Hunger Scales: Recognizing Hunger as a Tool for Weight Management

Amanda Kirpitch, MA, RD, CDE, LDN is a nutrition educator in the Joslin Clinic at Joslin Diabetes Center. She works with individual patients, as well as patients enrolled in the Center’s weight management programs.
Amanda Kirpitch, MA, RD, CDE, LDN is a nutrition educator in the Joslin Clinic at Joslin Diabetes Center. She works with individual patients, as well as patients enrolled in Joslin’s weight management programs.

By Amanda Kirpitch, MA, RD, CDE, LDN

“Eating in a developed country like the United States becomes a social, business, and family event, an act of pleasure, that goes far beyond the ingestion of necessary nutrients to sustain life.”  Kennedy and Blaylock, Economic Food Choices, and Nutrition


Over time, we may to lose our ability to recognize hunger.  This may be a result of the various reasons we eat that have nothing to do with hunger- we eat for pleasure, stress, boredom, or just because the food is there.  Many people struggle with cravings for foods that may trigger a particular memory or just plain taste delicious- these foods tempt us, healthy or not.

In the Joslin Clinic, one of our goals as providers is to help people get back in touch with their bodies and their true need for food.  We do this using hunger scales.

The use of hunger scales does not guarantee one will never overeat again.  In fact, many theories on the use of hunger scales encourage people to push the limit a little – whether that be once per week or once per day to discover what we like to call “wiggle room” (or boundaries).  The goal in assessing hunger is to become more mindful of our meals and snacks in an effort to curb overall excess and control weight.

If a person is hungry, that person will not succeed in weight loss.  He or she may be able to suppress urges of hunger for a short period of time, but ultimately the body’s desire for food will win over the physical willpower one may pursue.

We use hunger scales to help people realign their eating with their body’s cues for what is needed for energy.  If someone is always eating at the level of a 10 (stuffed), then they are likely eating more than what is required by the body and will likely gain weight.

Someone who is restricting and never becoming full throughout the day may find themselves eating in excess when they become excessively hungry at the end of the day.

The goal is to eat fairly often (about every 3-5 hours), having your meals or snacks no longer than 1 hour after you start to become hungry (thus eating at a hunger level of  about 3)  Then you want to eat until to you are somewhere between comfortable and full (between 5 and 7).

The idea is that if you wait until you are very hungry (about 2 or less), you will end up eating food until you hit a 8-10 (stuffed and uncomfortable).  When we are ravenous, we tend to eat more quickly and overeat to satisfy ourselves.  Eating at a slower pace, gives your body more time to register fullness and keep you adequately nourished and not overstuffed.

In our weight management programs, Why WAIT? and YOU-Turn, we have our patients rate hunger at the beginning of each meal and snack to determine if their intake is satisfying and effective for them. It is helpful to see where their eating is working well for them and also where they may be getting off track.

When we take a look at hunger levels and intake together we can make changes and help people be more mindful of their overall consumption.  It takes the focus off dieting and really helps people see their new eating patterns as a full lifestyle change that they can use to manage their health for a long time.

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