Eating When You're Hungry versus Eating on Schedule

The human body needs nutrition every 3 to 4 hours to prevent energy dips, metabolism slowdowns, crankiness, and cravings from interfering with life. Eating based on time rather than hunger is one of the problems with the three-meals-a-day tradition.

Sure, it’s practical, but consider that on the three-squares plan, a body is expected to run for 5 hours between breakfast and lunch, 6 to 7 hours between lunch and dinner, and then 11 to 12 hours until breakfast. If you’re a breakfast skipper, you’re hoping to go for about 16 hours without eating.

To help quell what may be legitimate hunger pangs, many people pick or graze on food throughout the day. A handful of popcorn here, a few pieces of candy there, half a piece of office birthday cake — you get the picture. The calories add up and keep people from being physically hungry, because they’ve been eating all morning. But that doesn’t stop most folks from sitting down to eat a full lunch when the clock strikes noon.

This doesn’t mean that you should starve yourself all morning if you’re hungry. Going past the point of hunger to ravenous can set the perfect scenario for overeating — eating beyond the point when hunger is satisfied.

Retrain yourself to recognize feelings of hunger and respect them. Eat when you feel them and stop when they stop. Don’t eat when you’re not hungry. This approach starts with eating breakfast, planning snacks, or eating only part of your lunch and saving the rest for a snack later on in the afternoon. Eat regular meals but don’t eat by the clock.

If you’ve been skipping meals or eating too infrequently, adjusting and recognizing your hunger signals will take some time. When you recognize one, wait 10 to 15 minutes. If you still feel hunger, eat. If you don’t, you may have mistaken a hunger signal for another sensation.

Some people are so conditioned that they miss the normal signals of hunger. The following signals are normal responses to hunger — not just appetite. You don’t need to experience all of them to know it’s time to eat. But feeling them can help you recognize how your body signals mealtime.

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Feeling faint

  • Headache

  • Irritability

  • Lightheadedness

  • Mild gurgling or gnawing in the stomach

  • Stomach “talking”

Feeling stressed? Ask yourself: Am I biologically hungry? If you can no longer recognize your hunger signals, you’ll have to rely on outside clues for a while. Ask yourself if it has been more than five hours since your last meal? Was it substantial enough? If you decide that you’re truly hungry, eat. Make sure that the snack has carbohydrate, protein, and some fat for greater staying power.

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