Using the Hunger Scale

by Cassandra Padgett, MS and Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP on Jan 10, 2019

Behavior Change

Intuitive eating—consuming when hungry, stopping when full and not restricting certain types of food—is associated with lower body mass index, better psychological health, and improved dietary intake and eating behaviors (Van Dyke & Drinkwater 2014). While eating when hungry and stopping when full might seem like common sense, intuitive eating is challenging to put into practice. Busy lifestyles disrupt consumption patterns. Emotions like sadness, boredom and anxiety encourage people to eat when they’re not hungry.

The hunger scale (below), commonly used in intuitive eating examples, is a useful response to these challenges because it helps clients rediscover their bodies’ natural hunger and fullness cues. That leads to more intuitive eating.

The goal is to stay in the middle, or the green portion, of the scale—starting to eat at 3–4 and stopping at 5–6. Clients should avoid the ravenous 1–2 region, where they’re more likely to overeat. Conversely, they should stop short of the “Thanksgiving-stuffed” discomfort of 9–10. Remind clients that routinely overeating to extremes makes it more difficult to recognize feelings of fullness in the future.

Hunger Scale for Healthy Intuitive Eating

Here’s how clients can put the hunger scale to work:

  • Before eating, ask, “Am I hungry?” This pause will help clients identify if they are eating for hunger or for another reason, like sadness or stress. If they answer yes, they should choose a matching number on the scale. If they say no, they can identify the eating trigger and try to redirect or minimize it.
  • Eat at a table, with family or friends, and without “devices.” Eliminating distractions supports mindful eating.
  • Slow down. Remind clients that it can take 20 minutes to feel full after eating. Advise them to start with small portions, eat slowly and pause before getting seconds. Also suggest they put their fork down between bites, chew more slowly and engage in conversation during meals.
  • Keeping healthy snacks on hand will help clients avoid extreme hunger.

Learn more about the Hunger Scale and other helpful nutrition hacks by reading the full article, “Nutrition Hacks Based on Hard Science.”

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Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E.J. 2014. Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: Literature review. Public Health Nutrition, 17 (8), 1757–66.

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About the Authors

Cassandra Padgett, MS

Cassandra Padgett, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP IDEA Author/Presenter

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD is a board-certified pediatrician, registered dietitian, and ACE Health Coach. She is committed to providing evidence-based nutrition and fitness information to health professionals and consumers alike in a way that is logical, practical and directly applicable to readers’ lives. She has authored over 100 publications and book chapters, all which are based on the latest scientific evidence and presented in a manner that is easy-to-understand and apply. She is Director of Healthcare Solutions for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) having written the nutrition chapters for each of ACE’s textbooks, the ACE Fitness Nutrition Manual and Specialty Certification, and recorded several Webinars and online courses. Furthermore, as a spokesperson for ACE, the largest fitness certifying and advocacy organization in the country, she informs broadcast and print media outlets throughout the U.S. on pertinent nutrition and fitness issues. She is author '"Eat Your Vegetables!" and other mistakes parents make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters'. She presented a similar topic at IDEA World 2009; the video is available for purchase through IDEA. Certifications: ACE, ACSM and NSCA