Aug. 10, 2014 at 11:41 AM ET
Do you ever down a snack and feel zero satisfaction afterward? Or find yourself wanting to eat while staring off into space at work? Then there's a good chance that you've eaten for a reason other than your body needing nourishment.
"Hunger is your body's fuel gauge," says Michelle May, M.D., author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat and creator of the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program. "The trick is to pay attention to the signals for hunger before you eat. It's like checking your fuel gauge before getting off the highway for gas."
Here's May's step-by-step process for doing just that:
Pause Before You Eat
"The key is awareness," says May. "When you feel like eating, always pause in that moment between wanting to eat and actually eating." This is where you'll figure out if you're hungry or just bored, tired, stressed, or thirsty. May says you shouldn't necessarily be eating every two or three hours like some experts suggest—only when you're truly hungry —but that you can check in every two or three hours if you're busy and often forget to eat until you're starving.
"Letting your body get to the point of famished is also dangerous," she says. "Your blood sugar is super-low, and all balanced diet ideas and enjoyment goes out the window, so you may overeat." Set an alarm on your phone if necessary.
Check for Hunger Cues
May recommends placing your fist over your stomach, right below the breastbone, and checking for signals of true hunger. "Draw all attention to that area," says May. "You should look for physical symptoms like pangs, growling, and feelings of emptiness—or if the area feels full or stretched." If it's the former, you're probably truly hungry. If it's the latter, you're probably craving something other than food.
Do a Body-Mind-Heart Scan
May says you can look to three different areas to determine whether you need to eat or whether you just want to eat: "I recommend doing what I call a body-mind-heart scan," she says. For body, May says you should start scanning from head to toe and just notice the various sensations in your body. Often tension, like in the neck and shoulders, can signal anxiety or stress, not hunger.
For mind, if your productivity is down and you find yourself wondering about what's in the break room or where you'll eat your next meal, you're probably not hungry, you might just be bored. For heart, listen to your emotions.
Are you feeling tired from a late night out or stressed about a work deadline? Your anxiety might be provoking "head hunger," says May. "Do this before you start to eat," she says. "If you're not truly hungry, you'll start to eat and not feel satisfied [since you're not addressing the true root of the problem], causing you to eat more and more."
Address Your Needs (Beyond Food)
If you're ever unsure whether you're truly hungry—and know you're not totally famished—try to address other issues before you nosh.
Step outside for a walk around the block to relieve stress, lie down for a 20-minute power nap if you're tired, or down a glass of water to try and eliminate lingering thirst.
"You may just need a few moments to re-center," says May. If, after you do this, you feel like your hunger has increased (since you haven't eaten anything), you can be sure it's your appetite that needs to be dealt with—and not some other issue.
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