3 body cues that mask as hunger

How to know when your body really needs more fuel

Babies and toddlers nail the hunger cue response—they cry for food when they are truly, undeniably hungry, ignoring food once they’re sated. But after around age five, our appetite wires get crossed. Once exclusively guided by ghrelin and leptin, the hormones that regulate hunger and satiety, adults rely on external cues as well as internal ones to dictate when and how much they eat.

So before you reach for food, know that the below three issues can manifest as hunger in the body, says Jeffrey Morrison, MD, founder of the Morrison Center in New York City and a member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board.

1. Stress

People eat for emotional reasons, not hunger, about half the time, says Morrison.“You might be looking for a distraction from work or some stress you’re feeling, Morrison says.

Mindfulness strategies can help combat emotional eating by teaching (or reteaching) you how to identify natural hunger cues, says registered dietician and Equinox Tier X coach Maria Pagano, RD. Use a scale of one to 10—10 being starving and one being way too full. “Try to eat when you’re at seven or eight and stop by three or four, when you’re comfortably full.”

2. Sleep deprivation

It’s more difficult to accurately assess hunger and satiety when you're low on sleep, says Morrison. “Most people require seven and a half to eight and a half hours of sleep a night, but most get six or less.” Too little sleep causes the up-regulation of ghrelin, which makes you hungrier, and it also lowers the production of leptin, so you’re less satisfied,” he explains.

3. Thirst

Athletes sometimes believe they're hungry when really they're dehydrated. “Drink a glass of water or take a short walk and the feeling may pass," says Morrison.

If you’re still hungry after a good-sized meal, set a timer for 20 minutes, which is how long it takes for your body to figure out it’s no longer hungry, Morrison says.