie down? Are you so full that you couldn’t put another bite into your mouth? You’re at point five, stuffed…and you definitely went too far. Your body would have been satisfied if you had stopped several hundred calories sooner, and you would have avoided the discomfort and weight gain that come with overeating. Helpful: Don’t starve yourself for the rest of the day…but at your next meal, do pay closer attention to your mid-meal hunger rating, and stop when you’re at point three.
For the first few weeks: While you’re learning to recognize how your body feels at each point, keep a written log of your hunger scale scores before, midway through and after each meal, Dr. Hamdy recommended. If you need a reminder, set a timer or program your cell phone to beep. Keep it up, and you’ll soon become adept at waiting to reach point two before you start eating (without delaying too long and hitting point one)…and at stopping when you reach point three or four (without ever hitting point five). Once that happens, you’re on your way to a lifetime of sensible, pleasurable eating and easy weight control.