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Hungry or bored? How to tell the difference, and what to do about it

| Healthy You | Eating Right | Wellness

Woman looking in fridge with child on hip.

Listen to your body to tell you when you're hungry or full.

It's not uncommon to feel hungry and grab a snack throughout the day. In fact, if done in moderation, there's nothing wrong with it! But if you find yourself consistently feeling hungry and reaching for a snack, you might ask yourself: Am I really hungry, or am I bored?

What type of hunger?

There are different types of hunger: Physical hunger and psychological hunger. If you are feeling physical effects of hunger, like a rumbling stomach or a headache, your body is in need of food and nutrients to keep going. But if you have an urge to eat, or "think" you're hungry, it might be psychological hunger.

Hunger is a normal sensation that makes you want to eat. Your body tells your brain that your stomach is empty. This makes your stomach growl and gives you hunger pangs. Hunger makes some people feel lightheaded or grouchy. Everyone is different. 

“Avoid going long periods without eating or eating very large meals. Take a moment to pause before eating to evaluate if you’re experiencing emotional or physical hunger,” said Jendy Newman, PeaceHealth registered dietitian. 

What controls hunger? It is controlled by a few different factors:

  • Your hypothalamus in your brain. This also controls other things like how well you sleep and your body temperature.
  • Your blood sugar (glucose) level. Our body gets sugar from the food that we eat and uses it to provide nutrients to our muscles, organs and nervous system. 
  • How empty your stomach and intestines are.
  • Certain hormone levels in your body.

Am I hungry?

One tip to avoid fulfilling your psychological hunger is to wait 20 to 30 minutes after you first "feel" hungry. If, after that time, you are still hungry, it's time to eat. If you have diabetes or another illness that requires consistently level blood sugar levels, then you’ll want to follow your provider's guidelines.

Plan ahead

You can also plan ahead for these feelings. Have an idea to fill the time and avoid boredom, like taking a walk, reading a book or completing a chore. 

“Keeping a food log for a week can be a powerful tool to becoming more aware of your eating patterns/ habits and possible triggers for emotional eating,” Jendy said.

Finally, you can try drinking a glass of water. Often, thirst and dehydration can disguise itself as hunger. Next time you want a snack, try drinking a glass of water first!

If you are struggling with your nutrition, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or a PeaceHealth nutritionist.